Almost exactly one year ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law legislation introduced by Rep. Eric Pettigrew to solve the fundamental mystery of the foster care system: Why does race seem to matter more than economics?
Furthermore, what can be done about it?
"This is about doing the right thing for our kids," Pettigrew said at the time. "Far too many children out there get put into the foster care system. We need to find out why."
"Even among more affluent families, African American and Native American children enter the system in greater numbers and stay longer," says Germaine Covington of The Black Child Development Institute. "It's a national issue."
Tonight, experts come together to scrutinize the problems and brainstorm possible solutions.
The Child Welfare Community Forum Addressing Racial Disproportionality for African American and Native American Children runs from 6 to 8 p.m. at the First AME Church, 1522 14th Ave.
"We've long been interested in the disproportionality affecting the African American youth entering the foster care system," Covington says. "At every point in the system there is disproportionality."
The most recent research in King County, conducted in 2004 by Wanda Hackett Enterprises of the University of Washington Northwest Institute for Children and Families, showed that while children of color comprise one third of all children in the county, they make up more than half of all children currently in foster care.
African American and Native American children make up eight percent of the total population, yet these two groups alone comprise 25 percent of child welfare referrals investigated by officials; 33 percent of children removed from their homes and put into foster care; and 50 percent of children who remain in foster care four years after removal from their families.
One area of the research looked into the factors contributing to the overrepresentation of Black and Native American kids in the system.
A focus group of youths who had lived in foster homes, caseworkers, families, foster parents and others, contributed dozens of observations on the issue.
The research found that, the longer children stay in the child welfare system, the greater the racial disparity grows.
Panel leaders at tonight's child welfare forum include Carol Spigner, professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and a member of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care, which has released recommendations to overhaul America's child welfare system.
Also speaking will be Terry Cross, founder and executive director of the National Indian Center, author of "Positive Indian Parenting Curricula and Cross-Cultural Skills in Indian Child Welfare."
Covington said the event's organizers are bringing experts from around the country because King County has emerged as a leader nationally in searching for a solution to the chronic racism in foster care.
But it hasn't been easy. E arlier this year the first-of-its-kind Office of African American Children's Services was dismantled after federal investigators ruled that children could not be assigned to it on the basis of their race.
Now, Covington says, officials have set up a county office designed to work with families and children based on their zip code, with beefed up cultural competency guidelines and, hopefully she said, a greater emphasis on either reunification of families to placing of children with relatives.
But the issue keeps coming back to one thing, she says: the fact that race matters more than economics for families and kids caught in the system.
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