You may have watched the recent special on CNN called “Black in America”. The program highlighted a variety of triumphs and tragedies surrounding the present status of the African American. While attempting to not be cynical, I came away with the feeling of “tell me something I don’t already know.” I am sure there are segments of our population where the program will elicit reactions of shock and surprise. But issues of race, poverty, housing, crime, employment and opportunity are not strangers to many of us who live and work in Black America. There is one area where all of these issues coalesce to have an often times tragic result. We call it foster care.

In Los Angeles County approximately 84% of children in foster care are African American or Latino. African Americans represent 13% of the population in Los Angeles and a staggering 34% of children in foster care. Statistics show that African American children are placed in foster care sooner and stay longer than Caucasian children. In a recent study titled “Overrepresentation of Minority Children: How the Child Welfare System Is Responding” several reasons were cited for the overrepresentation of African American children in foster care.

Poverty. Poverty and poverty-related circumstances are major contributors to the overrepresentation of minority children.

Visibility. Poor families are more likely to use public services such as public health clinics and receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), making any problems they may be experiencing more visible to the community.

Over reporting. Some felt that disproportionality is the result of discriminatory practices within society; specifically, school and hospital personnel report minority parents for child abuse and neglect more frequently than non-minority parents.

Lack of experience with other cultures. Many of those interviewed felt that lack of understanding of the cultural norms of minority populations, along with racial bias, often interfered with good decision-making on the part of the case workers.

Systems are only as efficient as the people who implement them. When we are looking at a public agency where thousands of people are employed, I would suggest that consistent quality and accountability are a major challenge. When children and families are involved, errors in judgment could have life changing results. The legacy of overrepresentation means thousands of African American children living in poverty are at risk of becoming dependent on child welfare and other social service systems. Accountability goes both ways. As individuals we need to examine the parenting practices that lead children to become adults with poor decision making skills. Sometimes the “old ways” are not the best ways to raise a child in today’s society. When we talk about moving African American families from poverty to prosperity, foster care and systems that support it must be reexamined to insure that safety, fairness and equity are guiding principles.

– Andrew Henderson, M.S. is executive director of Families for Children, Inc. He can be reached at (323) 750-5855 ext.102.