Racial Disparities in Foster Care: Invest in Families of Color

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A groundbreaking new report in Tennessee examines racial imbalances in the state’s foster care system with the goal of supporting solutions to address these disparities going forward. Research from the last several decades shows that nationwide, African American children are both more likely to enter foster care and remain longer than white children.

This report, released by Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, indicates that while Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has made tremendous progress during the 17-year effort to reform its child welfare system, a greater focus on community investment could reduce racial disparities in outcomes for children of color statewide.

Children’s Rights has long advocated for targeted efforts to reduce racial disparities in Tennessee. As part of Brian A. v. Haslam, a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2000 by Children’s Rights and co-counsel, specific reforms we fought for included expanding recruitment efforts to increase African American foster homes, offering subsidized guardianship instead of terminating parental rights, maintaining a diverse workforce with cultural competency training, and a focus on analyzing performance data by race.

Thanks to detailed and transparent state records, Tennessee has now identified some of the racial disparities at play for children of color. For example, there was a significant racial disparity in adoption in the Tennessee foster care system for children who have been in the system for several years. For children who spent two years or more in the foster care system, white children were more than three times more likely to get adopted than black children, a concerning outcome. This statistic is consistent with national data trends on adoption from foster care: 16.1% of black children in foster care for 2 years or longer were adopted compared 22.4% of white children.

The report also uncovered areas of progress toward addressing systemic racial disparities. Black children in Tennessee were more likely to be reunited with their families compared to white children: 10.9% of black children in care for two years or less were reunified compared to only 6.4% of white children. Nationally, where there has been virtually no difference in reunification for black children as compared to white children in foster care for two years or less.  Additionally, the report found that more than 90% of children leave the system with a permanent status (reunification, guardianship, or adoption) and most youth aging out of custody met one or more measures of educational or employment achievement.

Children’s Rights strongly supports investment to preserve and support families in their home communities. As the report underscores, there is a strong need for further discussion and strategic action to address racial imbalances and maximize positive outcomes for children—and those solutions could vary from one region to another.

“These findings call for a regional focus on solutions and a much deeper investment in the front end of the system,” said Ira Lustbader, litigation director at Children’s Rights. “Tennessee’s child welfare leadership has recognized this urgent need, but going forward the state must invest more in community-based supports for families so that children, especially children of color, are not needlessly taken from their families in the first place.

“At its heart, child welfare reform must be about supporting families.”

For more information, please visit childrensrights.org/Tennessee. To learn more about DCF’s specific reforms between 2000 and 2017, see the Brian A. v. Halsam Fact Sheet.