Over the past year, the national racial reckoning has sparked conversations around equity and discrimination in nearly every part of our society. Acknowledging some of the progress that’s been made, there is still much work to be done for the child welfare system to address deep racial disparities.
Like many children of color in the child welfare system, I grew up with foster families that didn’t and won’t share the same lived experiences as me. From the time I was 4 years old to 16, I lived with a Filipina foster mom and a white foster dad. Spending my developing years without a Black parent was challenging, and although I was physically cared for, there was an absence of emotionally and culturally sensitive care. I needed to be holistically supported, encouraged and celebrated for who I was. Instead, I heard anti-Blackness. My foster parents would make fun of my nose or my hair, which no one had properly taught me to care for. These microaggressions affected the way I saw myself, and it was years before I’d ever even hear the term “self-love.”
The trauma I endured and the subsequent behavioral challenges were treated as a burden and something to fix. I was first prescribed psychiatric drugs at a really young age — long before I could have a say in the matter. Within the first week of school, a teacher recommended I be tested for ADHD, and I stayed on the same medication until I was 18. Only then — when I aged out of foster care and had little to no support — did I realize how high of a dose I’d been prescribed for so long and for someone so young. I had never been consulted or educated about my own physical and mental health. Instead of working with me, medication was used as a band-aid to address perceived “problems.” Studies are finding that diagnoses of attention deficit disorder can often be a symptom of trauma. This is especially prevalent in the communities of Black children, including for those outside the child welfare system. Instead of medication, a bit of TLC and mental health support might have gone a long way. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been medicated had I been paired with a Black foster parent or been involved in the discussions around my health.
Trauma and harm stemming from racial disparities are unfortunately too common. Though Black and brown children are overrepresented in foster care — and are placed in out-of-home care at nearly twice the rate than white children — there are disproportionately fewer Black and brown foster parents. For example, in Washington state, where I grew up, a family outreach specialist wrote in an 2018 op-ed that only 6.5 percent of foster families are Black. This skewed representation — of both children and foster parents — is driven by out-of-home placements. Many communities of color have been harmed by disproportionate investigations that result in the separation of families, prompting distrust and a fear of getting involved in the system themselves.
This trauma is preventable. There are clear steps we can take so other children don’t experience what I did. We need to invest in outreach to communities of color and dismantle the structural racism that builds distrust in the first place by keeping families together. We need to offer cultural competency training for the foster parents of Black and brown youth who aren’t able to be placed with Black and brown families. The daily experiences of children of color are accompanied by unique needs and struggles. We need support within the child welfare system to acknowledge these differences, break down barriers, and get children the services they need for mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Given the disparity in how communities of color are overpoliced and targeted, this is a matter of physical safety. It’s essential to have the talk, explaining to foster youth that they may be perceived differently and how they might be at more risk than other kids. Similarly, children need to be educated and involved in their own healthcare. With age-appropriate language, we can educate children on difficult topics that can develop as they age. Cultural training, including teaching foster parents how to have these conversations, is critical to decreasing racial disparities within the child welfare system.
I have fought for the self-love I now possess and work to ensure other foster children have the support necessary so that self-love is cultivated through their entire foster care experience. Through community conversations and involvement in organizations driving policy change, I hope to be a source of support to youth experiencing foster care, so they don’t have to navigate it alone. We can reimagine the child welfare system into a child well-being system that provides holistic support for each child. No one should experience the racism that affects many youth in care today. We can begin to counter racial inequity by acknowledging the different needs of youth and providing the support that they need.
After spending most of her childhood in foster care, Brittney aspires to utilize her growth and knowledge gained from resilience, community involvement, and employment opportunities to help other youth who have experienced foster care. Brittney hopes to work from the inside to come up with simple solutions to counteract racial inequity and institutionalized, structural racism that affects all youth in foster care today. She is a leader at FosterClub, a national network for young people from foster care.