Minority Victims of Placement Instability in the Child Welfare System
Placement instability transcends culture, country, and systems of care with the only consistent mitigating factor being race (Tregeagle & Hamill, 2011). Foster, Hillemeier, and Bai (2011) found that black children represented 34% of the children in the foster care system despite the fact that they represent only 15% of the general population though the reasons are not entirely known. Not only are Black children over represented in the foster care population, they are moved more frequently than their White counterparts irrespective of any other factors (Foster et al., 2011). The foster care system is well known to fail the children that it serves, further exacerbating the fact that the Black children who are overrepresented pay more than other groups of children.
The Disparity of the Numbers of Minority Children in Foster Care
The Child Welfare Information Gateway (2015) gives an overview of the children in foster care in 2013 produced from information taken from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). While only 5.91% of children in the United States ever enter the foster care system, statistics show that of the over four hundred thousand children in foster care, Black and Native American children are at a higher risk of placement than their white counterparts at 11.53% and 15.44% respectively (Wildeman & Emanuel, 2014). Overall, 57% of children in the foster care system are children of color (Bell, 2007).
Children in the foster care system fair significantly worse than children who remain out of the system, with Black males showing the most disastrous effects of a failing system: 54% experience significant mental health issues, 55% are likely to drop out of high school, only 3% actually graduate from college, and 28% reported being arrested before the age of 21 (Bell, 2007).
Data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS) and Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) was analyzed to determine the disproportionality of the decision-making and outcomes between whites, Hispanics, blacks, Asian Americans/native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Native Americans/Alaskan Natives (Hill, 2007). The average amount of time in foster care overall is 13.5 months, but children of color typically spend more time and have three or more placement changes compared to their white counterparts (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). Hill (2007) found that there was little difference between the county, state, and national levels when it came to racial and ethnic disproportionality with the exception of Hispanics on the state and county level where they are twice as likely as other groups to be placed into foster care though they were less likely to be investigated or substantiated. Further research found that this disparity is likely due to illegal immigration and parents being returned home or the child being sent here as a minor (Austin, 2006).
The disparity in statistics related to race does not end with foster care placement but carry over into the exit from foster care. Only 51% of the children who exited foster care in 2013 were reunited with their parents or primary caretaker, the rest were either adopted (21%), emancipated (10%), sent to live with another relative (8%), sent to live with a non-related guardian (7%), or other outcomes such as being transferred to another agency, running away, or death (2%) (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015).
Foster care statistics verses the general population for both black and white
There are some studies that suggest that there are more Black children in the foster care system because there is a higher prevalence of abuse and neglect within the black community though there are other studies that state that black families are targeted more than white families so they appear to have higher rates of abuse and neglect (Foster et al., 2011).
Data collected from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well Being (NSCAW) found that children of different races were treated very differently resulting in different outcomes and attributes those differences to racial bias of child welfare personnel (Foster et al., 2011). Another stunning finding by Foster et al. is that the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) that set expedited time limits on terminating parental rights and finding permanency for children in foster care has actually caused a great deal of harm to black families. Unfortunately, it is well known that statistically black people are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and spend time in jail than their white counterparts for the same crimes (Hill, 2007). When children are removed, white families are able to avoid the jail time or have a short jail stay and be quickly reunified with their children. The ASFA’s expedited timeframe does not give black families the time they need to get through the training, treatment, or jail time required by the courts before their rights are terminated (Foster et al., 2011).
Foster et al. (2011) point to a need for more equity in permanency across racial lines in the child welfare system as well as a need fore more empirically based research that is race/ethnicity specific concerning the causes of placement instability.
The Cycle and Why it Matters
The continued lack of permanency leads to an increased risk of educational and mental health issues that then increase the likelihood that the child’s placement will be unstable. This is a vicious cycle with disastrous effects for the child, their families (biological, foster, and adoptive), and society at large. Placement instability is the factor Stott considers to be the highest contributing factor to the negative impact foster care has on the developing child or adolescent (Stott, 2012).
The reason that it is so significant is because it is so prevalent in the foster care system. Stott (2012) interviewed former foster children concerning their placement stability, drug use, and sexual behaviors. Participants reported that they changed placements every six months, with 19.3% having moved more than 12 times (Stott, 2012). Children are taken from unstable and disruptive home settings only to be placed into a system that is unstable and placements that disrupt.
