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Police feed the foster care-to-prison pipeline by reporting on Black parents

Common behaviors in white communities can lead to removal in minority neighborhoods, often because police are more likely to patrol there.
Image: A Black man holds the hand of a child
Once taken out of their homes, the situation of children in foster care often rapidly deteriorates and paves the way for juvenile detention.fizkes / Getty Images

The callous killing of George Floyd at the hands of those charged with his protection has energized calls to reform our policing system. But if we’re serious about protecting Black families as a whole, we cannot limit the conversation to the police alone. We need to transform the child welfare system, too.

Significant and warranted attention has been focused on the school-to-prison pipeline and the foster care-to-prison pipeline, but there is a related and lesser-known police-to-foster care pipeline that is often the starting point for the destruction of families and horrific long-term outcomes for children, particularly Black children.

American children in foster care have higher rates of PTSD than adult soldiers who have been to war.

Across the country, Black parents are more likely than white ones to be reported to child protective services and more likely than their white counterparts to have their children taken from them. Common behaviors or hurdles in white communities can lead to removal in minority populations.

Once taken out of their homes, the situation of children in foster care often rapidly deteriorates and paves the way for juvenile detention, followed by prison. A recent study out of Cornell University found that Black families were investigated almost twice as often as white families. Police are often responsible for initiating referrals to child protection agencies, and since police are more likely to be in Black neighborhoods, they are more likely to be involved in triggering a family review process than in places they patrol less.

But most of the police reports related to maltreatment were not related to child abuse, rather “neglect.” Unsurprisingly, there is voluminous data that shows that neglect is often conflated with poverty, as many state statutes define neglect as inadequate food, shelter, clothing or care. It is no secret that Black families in America are more likely to be poor than white ones. While some of these statutes contain language intended to protect indigent parents, children continue to be removed because their parents are evicted or because they don’t have adequate child care.

Once embroiled in the child welfare system, there is bias throughout. Two studies in Texas demonstrated that even though Black families on average were given lower risk scores than white families when initially assessed on whether children could safely remain at home, they were 20 percent more likely to have their case opened for services, and 77 percent more likely to have their children removed instead of being provided with family-based safety services.

This trend is true even when the allegations are the same or the investigation of a report uncovers identical facts. And circumstances that would likely be perceived as insignificant in white communities can be grounds for removal from Black homes. One mother had her newborn removed because child welfare authorities said that her two-bedroom apartment was too small for her family of five. Another mother was investigated after she left her 13-year-old in charge of siblings aged 6 and 8 to go to the dry cleaners.

As a result, time and again, Black children are overrepresented in foster care. And foster children on the whole have worse outcomes than children in the general population. In two different studies, approximately one-third of children experienced abuse or neglect in foster settings.

Many foster parents are not properly trained to deal with children’s emotional, psychological, educational or other special needs. Children are also often taken out of their foster homes because foster parents cannot deal with age-appropriate behaviors like toddler tantrums. This may lead to children being shuffled from home to home, which reinforces negative beliefs about themselves and their worth. Ninety percent of foster children who experience five or more moves will end up in the juvenile justice system.

Altogether, more than half of those who have been foster children have one or more mental health diagnoses. Further, close to half of foster children have experimented with drugs and alcohol, and 35 percent meet the criteria for substance abuse disorders. Children diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder were more likely to use multiple substances, and one study showed that foster children experience PTSD at twice the rate of war veterans. That’s right: American children in foster care have higher rates of PTSD than adult soldiers who have been to war.

Many of these problems can ultimately lead to incarceration, as more than half of prisoners are diagnosed with a mental health concern or substance abuse disorder and 75 percent have both. A survey of foster care alumni showed that, by their 25th birthdays, 81 percent of males had been arrested, and 35 percent had been incarcerated.

In this way, Black children are first swallowed up by a biased foster care system under the guise of care, and then spit out into a criminal system that at least lacks the pretense of promising anything good.

Of course, there will be extreme cases where removal is necessary for a child’s safety. But research demonstrates that in cases that are close calls when determining whether to remove children or leave them at home, kids usually fare better when left with their parents. When the state removes children from their parents, those children suffer grief and loss similar to what they experience if their parents died.

So how do we fix it?

I’ve long argued that courts should be statutorily required to balance the harm of removal with the potential risk of harm if a child is left with his or her caregivers and consider whether services could mitigate those harms. Right now, only two jurisdictions require such consideration.

”Blind removals,” whereby all demographic information about the families is hidden in order to eliminate prejudices, also show promise. In one such experiment in New York’s Nassau County, the percentage of Black children in foster care was reduced from 55.5 percent to 29 percent after five years.

The government now spends 10 times more on foster care and adoption than services to help families stay together.

The government now spends 10 times more on foster care and adoption than services to help families stay together. Given that so many cases are based on poverty, we should be providing more support for parents who are struggling rather than paying others to care for their children.

At a recent rally in Brooklyn amid the Black Lives Matter and “defund the police” demonstrations, people marched to declare that “Black Families Matter” and to protest the activities of the Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS, New York’s child welfare agency. Child welfare and policing are inextricably intertwined, and Black families will never thrive in this country until we stop pretending otherwise.