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For black children, we all need to ‘do better’
Don't dwell on the debate about that "Hot Ghetto Mess," the BET show with demeaning black images; dwell instead on the message, "We Got to Do Better," as the last-minute name change of the video-vacuous show implores.
I'm not jawboning about a fake television show or gangsta rap lyrics either; I'm talking about the urgent need "to do better" by black children. And it doesn't really matter what the color of your skin is. We can all do something to make the lot of the nation's statistically most vulnerable children and teens better by becoming a truly family-friendly society.
I am so tired of reading statistics in study after study that indicate far too many black children continue to fall through the cracks and hardly have a chance before their young lives get started. Plenty of blame can be passed around.
One place to start is in the home. We have to do a better job of making sure that our children, especially those placed in the foster-care system, are safe and have the tools they need to grow up with the kinds of family connections that are so important to how we turn out as adults, as a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation rightfully recommends.
The foundation released its annual Kids Count report earlier this week. While the research suggests that national trends in child well-being have improved slightly since 2000, the outcomes for black children are worse on every one of the 10 indicators studied.
"Tragically, the overrepresentation of children of color is evident at all points in the child welfare system," said Douglas W. Nelson, president of the Casey Foundation. "African-American children currently remain in foster care for significantly longer periods of time than white children. And once in the foster care system, families of color receive fewer services, have less contact with child welfare workers and experience lower reunification rates with their families than white children do."
This year, the Kids Count study turned its spotlight on the child welfare system, and the numbers do not compute or chart well for black children in the D.C. area or elsewhere.
For example: "On a single day in 2005, 32 percent of the children in foster care were African-American, though African-American kids make up only 15 percent of all the children in the United States," the study says.
However, "national studies have shown no statistically significant differences in overall maltreatment rates between black and white families." In fact, the research has shown in some jurisdictions that black families are more likely to be reported for abuse than white families in similar situations. Black children who are victims of abuse are 36 percent more likely than white victims to be removed from their families and placed in foster care.
The studies also show that children of color stay longer in foster care; 23 percent of the black children who entered care in 2000 stayed for three or more years, compared with 13 percent of the white children.
"We need to do more work to help families where they are," said Kinaya Sokoya, executive director of the D.C. Children's Trust Fund. She is grateful for the Casey Foundation study for spotlighting a problem "that's been going on for some time."
Yes, we want the system to keep our children safe and to get them out of harm's way if they are in an abusive or dangerous situation. Rescue is absolutely the first requirement. But the longer a child bounces around in foster care, the less likely he or she will be successful as an adult.
So what of family reunification? None of this even begins to speak to the problems associated with foster care children who "age out" and are sent out into the streets on their own once they reach the meaningless age of 18.
Ms. Sokoya's organization focuses on about 100 young people who "age out" or grow out of the foster care system each year without a permanent family. Their tracking statistics indicate that while more babies, toddlers and younger children are being placed with family members, more teenagers are sent to wander the streets, sometimes voluntarily.
As for "overwhelmed parents" who may have children with challenging behavioral problems or medical problems, Ms. Sokoya said, here is where governmental agencies could do more to help curtail and prevent problems before separation becomes necessary. Parents should not have to sign forms admitting they are neglectful in order to secure help, as they do now, she added.
In the past five years, the trend has been to attempt to keep children and their parents together or place them with relatives first. Ms. Sokoya said the District now conducts "family group conferences" to mediate things such as guardianship and child care within the existing, often extended, family structure.
As the Casey Foundation also suggests, lawmakers can do more to provide financial assistance to family members, such as grandmothers who end up raising their children's children rather than see them separated and sent off to strangers. In that way, the children may be able to stay in familiar surroundings.
We've all come such a long way from the "Hot Ghetto Mess." But reports such as Kids Count remind us how much further we have to go "to do better."
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