MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, Angel Island reopens its doors to visitors. For years, it was the entry point for immigrants coming to the U.S. from Asia. We'll hear more about the history of what's called the Ellis Island of the West.

But first, it's time for our Behind Closed Doors conversation where we talk about issues that are often kept hidden. Today, we want to talk about foster care. Right now, some half a million children are in foster care in the U.S., and anybody who watches the local news or reads a paper can probably recite some of the stories that lead authorities to remove children from their families and send them into foster care. But what if some kids are more likely to be sent into foster care than others when perhaps they didn't need to be there? And what if race is a factor when it shouldn't be?

Recently, the state of Michigan asked a group of experts to evaluate their child welfare system. The study was conducted by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. And among their conclusions, that African-American families are less likely to receive the supports that could prevent their kids from going into foster care and that African-American families are more likely to be perceived negatively by child welfare workers, and that partly as a result, black kids are being disproportionately steered into foster care.

Joining us now to talk about all this are Kristen Weber - she's a co-author of the study; Bernadette Blount is a parent organizer at the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York; and Toni Heinemen, she's a psychologist. She is the creator and executive director of A Home Within. It's a non-profit that matches volunteer therapists with foster youth in some 30 cities around the country. Welcome all of you to the program. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. BERNADETTE BLOUNT (Parent Organizer, Child Welfare Organizing Project, New York): Hello.

Ms. TONI HEINEMEN (Psychologist; Creator and Executive Director, A Home Within): Hello.

Ms. KRISTEN WEBER (Co-Author, Center for the Study of Social Policy): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Kristen, I want to start with you because you co-authored the study. It's unusual, isn't it, for systems to invite people to come in and evaluate their work?

Ms. WEBER: That's exactly right. And this is a really pioneering effort on the part of Michigan to open up their system to some real intrusive criticism and looking in about what's happening with African-American children.

MARTIN: Why did they do that?

Ms. WEBER: Well, Michigan's legislature had actually appointed a task force to look at what's going on with children of color in a foster care system and why is there perceived inequities. That task force came forward with a report called Equity, and detailed through quantitative data what's going on with African-American children, American Indian children and Latino children, and really provided a set of recommendations to the state to act upon.

One of those recommendations was to do a review of their policies and practices that might in some way contribute to the overrepresentation of children of color in their foster care system, and we looked in two jurisdictions over a year's time to really go into what's going on behind the numbers that's causing so many children of color to come into this.

MARTIN: And when you say so many, what are you talking about?

Ms. WEBER: Michigan's data, when we were going in, looked something like this: African-American children represent 18 percent of Michigan's general population but 50 percent of their foster care population.

MARTIN: Wow.

Ms. WEBER: So what was that? How does that come about? That was really what we were trying to get at.

MARTIN: Wow! That's fascinating. And Bernadette, I want to bring you into this conversation. I mentioned that you're a parent organizer, but you don't live in Michigan. You live in New York, but you have personal experience with the child welfare system. As briefly as you can, can you just tell us what happened?

Ms. BLOUNT: Well, in 1999, I had my first run-in with the administration for children's services, and I received a case. My children were removed from me to which my services were visits, family counseling and individual counseling. And it took two years for my children to be placed back in my household when the only thing that I had, when the only services that was received or put on my court documents were family therapy, individual therapy and just maintaining family visits.

MARTIN: What were some of the reasons that you came to the attention of the authorities to begin with, if you don't mind my asking?

Ms. BLOUNT: I came to the attention of a CS because of corporal punishment.

MARTIN: Were you in fact hitting your kids?

Ms. BLOUNT: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: You were hitting them?

Ms. BLOUNT: Yes.

MARTIN: Is it your view that you weren't hurting them enough to cause your children to be removed or that...

Ms. BLOUNT: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: It could have been dealt with in a less...

Ms. BLOUNT: Yes.

MARTIN: Dramatic fashion.

Ms. BLOUNT: Yes. They didn't try to find out the cause and effect, and that was my whole issue. I knew I needed help, but the help that you gave me, to remove all four of my children, my 15-month-old, that wasn't the help that I needed.

MARTIN: Did you actually get any of these services or was it a thing where you were told to get them but you never actually were able to get them, or even if you did get the services, you weren't given any credit for doing it?

Ms. BLOUNT: Actually, I got the services that I needed. I was given the credit, it was just the court process. For instance, I would go to court today, and they would adjourn my court date for four months down the line. And in the meantime, I've done everything the agency and the workers have told me, but now I just have to wait to see a judge again in another four months. So what happens to me and the children in that process?

MARTIN: Which leads me to Toni Heinemen. What does happen to children in that process?

Ms. HEINEMEN: It's a very traumatic situation for children. So in Bernadette's case, the one thing about the 15-month-old and I don't know the ages of the other children, but that would be very confusing, upsetting for a child to be removed from a parent at that age. And then probably - maybe weekly visits, Bernadette?