Localio, Luan, O'Reilly, and Rubin (2007) analyzed data from the NSCAW to determine if the problems children have upon entering foster care effect placement stability or if placement instability impacts children in a way that increases their risk for behavioral problems later. In a study of 5501 children from the NSCAW system, it was found that placement stability was strongly positively correlated with positive behavioral outcomes and that 51% of unstable children experienced abnormal behavioral outcomes (Localio et al., 2007). Most importantly Localio et al found that regardless of how the child came into care, the most important factor in determining how the child turned out was placement stability with children who failed to find placement stability being at a 63% higher risk of behavioral problems than children who achieved stability in foster care. The instability of foster care placements exacerbates the issues and creates new issues for children already at risk for mental health issues (Stott, 2012).
Stott (2012) found that in spite of being removed from high risk environments and provided mental health and case management services adolescents who were in foster care were no better off than those children who were left in the home, and in fact they may even be worse off even into adulthood. Many of the participants in Stott’s (2012) study reported feeling hopelessness and depression. These children subsequently used drugs or sex to self medicate with oftentimes very serious consequences (Stott, 2012).
Finally, Wildemen and Emanuel (2014) found that two-thirds of the children are placed into care due to some form of maltreatment. When children enter care they are told that they are going to be taken care of and have their needs met, yet that is not what they experience which is perhaps why placement instability is so detrimental. Ward (2009) found that the instability experienced by children in the foster care system is simply a repeat of the instability they experienced in their birth families home and thus reinforces their negative belief systems.
Exacerbating Factors in Placement Instability
There are multiple factors that can make the situation for Black children in foster care worse. Racism and cultural differences create special circumstances that make Black children in America particularly vulnerable to placement disruption and the multitude of problems that brings. There is an extreme lack of minority foster and adoptive parents leading to children being placed in homes that are not familiar with their culture. This leads to misunderstanding and conflict that leads to an increase in the child’s behavioral issues and eventual placement disruption.
Black in America Means Special Needs
Bell (2007) found that black foster children suffer differently from their white counterparts in three specific ways: they experience racism still present in our society, they have little guidance and support that is appropriate, and finally they do not have a positive connection to or appreciation of their culture and heritage.
While there are some state specific differences, in general, to be considered a special needs child in the area of adoption in the United States a child must: Have experienced some form of abuse or maltreatment, have physical or emotional disabilities, be older than one year, be members of a sibling group, be non-white (Schweiger & Obrien, 2005). “Be non-white”, it is most telling of the racism and discrimination that still exists in our country that a child, regardless of any other factors, in many states is considered special needs simply for not being white.
Children considered special needs have a high number of adoption disruptions, averaging between 10-15% (Schweiger & Obrien, 2005). Adoption disruption is linked to many factors but the common thread weaved between them lies in the focus of the human services agencies. Currently all efforts go towards reunification with the biological family or in recruitment of new foster and adoptive families but fail to provide post adoption services. This lack of support leaves families unable to care for the most vulnerable of children. If the focus was shifted to be more encompassing of the entire process then it is hoped that the adoption disruption rate would drop and that children would achieve placement stability (Schweiger & Obrien, 2005).
Anderson and Linares (2012) found that cultural factors influenced a child’s psychological adjustment in foster care. The development of a positive ethnic identity is important to that psychological adjustment, but ethnic dissimilarity due to foster care placement makes that difficult leading to social isolation, depression, and loneliness (Anderson & Linares, 2012). In fact, after removal from their homes over half of the children ended up meeting the criteria for separation anxiety disorder and have a higher risk of behavioral problems, disruptive behaviors, internalizing disorders, and delayed development (Anderson & Linares, 2012). The lack of psychological adjustment appears to be related to isolation from family and cultural norms as well as the social instability that occurs when a child enters a home with a different cultural background (Anderson & Linares, 2012).
When the caregivers were of a different culture, particularly when they used a different language, the children had significant conduct problems, which appeared to be exacerbated by the fact that biological and foster parents had difficulty working together through language and culture barriers (Anderson & Linares, 2012). This is because one of the primary tasks of foster parents is to work with the biological parents to teach them the necessary skills so that they may be able to effectively parent their children. Foster parents also work with biological parents to advocate for the needs of the child, but when cultural differences lead to differing opinions on what the child needs, the situation becomes triangulated and the child loses. This becomes incredibly difficult when the ethnic background, culture, language and parenting practices are different.
