Texas Report Paints Dim Picture for Blacks in Foster Care

A recent report suggests that black children in Texas stay in foster care significantly longer than whites or Hispanics, and are far less likely to be returned to their families or adopted. Guest host Tony Cox takes a closer look at the challenges of black children in foster care.

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TONY COX, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Ed Gordon.

A recent report out of Texas suggests some disheartening news about that state's child welfare system: Black children stay in foster significantly longer than do white or Hispanic kids, and are far less likely to be returned to their families or adopted. The disparity is perhaps most baffling because case workers reportedly do not remove African-American children from families any more than they do other races. Joining us for a closer look at the challenges of foster care in Texas and beyond are leaders of two non-profit groups dedicated to closing that gap. F. Scott McCown is a former Texas district judge and now serves as the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The organization is based in Austin, where Judge McCown joins us by phone now.

Judge, good to have you with us.

Judge F. SCOTT McCOWN (Executive Director, Center for Public Policy Priorities): Thank you.

COX: Also with us is Sondra Jackson, executive director of the Black Administrators in Child Welfare, which is based in Washington, DC. She joins us from our NPR headquarters in the nation's capital.

Sondra, nice to have you on, as well.

Ms. SONDRA JACKSON (Executive Director, Black Administrators in Child Welfare): Thank you very much for having me.

COX: The report we mentioned in the introduction was conducted by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and the Department of Family and Protective Services. According to this study, African-American kids make up about 12 percent of the population in the state of Texas; Hispanics, 43 percent; whites, a little less at about 40 percent. And yet there are so many more black children that remain in the system. So, Judge McCown, let me come to you with this: Are these kids simply unwanted? Does the system fail to service them properly? Why is this happening?

Judge McCOWN: Well, I want to back up and say that African-American children do come into the system at greater numbers than their population number. They're about 12 percent of the population; they're about 26 percent of the removals. Now what the study found is that wasn't related to race; it was related to other factors such as poverty. Then--but you do start out with a greater percentage in the system and then they're in the system longer. And, of course, that's very troubling, and I would add that that's a problem states across the country have. And what the report's trying to get at is why are they in the system longer so that we can address that problem.

COX: Why do you think they're in the system longer?

Judge McCOWN: Well, I think again it's a problem of poverty, and one of the factors (technical difficulties) race from other factors and see what was race, what was other factors.

But one of the things that the report didn't look at--because, frankly, you don't have the data to look at it at this point--is the resources of the family and the community. In Texas, of all kids, about 9 percent of our Anglo kids are in poverty, about 35 percent of our Hispanic children are in poverty and about 28 percent of our African-American children live in poverty.

When a child comes into the system, the community that he comes from is going to be a community much like his own family. It's going to be a community with limited resources, and it's going to be difficult then to get the child back into that community or get the child adopted because that community suffers from poverty.

COX: Well, Sondra Jackson, Texas, in a lot of ways, mirrors the rest of the country when we talk about the disparities in the child welfare system. California is certainly another example of that, as is Illinois, just to name two other places. And we know, as we've heard from Judge McCown and the report, that poverty contributes in large part to the foster care crisis. But there are other factors, aren't there, and what are they?

Ms. JACKSON: Yes. Certainly, poverty is an issue because most children who are placed in the system do come out of poverty. We know that child maltreatment for the most part results in neglect. Most children are placed because of neglect, and it is always difficult to disentangle the conditions of neglect from poverty. However, as we look at this we know that children of color are the first to be reported. Once they're reported, they're more likely to be investigated. Once they're investigated, they're probably going to be substantiated, more likely to be placed in foster care, less likely to be reunited with their families or relatives and certainly less likely to be adopted than other children.

The other issue here is that even when families and children of color have the very same characteristics as their white counterparts, the research is showing us that there's a difference in treatment, whether it's racial bias or whatever it is, that we have to look at the decision points, these decision points to remove children, to place children. And we really need to think about these decision-making process in the child welfare system. My organization was formed in 1971 because we knew that there were treatment disparities and misunderstanding of at least African-American children and families and so...

