Foster Care

Rebalancing Act: How to Change the Fact That Too Many Black & LGBTQ Kids Land In LA’s Foster Care System

Photo by Samantha Sophia courtesy of Unsplash
Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

In Los Angeles County, as in many other areas of the U.S., African American children are disproportionately overrepresented in foster care when compared with their representation in the general population.

Research also shows that lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are overrepresented in foster care.

An August 2014 report by UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute found that LA County has 13.4% LGBQ-identified youth in foster care (compared to 7.2% in the general youth population), and 5.6% transgender youth in foster care (compared to 2.25% in the general youth population).

In addition, the representation of Latino children in the county’s foster care is continuing to grow, but the disproportionality is not quite as dramatic.

And there’s the fact that children who find themselves in the child welfare system are more likely than those who’ve not landed in foster care to have problems with health and/or education, wind up homeless, unemployed, and have an early and unplanned pregnancy.

Foster care kids’ incarceration rates are also noticeably higher than their non-foster care peers.

Plus, since LGBTQ youth are already statistically more likely to experience greater health issues before they land in foster, once in the county’s care, the gap can widen further.

The disparities go on from there and include other groups such as Native American and immigrant children.

In the hope of finding a strategy to truly address these child-harming imbalances, LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis has authored a motion, with supervisor Sheila Kuehl as co-author, which would require the creation of an Office of Equity inside LA’s Department of Children and Family Services.  This new office would organize and manage the county’s efforts–existing and new—to root out and fix the disparities, while bringing the work under one centralized roof.

Model rebalancing acts

The two supervisors noted that organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the American Bar Association, and others have also been examining the issues and causes that give rise to disproportionality in the nation’s foster care systems.

Their various reports have collectively pointed to the reality that at every decision point within foster care—including the termination of parental rights—racial disproportionality is depressingly apparent.

With all this in mind,  some cities and jurisdictions across the U.S. have been implementing their own strategies to begin to address the glaring disproportionalities in child welfare, and are seeing some success.

Solis and Kuehl want the proposed Office of Equity to explore the positive outcomes of some of these smaller municipalities for “best practices” that might apply to LA County’s much larger system.

The Franklin County story

For example, there is Franklin County, Ohio, which found in 2005 that African American children represented 3,000 (47%) of the county’s foster care caseload.

When a new director of Children and Family Services came on the job in 2007, he was determined to make changes.

The result was that by  2010, the number of African American children on the county’s caseload dropped by more than 1000 kids, to 1859 (41%).

According to an American Bar Association report on Franklin County’s work, one of the keys to county’s progress was its willingness to work closely with the communities that were the largest sources of referrals, in the belief that community organizations would have the best idea of what services and resources these often impoverished neighborhoods were most lacking, and how those needs could best be filled.

Franklin also made a point of engaging its frontline staff in looking for trends in how decisions are being made at each point in the child welfare case that could influence disparities.

Mapping decision points

To locate hidden trends, Franklin County launched a task force, which drilled down into the data from a single year, looking at each subsequent decision once a child welfare referral was made in each case. In doing this microscopic deconstruction some of the questions the task force asked included:

  • Was the case opened or referred to community services?
  • Was a court case filed, or was a case opened with ongoing services provided without a court filing?
  • Was the child placed in foster care, with relatives or friends, or not placed at all?

The answers to these questions produced a discernable pattern:

  • African American children were referred to the agency almost 2:1 to white children.
  • When a case was opened, an African American child was almost always rated at a higher risk.
  • Interestingly, this disproportionality in outcome when it came to assigning the level of risk to children, did not seem to be influenced by whether the caseworker was African American or white, a finding that ran counter to general beliefs in the agency.

According to Franklin’s head guy, Eric Fenner, the process of minutely examining the agency’s decision making helped the agency as a whole recognize that the skewed decision making was something they were doing as an organization, thus it was something they had to work together to address.

The strategy seemed to work to the degree that, by the time that Fenner retired in 2011, in addition to the changes in disproportionality, the number of kids in foster care, in general, had dropped by 29 percent.

Blind removals

Another strategy that Nassau County, New York, has used to address their child welfare system’s persistent “over-representation” of African American kids in foster care,  is a process known as “blind removals.”

Blind removals require the caseworker who has conducted an initial assessment of the family to present the case to a committee without mentioning demographics or neighborhood. All identifiable information on the case file is removed and the discussion focuses on what has occurred, relevant history, and family capacity and strength. The committee then makes a recommendation regarding whether the children should be removed from the family.

According to a 2014 report on Nassau’s reform strategies, between 2011 & 2013, using the blind removal method, the percentage of black children removed from their homes dropped from  56.7% to 42.1 %.

And there are still other strategies, used successfully by other jurisdictions.

The need to differentiate

Solis and Kuehl are careful to point out in their motion that, although LGBTQ youth are also critically overrepresented in the child welfare system, “the reasons for their overrepresentation and their needs may be both similar and different from African American children, youth, and families.”

In other words, the solutions to this, or any other overrepresentation cannot be viewed as a one-size-fits-all matter.

If the motion passes on Tuesday, May 21, DCFS is to report back to the board in 90 days with a plan that,  among other things,  should outline the development of the office, and how it will work within the community and across the county’s foster care system to bring about change.”

To help jump-start the process, the motion asks for a “preliminary review of data reflecting patterns of child protection involvement by race/ethnicity and LGBTQ status to inform the development of priorities for the Office of Equity.”

WitnessLA will, of course, be tracking the progress of this much-needed endeavor.

Photo by Samantha Sophia at Unsplash

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