State Rep. Eric Pettigrew says Washington needs to do a better job reducing racial inequalities in the foster care system.
"We need to do a better job of protecting these kids," Pettigrew says.
The congressman recently helped pass House Bill 1472, which will form a state-level commission to answer two questions: Do racial inequities exist in the state welfare system? And, if so, what can we do about it?
The committee will include Washington senators, representatives, members of the state's Department of Social and Health Services as well as community members.
Paola Maranan, executive director of the Children's Alliance, says the state's foster system doesn't work for children of color.
"This state will not fix this child welfare system until it they fix it for kids of color," Maranan says. "Until it works for African American and Native American kids it's not going to work for anybody."
In King County, African American children make up 3 percent of the general population, but 11 percent of the children in the foster care system.
According to the Children's Alliance, the Black children in foster care are more likely to be removed from their homes, stay in the system longer and move more frequently. Black children are less likely than children of other races and ethnicities to be adopted and they tend to spend twice as long as White children in the foster care system before being adopted.
Next June, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy will release the results of an investigation into the extent of racial inequities in the state welfare system. But the problem isn't confined to Washington alone.
Nationally, children of color comprise 39 percent of the general population, but make up 59 percent of the country's foster care children. Likewise, African American children comprise 15 percent of the U.S. child population but make up 41 percent of American children in foster care. For every 1,000 Black children in the U.S. population, there were 21 foster care. About 56 percent of African American children entering the child welfare system in open cases enter foster care and 44 percent are served in their own home.
In urban areas such as Chicago and Harlem, the rates are even worse.
Many poor communities of color — African American communities in particular — lose their children at extremely high rates to foster care placement. In Chicago, most child protective cases are clustered in only two zip codes and in Harlem, 1 in 10 children are in foster care.
One local group, UJIMA (formerly One Church, One Child) of Washington State, is working to reunite African American foster children with their biological families.
Gwendolyn Townsend, UJIMA's founder, has placed thousands of children in homes during the years.
"It is so important to get the word out about these children," Townsend says. "They are in such need of a good, loving home."
Townsend and her husband, Sam, pastor of Greater Glory Church of God in Christ, as well as several members of their congregation, are foster parents.
"We encourage anyone who's ever thought about foster care to give us a call," Townsend says.
Studies have shown that when foster children move around, they lose crucial school time and their grades suffer.
"When children are moved from home to home they often have to change schools and they lose a lot of ground so trying to keep them in the same neighborhood so they can attend the same school is crucial" says Candice Douglass, director of communications for Casey Family Programs, a group that tries to improve — and ultimately prevent — the need for foster care.
For folks at the Children's Alliance, changing the foster care system is a critical issue, Maranan says.
"Our job is to look out for kids in Washington," The Children's Alliance director says. "We think this is one of the most important things that we can be doing with our time — trying to make sure that kids of color in Washington and in the child welfare system have better outcomes."
For more information or to find out what you can do to help children of color in Washington's foster care system, call UJIMA Community Services at 206-725-0252 or visit www.ococujima.org.