Nationally, the foster care system is a long-term home to more children of color than White children. The disparities in California are particularly alarming, with more than half of African American foster children in care for more than two years. Forty-five percent of Native American foster children have also been in the system, which was built to be a short-term solution, for more than two years.
Recently, the state launched a program to address these disparities, starting one of six projects in the country funded through a $100 million Presidential Initiative to examine and repair the cracks in the foster care system.
There are many reasons for a child to enter the foster care system. Children are placed in foster care if they are physically or sexually abused in the home, or if a parent is incarcerated, or abandons a child (say, with a sitter) or fails to ensure the child gets to school regularly.
Studies have demonstrated that the longer a child stays in the foster care system, the more likely those children are to commit crimes, drop out of school, abuse substances, receive welfare or become homeless.
“California has been trying to address the disproportionality we see in foster care,” said Karen Gunderson, of the California Department of Social Services. “There’s been work over the last decade, and I think, even though we moved the needle some, we wanted to figure out if we could take it further,“ she said.
Gunderson is the Project Director of California Partners for Permanency, or CAPP, a state initiative that includes four counties and a goal of reducing the number of kids in foster care and improving the wellbeing of children who remain in care.
California’s 5-year, $14.5 million federal grant was split between Santa Clara, Humboldt, Fresno and Los Angeles counties, which will test approaches to reducing disparities and the overall number of children in foster care.
The overrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos in the foster care system compared to their White or Asian counterparts has been a longtime concern in Santa Clara County.
CAPP was funded in 2010 and started implementing programs for foster children in 2011. A priority in their work has been identifying the reasons for the disparities in the foster care system.
CAPP and its partners outlined some of the barriers that may be preventing some minority children from having stable lives at home. Existing practices, they say, do not adequately understand and engage with African American or Native American families, and doesn’t value the strengths of these families.
Peggy Cathcart is the Executive Director of Creative Solutions for Women, Children and Families. Her work over the past 13 years includes providing a variety of services – such as intensive in-home services or assistance in court proceedings – in Santa Clara County.
Cathcart said that in many African American communities, there is often a church or a civic community organization whose members could serve as a supervisor in a visitation or provide a site where family education could occur, or other opportunities that could have been embraced as the community’s role in helping to strengthen families.
“These things were not considered to be of value, yet these are the resources of families living outside of early interventions,” she said. This lack of understanding create a mutual distrust between these families and the government, that she says will take time to reconcile.
Cathcart said that as recent as five years ago, “the treatment, not only from social workers, but also in the court was strikingly different, and the only thing that seemed to be determining the difference was the color of their skin,” she said.
The system tended to react more punitively towards these minority groups, she said, because it made no effort to respond in a respectful and culturally sensitive way that demonstrated a shared responsibility.
The system “would take children out of their own homes and place them in homes…where they could become more like the dominant [white] culture.” The lack of respect for existing family system created a lot of suspicion over the years, she said.
The system also failed to partner consistently with communities and tribes to address and treat the grief, trauma and loss that both African American and American Indian children are more likely to experience. Cathcart said that those services such as a thorough trauma assessment of the child or trauma-informed cognitive behavioral therapy, if they were receiving them, lacked a “cultural lens.”
The CAPP program developed core values and principles to focus their services through a cultural lens that had been lacking in the past. These values include exploration and engagement, focusing on the power of the family, creating a circle of support around the family, and identifying and using culturally sensitive (and often, non-conventional) services to heal trauma.
Stanley Lee, the CAPP Project Manager in Santa Clara County, said the program makes a deliberate effort not to repeat these same mistakes. Communities and Tribes are very much part of developing the Child and Family Practice Model, the guide public agencies and their partners follow to meet the goals of the CAPP initiative of reducing long-term foster care and improving child well-being.
“[The practice model] wasn’t something that had already been developed and we said, ‘Here, take a look at this, and will it work?’” he said.
Changes are underway across the four counties. In Fresno County, the county worked with tribal leaders and the court to identify appropriate tribal services. Tribal Leaders, representing Native American nations living in the central and southern areas of San Joaquin Valley (including the Paiute/Shoshone and the Yokuts, to name a few) also performed a blessing of the courtroom, “a symbolic action in many ways, but I think it removed some of the negativity or the way that the tribes were viewing the court and the system,” Gunderson said.
In Humboldt County, home to several Native American tribes, a judge issued a standing order allowing the county to share child welfare information with the Tribal social workers earlier in the case than before, so families could get access to services sooner, Gunderson said.
In Santa Clara County, Lee explained, the model encourages identification of natural support systems within the community or alternative family supports. Additionally, he said, they’re encouraged to identify strengths within the family, and get to know the perspectives of the family members – perhaps a grandparent who’s familiar with the situation – and learn what they see as the issues and concerns.
“It sounds basic, but it’s very difficult because you’re talking about issues that are extremely sensitive, you’re talking about families that have been isolated, or are very poor, or are very fearful of the government,” he said.
“It’s creating an environment where people can honestly speak about what concerns them as it relates to the safety of the child,” Lee said.
These changes require more than change at the social worker level, but changes at the broader administrative and policy level, Gunderson said. “You can change what a worker does, but if the system doesn’t change to support that, the worker can’t sustain that,” she said.
She said it’s too early to definitively say whether or not the program is having an impact, but she has heard anecdotal evidence to suggest they’re moving in the right direction.
“It doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges – there are long histories in these communities of not working well with government, or being very mistrustful of government,” Gunderson said. “It’s building trust and those relationships, which really takes time. “