Black children in foster care need relief from systemic racism, too

We need to support Black families to keep them together and prevent generation after generation of children from achieving their full potential.

(RNS) — The movement for racial justice in response to a rash of killings of Black men and women has come to include predominantly white evangelical churches. Pastors who have stayed silent on race in the past, such as Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen, are now speaking out about the sins of racism and white supremacy, with many pledging to fight discrimination and oppose police brutality.

Yet Black evangelicals know that the police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery are just the tip of the iceberg. Systemic racism begins long before any Black women and men have any encounter with law enforcement.

For many African Americans, systemic racism rears its ugly head even before birth, with long-standing social and health care inequities contributing to higher maternal and infant mortality rates. The child welfare system, which was never designed with the best interests of children of color in mind, is another example of systemic racism that we cannot ignore.

Many of us are familiar with the “school-to-prison pipeline” — a criticism leveled at zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies that effectively propel students into the justice system after graduation. Less publicized is the foster-care-to-prison pipeline — a failure in our child welfare system that lands young Americans — especially Black Americans — in incarceration after they age out of foster care.

Reporters at The Kansas City Star recently surveyed 6,000 prison inmates across 12 states. A quarter had been involved with the foster care system. And according to a 2016 report from the Children’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans are represented in foster care at 1.8 times their rate in the population. A higher percentage of the Black population is placed in foster care than the white population, and Black children spend longer on average in foster care than white children.

While many factors contribute to this disparity, one systemic cause comes from reforms enacted in the mid-1990s through the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. Prior to ASFA, social workers were required by law (the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980) to make “reasonable efforts” to reunify children who were in the foster care system with their families.

ASFA cut the “reasonable effort” requirement and prioritized moving children from the taxpayer funded foster care system and into permanent adoptive homes, rather than dedicate even adequate resources toward family strengthening, preservation and reunification efforts.

This hurts Black children and families and prevents generation after generation from achieving their full potential. Not least, it is an example of how racism remains ingrained in our nation.

Photo by Chris Benson/Unsplash/Creative Commons, submitted by Bethany Christian Services

What can we do? For one, we need more resources to help Black families stay together or reunify with their children. Congress has taken steps in recent years to invest in keeping families together by passing the Families First Prevention Services Act and the Family First Transition Act. Funds previously earmarked to pay for care after a child is removed from home may now be used to pay for programs designed to prevent out-of-home placements.

But these policy reforms are just the beginning. Governments at all levels need to double down on their investments in strengthening and restoring families.

As a child welfare agency, we at Bethany Christian Services recognize that we have a critical role to play in addressing systemic racism in child welfare. We need to do a better job of investing in diverse social workers who reflect the race or ethnicity of the clients we serve. Data from 2017 shows that more than two-thirds of social workers are white.

We also need to invest in the education, training and salaries of social workers. Low salaries, high-stress work environments and an expensive education leave many social workers too burned out to adequately support the communities they serve. Many do not stay in jobs as child abuse investigators or foster care caseworkers for long. By compensating social workers better, providing them with anti-racism training and hiring diverse staff, child welfare agencies can better support the children and families they are walking alongside.

White churches can also play a role in tearing down these systems. Pastors must advocate for anti-racist practices and challenge their congregations to take a hard look at their own biases and prejudices. Even seemingly innocuous choices — Bible study curricula written exclusively by white authors or Sunday school church history lessons that overlook the achievements of Black pastors and theologians — can subtly reinforce a whitewashed version of Christianity that worships a white Jesus and makes it more difficult to see the face of Christ in those who are not white.

We can also support scholarship funds at historically Black churches. The more we can support our Black brothers and sisters in higher education, the more we’ll see them in positions of leadership, whether as social workers, legislators or nonprofit leaders.

It will take intentional, uncomfortable, really hard work to undo systemic racism. Let’s be bold enough to try, fail and try again. As we move boldly and collectively, we pray that it will make a true difference this side of heaven. Let’s use this time to push for a child welfare system that honors the God-ordained institution of the family and the values of Black parents and children as highly as it does the values of white parents and children. 

Until our conception of family values incorporates families of color as fully as white ones, we will be failing Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Let it be said of us that the result of this long overdue season was great fruit.

(Chris Palusky is president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services, which supports children and families in more than 30 states and around the world. Kimberly Offutt is the national foster care adoption director of Bethany Christian Services. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Services.)