The numbers are disturbing. There are more than half a million children in the foster care system in the United States, and African-Americans make up nearly 40 percent of that number. U.S. Census data shows Black children in foster care, especially older ones, are less likely than White children to be adopted.
Although studies show there is little difference, according to racial group, in the incidence of abuse and neglect that would lead to a child or youth's placement in foster care, Black children are more likely to be steered into foster care at disproportionate rates than Whites, and are often "negatively characterized and labeled" by child welfare workers, explained U.C. Riverside Professor of Psychology Dr. Carolyn Murray during a recent lecture series on the "Psychological Development of Black Children".
"Here is where racism comes in – situations among Black families are more reported, substantiated, and investigated, and Black children are removed and placed at higher rates," said Murray. The circumstances of an overburdened foster care system compounded by institutional racism and cultural ignorance bring them more attention."
Zena F. Oglesby Jr., MSW, director of the Institute for Black Parenting (IBP) asserts that Black families face many of the same obstacles they did 35 years ago. Most agencies still operate under guidelines and practices developed from a White middle-class perspective. Outside of large cities, most public agency staff members are White. Some White workers are uncomfortable venturing into Black parts of town to recruit families, and some Black families are equally reluctant to approach a White agency.
Oglesby, a respected author, speaker and founder of (IBP) claims that the greatest barrier to adoption is workers' belief that Black families "don't have what it takes" to adopt from foster care.
He cited several studies including a 1988 federal study of 800 Black families targeted for recruitment as adoptive parents. Of these only two were approved. According to the study, the mostly White recruiters gave reasons for denial such as the applicants were 'obese or were of below average intelligence'.
Oglesby recalled a San Bernardino family was denied because the mother had to drive to her job in Los Angeles. "She had to get up too early." Another suggested a blown out light bulb in a home's hallway leading to the bedrooms signalled "a family culture of neglect".
The denials Oglesby said were largely based on a theory that you could not find minority families for minority children, a theory that lead to the formation of the nation's first licensed Black adoption agencies in the mid-1980s.
A student asked Oglesby 'what happened to those families'. "We turned around and approved many of them. We proved the system was beyond broken," he said.
"Now days instead of hearing the horror stories of families being denied, lots and lots of families tell us they are with White for-profit agencies that welcome them, but tell them they don't have Black children for them to adopt. This is absurd based on what we know today."
Since the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) was passed in 1994, workers have also struggled to understand what placement practices are now legal. High rates of worker turnover and fear of government reprisal hamper understanding of the law. Some workers even believe that MEPA prohibits agencies from placing Black children with Black families.
When another student asked why Black children were not equally promoted by White agencies Oglesby responded. "The system was not designed for Black children or Black families. The reality is slavery and Jim Crow are difficult facts of life for American descendants of Africans. If you believe you can't find families, you can't," he said.
In 1988 Oglesby created the non-profit Institute for Black Parenting. IBP is the first licensed private, full-service adoption, foster care and family preservation agency serving four Southern California counties, Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside and the State of Louisiana. The agency serves all ethnic groups and is responsible for placing more than 1,000 Black children with adoptive families. There are no fees for services.
"We don't sell Black children. ...For poor families, for young, unwed mothers, that creates untoward pressure," he said. "That's not the way adoption is supposed to work. When money's involved, ethics can go out the window," he added.
"We regularly have single Black women, aunts or grandmothers come in and ask for what I call a "Cadillac" description: Light-skinned, gray-green eyes, good hair, musically inclined. That's cultural ignorance," Oglesby told the students.
But there's a positive side to this, "in most cases when they lay eyes on the children they fall head over heels in love – often with the little chocolate boy with big brown eyes, kinky hair who can't play a musical note but loves to build things."
... "The thing that is scary to me is that children aren't perfect," he said. "People who are willing to pay high fees for healthy kids don't always get perfect children. If you pay $50,000, it doesn't mean that child is going to be healthy, gorgeous, and smart."
Oglesby worries that with shrinking budgets and a dwindling pool of social work practitioners whose practice is African-centered, the adoption process will become even more dysfunctional as "old road warriors" pass on.
"The younger generation is showing no interest in the politics, the debate or even checkmating the system. There is a vacuum of apathy and ignorance out there that quite frankly is frightening."
He urged the students – many of whom are pursuing careers in psychology and social work, not to become disillusioned by the obstacles.
"Social work remains one of the world's most exciting and personally rewarding practices. There are yet many challenges that Black families and children must confront and overcome. But, the broader community must not ignore Black families' historical strength, determination, and capacity to care for Black children," said Oglesby.