Ms. BLOUNT: Yes.

Prof. HEINEMEN: A week is a very, very long time in the life of a 15-month-old. And often, what we know is that once children are removed and put into the child welfare system, they aren't left with one foster family for the entire two years or how long it is, but may be moved to many different families. The other thing that can happen, it sounds as if, Bernadette, you were able to visit with your children, but sometimes the children are placed at a distance that makes...

Ms. BLOUNT: Yes.

Prof. HEINEMEN: It very, very hard for the parent to maintain the visits, so it becomes an incredibly complicated system. And I think when you try to replace a family, it sets up so many unexpected difficulties.

MARTIN: Toni Heinemen, do you see long-term effects with the kids that you've worked with in having been separated, even if there are circumstances that cause them to be taken away from their parents, where authorities believe that there's a danger to them or something? Do you see effects on kids?

Ms. HEINEMEN: Yes. Long-term effects for children raised in foster care are actually quite devastating. The levels of unemployment, homelessness, underemployment, and the chances of their being able to care for themselves well are very, very small. They have a much higher rate of physical and emotional problems than the normal population.

MARTIN: But how do you know whether they would have had these conditions, whether - if they had stayed with their birth families, Toni Heinemen? How do you know?

Ms. HEINEMEN: We don't know. We do know what children raised in the foster care system, how they fare compared to children who are raised with their families, and of course, the children who are raised in their families - a whole spectrum, from children who presumably have fabulous care to children who have barely adequate care.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Toni Heinemen, a psychologist, Bernadette Blount, a parent organizer, and Kristen Weber, who is a researcher about a new study that explores why it is that African-American children, at least in one area of Michigan, are disproportionately being sent into foster care.

Kristen, what about this question of the circumstances that lead kids to be in foster care? And I'm sure that the way a lot of our listeners will have experienced this issue is through reading the papers and hearing about terrible situations. What is it that leads you to believe that some of these kids don't have to be in care? And what I'm hearing you say is that it's actually more and more normal circumstance than the kinds of horrific cases that we hear so much about.

Ms. WEBER: What we looked at in the study are children who came to the attention of child welfare system because of neglect. We did not look at cases of severe abuse, severe neglect, but the sort of harder-to-call cases, cases where there wasn't adequate housing. Those are alot of the cases that we looked at, were children who were being removed because they didn't have a legal source of heat in their home. So you look at those - those are the harder-to-call kinds of questions, and that those families with adequate supports, would they be able to maneuver away from the foster care system?

And what we found was that African-American families had a harder time maneuvering away from the foster care system. And in fact, once they came to the attention of the foster care system, those children were more likely to be removed and adequate services were less likely to be put in place immediately for those families.

MARTIN: You know, there's an interesting thing in the study that said that child welfare workers were more likely to negatively evaluate African-American families. Could you tell me what you mean by that?

Ms. WEBER: Sure. So what we found - we reviewed over 60 case files, and in reading to those files, you start to get a sense of who the parents are as seen through the eyes of the workers. And language was peppered throughout these case files in talking about African-American parents as hostile or aggressive. So we tried to find adequate facts to support why would a parent be considered hostile or aggressive, and we couldn't find those in the case files. But when we looked at the circumstances over why they were labeled hostile and aggressive, it all revolved around the time when the child was being removed from them. So you can imagine that if your child was being removed from you, you might be a little hostile, you might be a little aggressive. But if those contexts wasn't put in place, but that label of hostile aggressiveness followed you around, the types of services, then, are different.

MARTIN: Wouldn't white people whose kids were being removed be hostile and aggressive too, or just were they not perceive that way or...

Ms. WEBER: They were not perceived that way. I mean, similarly, we saw language and files around substance abuse issues so that when white parents were being asked about a history of substance abuse and they denied it, the files said, no history of substance abuse. When African-American families were asked the same question, their files said, denies history of substance abuse.

MARTIN: Is this a racial difference or are the case workers all of a different demographic or - because my guess is in a lot of major cities, my guess is the case workers are probably of the same demographic as that the people that they are evaluating, isn't that true?

Ms. WEBER: That's absolutely correct. And that's why we take it out of the realm of the case workers and really try to figure out what institution is allowing for this.

MARTIN: Could I ask Bernadette - Bernadette, do you remember your interactions with the case workers? Do you remember what that was like? Did you feel that you were treated with respect or that your were kind of looked at in a holistic way? Did you feel that they were already against you by the time they got there?

Ms. BLOUNT: I felt that they were against me, but actually, the first case worker that I encountered was a African-American case worker, and when I explained to her the situation, she understood, which is why my case plan was the way it was because it wasn't a mother going over the deep end. This wasn't a mother in a hostile - she's trying to kill the kid. You know, the mother is overwhelmed, she's frustrated, she's trying to receive services through the Board of Ed, she's being stone-walled, she's frustrated. Thank God she understood because she really could have really threw me under a bus.

