Black children have long suffered from racial disparities in the U.S. foster care system
Cheri Williams looks back with regret at the start of her career as a child welfare caseworker in 1998. Systemic racism is a major reason why.
“I removed probably about 100 kids from their homes in the 15 months I was an investigator … a lot of them were children of color,” said Williams, who's now a vice president of one of the largest adoption and foster care agencies in the United States.
“Decades later, I realized how much harm I personally have caused," she said. “We’ve learned so much more of the value of supporting families, about implicit bias.”
Bias and racism are widespread in the child welfare system. Black children are taken into foster care at a disproportionately high rate and languish longer before being adopted, reunited with their parents or aging out of the system.
Williams oversees domestic programs for Bethany Christian Services, which released a report Wednesday detailing racial disparities in its programs for the first time and joining in broader calls to combat them. As Black families reel from the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation confronts racial injustice, Bethany’s leaders and others connected to the child welfare system believe the moment has come for fundamental changes, notably through better support for at-risk families so fewer children are removed from their homes on the grounds of neglect.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to say let’s stop the madness of unnecessarily removing kids,” said Ira Lustbader, chief program officer and litigation director at the national advocacy group Children’s Rights. “This is an urgent racial justice issue.”
Bethany's report is the first large-scale study of its foster care work based on a racial breakdown of the children. The study reviewed hundreds of cases from programs in four cities — Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan — comparing trends during the pandemic with those from 2019.
Among the findings: Black children accounted for 32% of the children in Bethany’s programs, compared with 13% of the overall U.S. child population. And compared with white, multiracial and Hispanic children, Black children had the lowest rate of reunification with their biological parents — 19%.
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