Racial disparities in foster care for Oregon children will get a new review, as Gov. Ted Kulongoski this week signed an executive order mobilizing state agencies and child advocacy groups on the issue.
The move mirrors an effort in Washington State, where Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a similar order in 2007 that has rejuvenated longstanding efforts to improve the foster care system there.
In Oregon, as in Washington, Native American and African American children are over-represented in the foster care system compared to their numbers in the general population.
"On any given day in Oregon too many children of color, particularly Native American and African American children, are in foster care," Kulongoski said as he signed the new order. "The time has come for us to move beyond good intentions to intentional action so that we can ensure that children with the same needs are treated equitably… no matter the color of their skin."
The Oregon effort is to be led by the Oregon Department of Human Services Children, Adults and Families Division, which is expected to report back to the state legislature by October 2010 on reforms to child welfare policy and its impact on minority children and their families.
Washington State Rep. Eric Pettigrew – one of the state's only African American lawmakers – spearheaded an effort in the legislature to tackle racial inequities in foster care that appear to hit Black and Native American children harder than White, Latino or Asian children.
"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."
Oregon statistics show that Native American and African American children represent 9.9 percent and 6.8 percent of foster kids, but each group comprises less than 2 percent of the general population of kids.
"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 in Washington State. "It's a national issue."
"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, Wa., 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 there, 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 result indicated that the lack of clear and agreed-upon definitions of abuse and neglect can affect the decision to report a family for investigation; caseworkers' lack of racial awareness and understanding effects key decisions within the process; a lack of foster families of color prevents adequate placements for children within racial and ethnic groups; conflicting requirements from multiple systems such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, housing and child welfare programs, can affect decisions about when to remove children from their families; and simple burnout of child welfare workers can cause poor attention to details.
The research found that, the longer children stay in the child welfare system, the greater the racial disparity grows.
Over the past 20 years that she's worked on the issue, Covington says, the BSDI has built connections with Native American advocacy groups to find common ground on solutions.
"Every time a child is moved from one temporary placement to another, studies show they lose several months of their education," she said. "So you have children who can't read, who struggle to finish school – but if we can interrupt that flow and get children in kinship placements, we can improve their lives."