Black children are disproportionately fostered and suffer longer before they are adopted, reunited with their parents, or age out of the system.

Cheri Williams looks back with regret as she began her career as a child social worker in 1998. Systemic racism is a major reason for this.

“I removed probably 100 children from their homes in the 15 months I was an investigator … many of them were children of color,” said Williams, who is now vice president of one of the largest adoption and welfare agencies in the United States Conditions.

“Decades later, I realized how much damage I had personally done,” she said. “We learned so much more about the value of family support, about implicit bias.”

Bias and racism are widespread in the child welfare system. Black children are disproportionately fostered and suffer longer before they are adopted, reunited with their parents, or age out of the system.

Williams oversees domestic programs for Bethany Christian Services, which on Wednesday released a report detailing the racial differences in their programs for the first time and joining broader calls to combat those programs. As black families stagger from that COVID-19 The pandemic and the nation face racial injustice. Bethany’s leaders and others associated with the child welfare system believe the time has come for fundamental change, particularly through better support for vulnerable families, so that fewer children are removed from their homes for neglect.

“It’s a perfect opportunity to say we need to stop the madness of unnecessarily removing children,” said Ira Lustbader, chief program officer and litigation director, Children’s Rights advocacy group. “This is an urgent issue of racial justice.”

Bethany’s report is the first large-scale study of his care work based on a racial breakdown of the children. The study looked at hundreds of cases from programs in four cities – Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, Michigan – and compared trends during the pandemic to those in 2019.

Among the results: Black children made up 32 percent of the children in Bethany’s programs, compared to 13 percent of the entire US child population. And when compared to white, multiracial, and Hispanic children, black children had the lowest reunification rate with their birth parents at 19 percent.

Bethany made several recommendations, in particular that governments at all levels should step up support to families at risk before a child is removed and step up efforts to reunite children when they are removed.

Bethany also pushed for a re-evaluation of a 1994 federal law prohibiting children’s charities from using race as a basis for rejecting people who want to adopt adoptive parents or be foster parents.

A primary purpose of the law was to allow more white families to adopt black foster children, but Williams said this supposedly color-blind philosophy could “cause great harm to children of skin color.”

“It has been a source of great pain when their families have no room for racial discussion,” she said, pushing for legislative changes to allow social workers to assess parents’ ability to conduct transracial adoption.

There is often a strong awareness of the racial inequalities of the system among black adults adopting black foster children.

Leslie Eason, 42, an Atlanta attorney, has adopted a teenage boy from a group home and is about to complete the adoption of one of his friends. Both are 17.

“I don’t want to criticize people who try to do good, but I think these group houses are terrible places,” said Eason. “It is a last resort, with no resources to help these youngsters become the people they need to be.”

Another Atlanta woman, Bridgette Griffin, adopted a three-year-old black foster girl and was foster parent to many other children, including teenage girls and babies.

Griffin had two positions in nursing as a child, about 12 years in total, before leaving the system at 19 and working in a strip club for several years. Things changed after she volunteered at a group home and enjoyed working with the girls.

Although she lives from being a foster mother, she sees traces of racism in the child care system.

“You see the difference in the courts – two children come up for the same kind of neglect,” she said. “The judge sees them differently, the social workers treat them differently. Unfortunately, there is more sympathy for the white parents … It’s not fair. “

Founded in Michigan in 1944, Bethany initially ran an orphanage in Grand Rapids before turning to adoption and foster care. The company now offers services in more than 30 states and almost a dozen countries.

It is the largest Evangelical Christian child protection agency in the country and has been viewed with caution over the decades by some child rights advocates for policies they felt were too much geared towards adoption rather than family preservation. Bethany has evolved over the past few years, ending its international adoption programs and announcing that it will serve LGBTQ parents nationwide.

“Bethany has historically been an exclusive organization,” said Williams. “We were moving towards a much broader … we realized the importance of keeping families together and expanding the coalition of people we hire.”

Vivek Sankaran, a University of Michigan law professor who campaigns for child and parent rights in child welfare cases, said Bethany’s report “gives me hope that we will finally see the harm we have done to families.”

“We need unlikely voices like Bethany to spark this conversation,” he added.

According to Sankaran, the pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities blacks face in terms of housing, employment and criminal justice. This is “the dynamic that drives families into the care system”.

He noted that the areas of his hometown, Ann Arbor, were hardest hit COVID-19 were black neighborhoods that were also responsible for most of the child welfare cases in the city.

“Children’s charities cannot do this alone,” he said. “You need to connect with other agencies and come up with a more holistic plan.”

Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, said concerns about racial issues had increased in his organization, leading to a series of virtual town halls for members about racism, white privilege and police reform.

“People are trying to use this moment to make change,” said McClain.

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