COX: Mm-hmm. Well, let's ask the judge about this because in Texas--as I understand it, Judge--the state is required to develop a plan by July to address the problems that were raised in the study, and those problems are some of those that were just made reference to by Sondra Jackson. So my question to you is: What factors do you think need to be considered in examining the state's child welfare system? In other words, how can this cycle be broken?

Judge McCOWN: Well, unfortunately, we asked the CPS system to look at this and then we asked the CPS system to fix the problem, and that's the wrong person to be fixing the problem. I agree with Ms. Jackson that there is bias and prejudice in the system, and you can have overrepresentation of African-Americans along the way because of decisions that are made. But if you had a perfect system, a perfect CPS system, you would still have significant disproportionality because the major problem are factors outside the system, such as poverty. And so if you want to solve--the way disproportionality works is kind of like the canary in the mine shaft; it warns us of the danger. But rushing an oxygen tank to the canary is not the correct response. What we have to do is figure out how to get more air in the mine shaft, and that's to address the really serious problem of child poverty.

COX: Well, now the report--let me jump in with this point because the report suggests that Hispanic children are also subject to poverty and yet their rates of getting out of foster care are higher. Those who are in poverty are higher than African-Americans. So how do you account for that, Judge?

Judge McCOWN: I think that is societal discrimination, but it's discrimination I think that again is outside the system. And that turns to the willingness of communities to adopt children. As a result of the 1994 Multiethnic Placement Act, the law says you can't delay or deny adoption based upon race or ethnicity. Yet at the same time, we know that African-American children are adopted much more slowly out of the system than children of other races. That's one problem, and that's a problem we need to confront with really aggressive recruitment of minority families and aggressive recruitment of all families, frankly, to adopt minority children. But you're still working against some pretty deeply held societal attitudes.

COX: Well, Sondra, what solutions do you see with regard to that? It seems that race is a factor that just cannot be ignored with regard to this issue. So what can be done?

Ms. JACKSON: First of all, this system was not set up for children of color. Secondly, we know that the practices have ignored or misinterpreted the families' cultures--their cultural strengths for years, and what needs to happen is the need exists for the development of minority-defined and a minority-based models of family preservation. Too many children are removed from their families; too few children are placed with their relatives. There really has been a mismatch of understanding of these families that are placed.

And so I would suggest that Congress should mandate that HHS produce an annual report on racial equity and the child welfare performance statewide. I also would suggest that the child and family service reviews just specifically assess racial disparities and outcomes for children and hold states accountable. So there are some things that really need to be looked at. The elephant in the room is racism. The thing that people fail to acknowledge is that people that make those decisions for the children haven't traditionally looked like them.

My organization tries to get African-American leaders in place, and I'd just like to think that we need more African-American administrators making decisions for our children. Joyce James in Texas, whom I know, is doing an excellent job trying to unravel what has gone on in Texas for generations in terms of what is happening to our children.

COX: Judge, I'm going to bring this last question to you. I've got about 30 seconds. Do you think that the color of the persons who are operating child protective services should make a difference in terms of the welfare of the black children that are being held or not being held?

Judge McCOWN: No, and I would really take issue--the elephant in the room is racism in society and it's the percentage of African-American children living in poverty. It's not the racism in the system. And Joyce James, for example, who heads up the Texas system, is an African-American woman. You could...

COX: We've got about 10 seconds or so.

Judge McCOWN: You could staff the system completely with African-Americans. You would still have disproportionality until we...

Ms. JACKSON: Racism.

Judge McCOWN: ...attack the serious problem of child poverty.

COX: We appreciate that. F. Scott...

Ms. JACKSON: And racism.

COX: ...and racism. F. Scott McCown is a former Texas district judge, and now serves as the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, Texas. Sondra Jackson is executive director of the Black Administrators and Child Welfare. She joined us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, DC.

Thank both of you for being on the program.

Judge McCOWN: Thank you.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you.

COX: Coming up on today's Roundtable, a modern-day lynching. Five South Carolina teens will serve time for a mob attack. And Alito defends his record before the Senate Judicial Committee. We'll discuss those topics and more on our Roundtable, next.

This is NPR News.

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