By Trey Rabun, Family Outreach Specialist
The overrepresentation of children of color – especially African American and Native American children – in foster care is a systemic failure that must be addressed. In a recent interview with Q13 Fox news, Ross Hunter, Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) Secretary, called on our community to do just that: “I think you should be impatient [with racial disproportionality]. I think you should push us to do better on this.” Black children are more than twice as likely and Native American children are more than three times as likely as white children to be placed into foster care. That’s why we need to take Mr. Hunter’s request seriously.
The Department of Children, Youth, and Families is the newly-created state agency focused on the well-being of children. Earlier this year, DCYF launched its programs for at-risk children and youth. Given this timing, and as we head into a new legislative budget session, it is time we –the child welfare community– hold ourselves and our leaders accountable to create better outcomes for children and families of color in Washington state. The time is ripe for change.
I have worked in child welfare for seven years, as a case manager and, now, as the Family Outreach Specialist at Amara, a not-for-profit foster care agency that has been supporting our community’s most vulnerable children for nearly 100 years. Amara recognizes the urgency of dismantling racial injustice in the child welfare system which contributes to this overrepresentation. So, how do we fix this?
We know that keeping children with their families, when it is safe to do so, reduces racial disparity and is best for children. The Family First Prevention Services Act is a federal law passed earlier this year that provides new opportunities to keep families together and can enable our state to prioritize the well-being of children—especially children of color who are more likely to be separated from their families.
In the past, states only received federal funding to support kids after they entered foster care, but the Family First Act provides preventive funding opportunities to support families struggling with poverty, substance abuse, mental health, and other challenges that often lead to children being removed from their homes. It allows states and tribes to use open-ended Title IV-E funds for up to 12 months for children, youth, and families at imminent risk of entering foster care.
This is a simple but profound opportunity for Washington State to lead the way in providing services to keep kids in their families of origin. We must seize these opportunities on behalf of children in our state.
Part of my role at Amara is to contribute to our organizational goal of challenging ourselves to understand and address the overrepresentation of oppressed populations in foster care and work with the community to forge more just outcomes. As an organization with a 100-year history in child welfare, we have been formed by the same forces that created our current system and so we are taking a hard look at our current practices that contribute to the overrepresentation of children of color in foster care. This means, in part, an internal commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We look to our fellow child welfare organizations in Washington state to do the same.
We are also committed to building relationships and partnering with communities of color in Seattle and Tacoma, where we work, to ensure we are in accountable relationships with those most impacted by racial injustice in the foster care system. We do this through our African American Outreach Initiative and Advisory Council, hosting forums and panels to spread awareness, and actively recruiting foster families from communities of color. Since Amara’s current realm of work is focused on serving children after they enter care, rather than preventing children of color from entering foster care in the first place, we are actively working to ensure kids of color entering the foster care system have culturally-similar homes to support their ethnic and racial identity.
We are not so naïve as to think we can quickly resolve issues that have been compounding for hundreds of years. Still, we believe our community has the capacity to make an impact on racial disproportionality in our state. Let’s provide the support families need before they enter the foster care system and, as child welfare organizations, practitioners, and advocates, commit to our own work assessing our implicit bias and confronting structural inequities. Let’s be impatient with the racial injustice in our state’s foster care system until every child in Washington state has the love and support they need to thrive.