Child Protective Services and the foster care system are adopting what some human-rights activists would recognize as a reproductive-justice framework. The missing part of it: Black foster parents.
Reproductive justice, as defined by the Black-woman-led organization SisterSong, means “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” This not only means access to birth control and safe and legal abortions, but also prenatal and post-natal care for the family, affordable childcare and housing, access to transportation and livable wages.
“All of those things should be considered basic needs for everyone,” Laura Mitchell, Samaritas’ executive director of foster care, stated. And that’s especially true when thinking about foster care.
But, due to unnecessary judgments about the service, the Black children and teenagers who are in what Ebony Dooley, the communications manager at Samaritas, calls “the child welfare continuum of care,” are getting lost—and need their community to help them.
“We know that there’s disproportionality in Children’s Protective Services (CPS) and in foster care,” said Mitchell. “More children of color and more families of color are being investigated by CPS. That means more children of color are being removed from the home and being placed in foster care.”
For Black children and families, that is at a rate that is 1.94 times more likely than white children, Mitchell said. Latino children are 1.04 times more likely to face a similar situation than white children.
The experience of Michele Calloway, who’s an adoptive mother and has been a foster mother for 40 years, bears out the numbers.
“The Black community is the only community that really don’t reach out to our own,” Calloway stated. “You don’t see a lot of Jewish children or a lot of Arabic children in the system.”
“An auntie or someone in the community would take care of the Black child instead of sending them to foster care,” Calloway observed. “Nowadays, people feel they’re too busy or that they already raised their kids so they don’t feel the need to extend themselves anymore. But what we forget is the kids who come into care—like all of our kids—are our future.”
The current situation of Black children in foster care is a result of historical and current circumstances, according to Calloway.
For example, she said the need for Black foster parents has grown, but the reason why children come to foster care has changed. In the ‘80s, there was more neglect and heroin had a hold in the community, then “crack changed everything. Part of that change was the children who came into foster care were abused—and it was more Black children coming into care.”
“We were not ready for the impact of crack. We didn’t know what the actual impact would be—and it happened so quickly.” She adopted three babies who were affected by crack back in the ‘80s.
What exacerbated the number of Black children entering into care was the drying up of research, resources and funding for mental conditions such as substance abuse disorders and the almost scorched-earth policy that was—and is—the War on Drugs and its resulting proliferation of incarcerated Black people due to drug charges, Calloway said.
On top of that, the pandemic is currently affecting all children, including those in foster care. Mitchell stated that there’s a huge rise in mental health issues for kids and teenagers, which is more impactful because they’ve already experienced some level of trauma. The pandemic added another layer of trauma to that because the foster child isn’t socializing with their peer groups, let alone dealing with changes in home environments.
The specific call for Black parents comes from the need to help minimize the trauma for Black children who come into foster care.
“When a child is removed from their home and placed in foster care, that in itself is trauma,” Mitchell stated. “We want to reduce that trauma as much as humanly possible for our kids. The reason for needing Black foster parents to come forward and become licensed is because when we can place a child with a family who looks like them and who might live in a similar neighborhood where there are more families of color. We also want to keep the children in the same school in order to lessen the amount of changes they face that could set them back educationally. We want to minimize the changes.”
The need for licensed Black foster parents is also about the adults having a greater cultural awareness, be that regarding personal care, such as hair and skin care, or culinary folkways that they can impart to the children.
“Not that white parents can’t teach a Black child that—some do and are good at it—but the learning curve is steeper,” Mitchell commented.
What needs to be understood about foster care is “it is the last resort,” said Dooley. “Even though we need more licensed foster homes, ultimately, as a community and as an agency, the goal is to keep families together in the first place.”
“All parents love their children, and no parent wants to be involved with CPS or otherwise have their child removed from the home,” Mitchell stated.
However, when that need arises, Mitchell and Calloway state, they are asking Black people to step in to become licensed foster parents.
What Calloway and Mitchell both pointed out is in many cases the child isn’t pulled from the home due to abuse or neglect, but—both simply and complexly—poverty.
“What we do to lift the parents up to be able to have an education, have employment, have affordable childcare. But there are so many barriers,” Mitchell stated. “However, poverty should not be a reason why a child is pulled from a home, if you ask me, because that is a much broader societal issue to be focusing on and what do we have in place when the families do come forward, do come to us or even the Department of Health and Human Services for food stamps, for example. Food stamps are good, but we need to take that even further to lift parents up.”
“There is so much judgment that happens with families who are receiving public financial support, with families who are involved with protective services. We need to put judgment aside and get back to grassroots social work.”
Mitchell, who has worked in foster care for 35 years, said she’s seen many approaches to the work.
“For decades, the approach was to keep the child away from the parents. So, the parent didn’t know who the foster parent was, where the kids were living or were going to school. We now know the opposite is true. So, the hope for foster care—and what Samaritas is doing now—is introducing parents and foster parents within a week of the child coming into foster care. Now, that isn’t an easy meeting because CPS and the court have told the parent that they are not a good parent because they couldn’t keep their child safe. Then, the foster parent receives reimbursement from the parent. What if we gave more funding to the parent so they’d be better able to provide? The ideal situation is for parents and foster parents work together and co-parent the child. We look at parents as the true expert of their families because they are, and we should be asking more questions about the child’s dietary needs and sleep schedules. This is their child, and they love their child.”
The current state law is if a foster child is over three years old, the parent can visit them once a week for an hour. Samaritas follows that law, Mitchell said.
“But can’t we do more? Can there be more visits? Can there be phone calls or Facetime? Can a mom read a book to her child over Zoom so there is more of a connection? What we do know is when a parent is seeing more of their kid, the faster the kids are able to return home.”
Michigan is involved with that shift, Mitchell reported.
Calloway and Mitchell echo the African adage of it taking a village to raise a child.
“As communities we need to bolster families,” Mitchell stated. “We need to not judge families by what we perceive. Like an iceberg, what we’re seeing is what’s on top of the water. We’re all human; we’re all complex. We all need support.”
Calloway concluded, “There is so much for us Black folks to do as a community in order to reach out and help a child or a family. We all know a child or a family who can use extra support.
“There are many ways Black people can give back and support our community, our kids. For example, people can work with foster-care agencies and start a book club.”