MARTIN: I hear you, but - so what would have made a difference in your case? What would have helped you keep your family together?

Ms. BLOUNT: When I first approached the Board of Education and needed my daughter evaluated, eventually, once I got my daughter evaluated, she was evaluated with ADD. Did my children have to be taken away from me and removed for two years in order for me to get an evaluation, which when she got in foster care like two weeks later, she got an evaluation. Maybe if that was done a little quicker and more effectively, I could have received some type of help.

MARTIN: Toni Heinemen, there are those who are going to be listening to our conversation who are going to say, you know what, we're just making excuses here. We're just making excuses, and if people are hitting their kids or doing wrong by their kids or not taking care of their kids, then the system needs to step in. Is there something you say to help people understand why it matters that kids who had certain backgrounds, the black kids, are being disproportionately - and Native(ph) American kids, for that matter - in some places are being taken out of their homes at rates that far exceed what other kids are? Because there are those who would say, look, if these parents are disproportionately hurting their kids, then just what has to happen is kids have to be kept safe. What do you say?

Ms. HEINEMEN: What we have to recognize is that removing a child from a family is traumatic for the child. And 85 percent of the kids who are taken into the foster care system are taken in because of neglect, not because of abuse. So if we're putting them in a foster care, a foster home with parents who are loving and supportive and help them maintain a good, positive relationship with the parent who's - while he or she is getting back on her feet, that's very different from being put in one foster home and then removed to another and removed to another.

So for example, Bernadette's daughter was lucky. She got an evaluation right away. But she might not have, and it's possible that in any foster home where she was not paying attention, not listening, that she would have been removed to another foster home. So we really have to think about whether or not we're compounding the trauma that these children face and what we can do to minimize that.

MARTIN: OK. And we'll have Kristen get the final word on this point, quickly. You started all of this.

Ms. WEBER: Well, parents have a constitutional right to raise their kid, so you'd want a very high standard for the removal of their child, and there are these standards around removal. In Bernie's case, I would argue that she was not afforded reasonable efforts, which is legally required so that a child should be - should not be removed from a parent unless all reasonable efforts have been made to keep that child safely with their parent. Didn't sound to me based on what Bernie was describing that reasonable efforts had been made to keep this child safely with their parent and to provide the necessary supports so that they could stay there.

Her children drifted for two years, it sounds like, in foster care. Two years in the life of small child is remarkable. It's just amazing. And so there is a lack of urgency. Once you get caught up in the system, you're not operating on children's time, you're operating on institutional time, and that, again, is devastating to the effects of children.

MARTIN: Is this a matter of discrimination?

Ms. WEBER: I would say it's a matter of institutional bias, that the way that - a long-standing history in this country of racism is brought up through our institutions. Foster care is not the only system that's seeing these disproportionate effects. You can look at juvenile justice, criminal justice, health, education. African-Americans are disadvantaged in all of those public institutions.

MARTIN: And finally, this is a question for Toni Heinemen, since you are a psychologist here. It sounds like from what Kristen is talking about, a lot of this sounds unconscious, that people have these sort of received wisdoms about people and that they act on them. Can you fix that?

Ms. HEINEMEN: I agree.

MARTIN: Can you fix that?

Ms. HEINEMEN: Well, you can fix it if you can make it conscious. As long as we let it remain unconscious, it's pretty hard to fix. But the more that we can have conversations like this, the more that we can recognize our own biases. We all have biases. We bring them to the table all the time. And that we have to begin as individuals, as institutions, to really examine them and think about how they get played out and the inadvertent damage that we may be doing by not confronting our very deeply held beliefs.

MARTIN: Bernadette, I have to give to you the final word here. How are you doing now? And how are your kids?

Ms. BLOUNT: Oh, we are very well. I am expecting my second grandchild from my oldest daughter any moment now. So, we are on track, and we are close-knit. It has made us stronger, and we've been through a lot but it's made the family stronger, so...

MARTIN: Well, I'm happy to hear that. Bernadette Blount is a parent organizer at the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York. She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Good luck to you and to your family. Thank you.

Ms. BLOUNT: Thank you.

MARTIN: We are also joined by Kristen Weber. She's a senior associate at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. She co-authored the study that we've been talking about. She joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. We were also joined by Toni Heinemen. She's a psychologist. She is the creator and executive director of A Home Within. It's a non-profit that matches volunteer therapists with foster youth in 30 communities around the country. We'll have more information at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. She joined us from San Francisco. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. HEINEMEN: Thank you.

Ms. WEBER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And now we'd like to hear from you. Do you have a personal experience with foster care - as a parent, a child, a foster parent, a social worker? Are there changes that you think would make the system work more fairly and protect children? To tell us what you know and to hear what other listeners have to say, please call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again is 202-842-3522. Or visit our Web site, the Tell Me More page at npr.org, and blog it out.

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