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Foster care system needs to address racial disparities, say experts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In St. Louis, 913 children who lack a permanent place to call home depend on the city's foster care system. Of those roughly 900 children, 815, or 89 percent, are African American.

The metropolitan area has a total of 1,800 children in foster care, and 1,400 of these children are African American.

"That should take our breath away," Court Appointed Special Advocate program manager Cheryl Latham said of the statistics.

The over-representation of African-American children in foster care in the St. Louis area was the subject of a panel discussion organized by Voices for Children, a group advocating for foster children, Wednesday night at Harris Stowe State University.

Disproportionality is a major problem not only in the St. Louis area but throughout the country. Nationally, black children make up 33.9 percent of the children in foster care, although African Americans represent only 15 percent of the general population., according to the National Poverty Center.

The panelists discussed various causes, with general agreement that poverty, lack of education and social circumstances contributed to the disparities.

"We have parents now who are between the ages of 15 and 20," Judge Robin Ransom Vannoy of the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri, said. "When you read file after file after file, I came to the conclusion that they're not bad parents, they're just uneducated parents."

Vannoy said that by the time young parents reach an age when they are more competent parents, their children may no longer listen to them because they may not have been the best parents during the child's formative years.

Katrina Taylor, CEO and executive director of Katrina Taylor & Associates Counseling and Social Services, was a member of the audience. She attributed disproportionality to cultural disconnection, economics and homelessness.

"A lot of my kids come into care for economic poverty, not living in proper housing, and the whole homelessness issue," Taylor said.

Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition, warned that cultural biases can play a role in children entering foster care. She added that the city is working to keep these biases out of the decision-making process.

In and of itself, "poverty is not a reason for a kid to come into foster care," she said.

One solution discussed on Wednesday night involves better training of social workers.

"We have to begin with one worker at a time," Richard King, CEO of Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center, said. "There has to be a point where all workers are trained to become culturally competent, especially when it comes to the disproportionality issue."

Elaine Smith, program manager of Children's Division in St Louis, said the children's division has already made steps to address disparity. The division uses a "consult," which requires a worker conducting an assessment to discuss with a supervisor why it is necessary to bring a particular child into care.

Other organizations are trying to help solve problems, such as "aging out" -- or turning 21 and no longer qualifying to receive help from foster care.

Black children, on average, stay in foster care longer than white children, and are less likely to be adopted and more likely to age out of the system, Latham said at the panel.

Those who age out of foster care are at serious risk of homelessness, unemployment and delinquency, King said.

"When they age out of the system without any familial support, any insurance, a job or anywhere to live they face significant challenges unless they have been able to develop independence," Judge Jimmie Edwards, presiding family court judge for the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court of Missouri, said in an interview.

"Just because you turn 21 doesn't mean you have matured and have the ability to take of yourself," Edwards added.

Epworth Children & Family Services recently began a program to develop self-suffiency in teens in foster care. The program uses peer advisors, successful youths who aged out, to help teens graduate from high school and learn life skills.

The program follows the youths for three years; it recently completed its first cycle.

"A full 70 percent are expected to graduate high school," said Kevin Drollinger, Epworth's executive director. "The average in the St. Louis region is less than that for children of their socio-economic group."

Ingrid Gibson, who attended the discussion, hopes to start Emancipation House, a residential living facility for youths who have aged out of foster care.

"What we will do is help them become active in the community," Gibson said. "Whether it's going to school to be a lawyer or a doctor, a fire fighter, whatever the case may be."

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