When placement instability is not related to bureaucracy, having a committed caregiver becomes the single most important factor (Localio, Luan, O'Reilly, and Rubin, 2007). When looking at reasons that children were moved, a caregiver’s commitment to permanence lead to a 93% rate of stability when compared to only 42% for children who’s caregivers were not committed to their permanence (Koh, Rolock, Cross & Eblen-Manning, 2014)). Relative caregivers also show a higher commitment to stability than those who are unrelated with 67% (Koh et al., 2014). Finding caregivers who are committed to caring for children and giving them the proper tools to handle the needs of the children they are for is the number one way to improve placement stability outside of administrative failures.
Stoping the Problem Before it Starts
Since the highest risk of entering foster care occurs before the age of one, Wildeman and Emanuel (2014) suggest that one possible solution might be to provide additional support to pregnant women and new mothers in order to reduce the number of foster care placements. If a family in crisis is provided with wrap around services designed to teach them effective parenting skills, coping skills, and life skills then the need for foster care placement will be lessoned (Wildeman & Emanuel, 2014).
Increasing access to community services and programs can also help prevent children from coming into the foster care system. This can occur through referrals from teachers, social workers, and others in the community who encounter a family who might benefit from such interventions (Wildeman & Emanuel, 2014). In this way families can get the help they need instead of entering a system that has clearly demonstrated its lack of ability to actually help children.
Addressing Administrative Failures
Localio et al. (2007) found that over 70% of the moves that occurred in the foster care system were administrative in nature. Of all the many problems that plague the foster care system; this one is the most simple to solve as it is not based on a child’s behavior, parent’s improvement, or even the availability of acceptable placements, but rather the conscious efforts of those in charge to make decisions in the best interest of the child. If the moves have not been made due to a child’s behavior but to poor business practices, those practices can be changed, thus improving the lives of the children whose lives they so drastically affect.
Stott (2012) suggests many options for improving the way caseworkers handle a child being moved such as: Delaying a move until the end of a school year, prepare the child better before he or she is moved, allow the child to visit the new school and placement prior to the move, allow the child to remain in contact with people from the previous placement, and allow the child to be more involved in the decision making process.
It is important to note that there may be times when moving a child is in the child’s best interest. Tregeagle and Hamill (2011) report that under the following conditions a move should be considered positive: When they are being reunited with their siblings, to be moved to a home that better meets their needs, or because a relative has been found to keep them. However, even in those cases, the timing of the moves needs to be done in the least disruptive way as possible.
Ward (2009) posits that better planning both before and after a child is moved as well as increased resources for the people caring for the children would the amount of instability children experience and the detrimental effects it has on their long-term adjustment and development.
Currently the United States ranks twenty out of twenty-one in the life and well-being of its youth as rated by the United Nations and UNICEF that examined factors such as “poverty, deprivation, education, health, relationships, and risky behavior” (Bell, 2007, p.151). The Alliance for Racial Equity (ARE) has been working to improve the status of the United States most vulnerable children through addressing six crucial areas: Policy change and finance reform, research, evaluation, and data driven decision making, creating youth, parent, and community partnership, building public will and strategic communications, training human service employees, and implementing site based practice change (Bell, 2007).
While the prevention of abuse and neglect is the first and most effective way to prevent ever having to deal with the nightmare that is the child welfare system in the United States, it is not always possible. While foster care has the potential to be helpful, it’s many pitfalls leave children oftentimes far worse than those left in the home, excluding of course those more severe cases of abuse or neglect (Bass, Shields & Berman, 2004).
Bass, Shields and Berman (2004) highlight the fact that the foster care system should enhance the lives of the children and families it serves not diminish them. Aside from the prevention of children entering the system, some simple changes to the foster care system and the way black children in particular are handled can improve the lives of the children it is supposed to protect. First of all, the individual needs of the child must be accounted for (Bass et al., 2004). The children must first be placed in homes that are culturally aware with parents who are committed to stability. From there the caregivers must be provided with the support and services necessary to meet the child’s needs. Moves must be made only in the best interest of the child and even then only if carefully planned. Finally, every effort must be made for reunification with the parents or relatives as statistically that has the highest rate of stability (Bell, 2007). There is hope for improvement through education and understanding.
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