New Foster-Care Solutions for African-American Kids at Risk

"The child welfare system was designed in the early 1800s. It wasn't designed for the children that now overpopulate it, and that's African-American children."

At the Mother of Peace Orphanage in Zimbabwe, children live with house mothers to create an intimate family setting even though they are in a large group home. In Durban, South Africa, a council of citizens actively supports foster parents by offering advice, expertise, goods, and money for the children’s needs. These are just a few of the many new approaches that communities in Africa are turning to in the face of a rising tide of orphans with AIDS. As the AIDS crisis rages throughout the continent, more and more children have been left parentless, often infected with the disease themselves. The numbers are inconclusive–cultural stigma and a lack of testing discourages people from getting testing for or reporting HIV infection–but as many as 25 percent of Africa’s children could be infected. And those numbers are on the rise: in one Zimbabwean hospital, about 47 percent of the women at the prenatal clinic tested positive for HIV. In some cities, orphans roam the streets in packs, picking through garbage heaps for food; others are sold into sexual slavery, work gangs, or unpaid domestic labor.

“We saw children running in the streets, and that’s horrible,” says Gloria King, executive director of Oakland’s Black Adoption Placement and Research Center. “But in another sense, I don’t know if it’s any more horrible than our children here who may not be in the streets, but who are living in situations where people are abusing or abandoning them.” King traveled through Africa with a delegation from the Bay Area to research the impact of the AIDS pandemic on orphans in the hopes of raising funds back home to aid African children. But there was another benefit to her trip as well: King believes the models of care that she and her colleagues saw in Africa could help address the East Bay’s own child welfare crisis. “In America, individualism is supported as something to aspire to; in African culture and African-American culture, it’s about the ‘we,’ and that’s what I saw that was really operative in African community.”

In Alameda County, foster children need all the help they can get. About 6,000 children are in the county’s care; fifty percent have been neglected or abandoned by their parents, thirty percent have been physically abused, and twenty percent have been sexually abused. Plus, the county’s child welfare services have long failed to protect children adequately, advocates claim. Legally, the county must investigate a child’s situation within ten days when a concerned observer makes a call to report potential abuse or neglect; in 1999, this happened less than sixty percent of the time. And thirty percent of the time, the county failed to check up on children at least once a month even after the child was known to be in a dangerous situation. Moreover, if a child was transferred to a foster home, the county nearly always failed to deliver health and education records to the new foster parents.

In February, the California Social Services Department ruled that Alameda County was in violation of state laws regulating child welfare, and since then the county’s Children and Family Services has launched some reforms: new director Chet Hewitt beefed up training, initiated quality-assurance case reviews, and created a new class of workers to ease the load for social workers. But while this may satisfy state agencies for now, legal advocates say it’s too little, too late.

Bay Area Legal Aid and the Youth Law Center sued the child welfare agency last year, and their suit is ongoing. “There’s still thousands of children in foster care or in abuse and neglect situations, and we don’t have confidence that the county is taking care of them properly,” says Jeanne Finberg, attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid. Co-counsel Alice Bussiere from the Youth Law Center points out that even the recent reforms could just be part of the same old pattern: “It’s happened before: the department has been out of compliance, then they had a corrective action plan, but sooner or later, they’re back out of compliance again.”

African-American children face even worse odds. They’re more likely than their white counterparts to end up in the system: while only nineteen percent of the county’s population is black, nearly seventy percent of the children in the system are black. The overrepresentation of black children has a lot to do with income disparity and the devastating effects of the crack crisis of the ’80s on the black community, but King argues that there are cultural barriers at work as well. “It has a lot to do with how children are assessed for removal from their birth families; it has to do with the persons who are responsible for evaluating if their home is safe,” she says. “If social workers are not able to communicate with the families, they may interpret them as being resistant.”

This year saw some small but hopeful measure of change: while the percentage of black children in the system has hovered around seventy percent for years, in 2000 that number dropped to 66 percent. It’s a small difference, but the fact that the percentage has dropped at all is seen as a good sign by the agency. Efforts have also been made to build a work force of social workers that better reflects the races of the children in the system: this year, 28 percent of child welfare workers were African American, a 200 percent increase since 1994. The department also prides itself on a high level of ethnic matching in foster care placements: black children are placed in black families seventy to eighty percent of the time.

But analysts point out that the small drop in the percentage of black children could simply be a result of time: kids who entered the system as toddlers when their parents were hit by the crack epidemic in the ’80s are beginning to age out of the system. Plus, once black children are in the county’s care, they’re less likely to be released back to their families, advocates say. As King puts it, “Our children come in faster and stay for longer. The number-one child who’s in out-of-home placement is African American.”

It is conventional wisdom among social welfare workers that the best possible outcome is for a child to be returned safely to his birth family; if that’s not possible, permanent adoption is the next best. After that, there’s foster homes; then group homes. Advocates worry that black children too often end up in lower-quality placements, shunted into group homes rather than foster homes or adoption. Certainly, black children are more often placed in kinship care–but exactly where kinship care lands on the spectrum of placements is highly debatable. Some experts view kinship care–placement with a relative, such as a grandparent or aunt–as less desirable, since the family problems that created a dangerous situation for the child in the first place might also spread to relatives. But staying with grandma does give a child a chance to be closer to his birth parents. And King argues that kinship care makes more sense in the context of African–and African-American–culture.

“They don’t have a child-welfare system in Africa,” she explains. “What they do have is a wonderful extended family model, and they have townships that take care of each other, so it’s a very self-empowered movement of helping each other. The child welfare system in American [was designed] in the early 1800s, and it was out of a kind of do-good situation. It wasn’t designed for the children that now overpopulate it, and that’s African-American children.”

King’s organization works to match black children with adoptive parents of any race, but she points out that there are often barriers that keep African-American families from coming forward to adopt: “The biggest barrier is space, but many of those who have less learned a long time ago to be more resourceful and to share their space.” King argues that a return to community-based care–centered on extended families and church communities–can do much more to help children than institutionalization.

“Kinship care and family preservation is on the rise, because what America found out is there isn’t a child welfare system that can keep separating children from families,” she says. “We must return children home to families, and that means we must pour more resources into families instead of institutions.”

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