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Minding the Child 

Why are so many African-American children languishing in the state's foster care system?

Eighteen-year-old Bernard Dayshawn Marton has a good head on his shoulders. The senior at Lakewood Charter School in Burlington is a hard worker who has foregone typical teenage extracurricular activities to work odd jobs and prepare for the future. He is responsible, as indicated by the sizable savings he's accumulated toward college. And he is accomplished, as evidenced by the recognition he's received for his academic performance, writing and poetry. In October, the aspiring writer was awarded a scholarship by the Black Butterfly Fund for taking first place in its annual poetry contest.

It would be natural to assume that Marton's admirable qualities and positive outlook are the result of his upbringing. But that would be wrong. Ironically, they are in spite of it. Since being abandoned by his single mother at age 7--his father, according to what his mother told him, has been incarcerated since he was a baby--he has been a ward of the state. Marton, who goes by Dayshawn, has bounced between countless foster families and group homes without ever being adopted. He has gotten into trouble, including a court appearance for shoplifting. Growing up in North Carolina's child welfare system, Marton had every reason to turn out bad.

"You have a lot of fears when you're a kid in the system," says Marton, shaking his head.

Today, the lanky teen relaxes behind a table at his current group home, the Elon Home for Children in Burlington. After years of being angered by and ashamed of his foster status--he customarily had schoolmates drop him off at the local mall rather than at his group home, since he was scared they'd find out about his living situation--Marton has developed a new understanding. "I realized I just couldn't keep all my thoughts and emotions about being in the system inside," he says. "Once I opened up, I felt like I was free."

As a member of the foster youth advocacy group SAYSO, or Strong Able Youth Speak Out, Marton has opened up about his experiences to other youth in the state system.

SAYSO, which recruited him for the program, sends him regularly to regional and statewide conferences to talk with kids, parents, social workers and policy-makers about what he's faced in the system. And as one of the many African Americans in foster care statewide, he has a lot to talk about.

"I was snatched from a lot of places," says Marton, who in his first five years in the system was placed in 10 foster or group homes. "I found it hard to maintain friendships because I was constantly lying about my situation. I spent most of my time feeling left out."

Unfortunately, Marton is not alone. According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, there are close to 11,000 kids in out-of-home care--foster, residential (group home) and formal kinship care (youth living with relatives under state supervision)--as a result of neglect, abuse or abandonment. Nearly half of these children are African-American, though blacks represent roughly 27 percent of the 19-and-under population statewide. On average, black kids stay in the system over five months longer than whites.

Like any institution, the system has been slow at trying to change those numbers. The disparity has existed for at least two decades. But some say that's changing.

"It's a top priority for our division," says Chuck Harris, the director of Children's Services for the state Division of Social Services (DSS). There has been progress, says Harris, noting that for the first time in his seven-year leadership of the branch, the percentage of black foster youth in the state has dipped under 50. He also notes that the amount of time kids like Marton are spending in care is decreasing. A cautiously pleased Harris adds, "We still have a long way to go."

As for Marton, he has come a long way.

"Many people like to focus on the bad things that you've done or been through in your life," he says. "I like to focus on the positive things I can achieve."

Getting Lucky
Eleven years ago, Clare Little brought her two boys to Greensboro from Detroit to visit her sick mother. A month after they arrived, her mother died. A week later, Marton's financially struggling mother dropped him and his older half-brother Clay Little at a neighbor's place, walked out the door and never came back. "I'm not sure why she left us," says Marton, noting that he later found out she had returned to Detroit.

Though she tried for the better part of a year, the poverty-stricken neighbor was unable to take care of the children. Late in 1991, the brothers were removed from the home by the Guilford County DSS, separated, and placed with foster families outside of Greensboro. The arrangement wouldn't last long. A short time after being placed, the two hatched a plan and ran away.

"We wanted to be together," says Marton. At one point, he remembers, they shared a Popsicle for dinner since it was all they could afford.

Hungry and tired, the boys turned themselves in to social services after a week on the run. Again they were separated, and again they ran away, only to turn themselves in and be separated a third time.

Over the next three years, Marton was shuffled from one foster home to another. His resentment over his abandonment and instability took a toll on his behavior. He began breaking into cars and shoplifting. "I was confused, and that made me angry," says Marton. "I was bouncing from place to place and I didn't know where my mother was. I felt I belonged with my family."

In 1994, Marton and his brother were finally placed in a Greensboro group home together. But all was not well.

"We harassed a lot of people," says Marton, shaking his head. "We used to pour toothpaste on people and throw things at them just to mess with their heads."

In 1995, 12-year-old Dayshawn and his 13-year-old brother Clay were placed in Youth Profile, a group home in Greensboro. At the time it seemed like just another placement, but for Dayshawn the choice was pivotal.

"[Marton] was a very angry and disturbed young man," recalls Al McBride, owner of the residential facility. Marton, says McBride, was "extremely argumentative. He always wanted to have the last word."

The first two years at Youth Profile produced little change in Marton's behavior. But at the start of the third, he recognized something he hadn't experienced since his mother abandoned him: stability. The group facility was committed to providing Marton a steady home--especially given that teens are less likely to be adopted than younger children and, therefore, more likely to remain in the system--and to work with him on improving his behavior.

"The stability helped a lot," says William Matthews, the home's lead counselor. "He became familiar with everyone, and everyone cared for him. He was more secure when he realized he wasn't going anywhere."

Finally, Marton had caught a break. The same system that had separated Marton from his brother and bounced him from place to place now provided him with elements of the normal family life he'd been missing. The caring staff and McBride's paternal "tough love"--the military veteran imposed structured behavioral goals, using privileges as incentives and emphasizing the consequences of one's actions--started paying off. Marton even began to view McBride and his wife as his parents. It is a view he still holds.

Though he still caused his share of trouble, gradually he made progress. "Change was a long process," says McBride, noting that it took Marton several years to adjust to the program. "In this type of business, you deal with behaviors that are acquired over a long period," he continues. "You just can't fix that overnight."

Stability also came through his relationship with his social worker, Trinette Redinger, who had worked with him for the past four years. Prior to her, Marton had been assigned 12 social workers in five years. Marton credits Youth Profile and Redinger with teaching him how to walk away from trouble, how to "keep his mouth closed," and how to recognize the consequences of his actions.

Redinger recalls that when she first met Marton, he was in trouble with the law. "He's let people help him, and he's grown," Redinger says. "He has a very positive attitude, has set goals. I'm very proud of him."

Redinger is still assigned to Marton, but that almost changed. Two years ago, Redinger told him that she was being reassigned. Marton immediately wrote a letter to Guilford County social services explaining how she had helped him, and requesting that she remain as his caseworker.

Redinger laughs when she recalls the incident. "Yes, he did write the letter. That's Bernard."

Source of the Problem
In 1980, amid growing recognition of deficiencies in state child welfare systems, Congress passed the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. The law gave states monetary and other incentives to decrease the length of a child's stay in care. Social workers stepped up efforts to reunite kids with their biological families, encouraging adoption as a last resort. By 1986, the number of children in out-of-home care nationwide dropped by nearly half the level of a decade earlier, to roughly 300,000.

That same year, a dramatic new trend took hold, and the numbers shot upward again. Social programs were cut back just as the AIDS and crack cocaine epidemics exploded, and a disproportionate number of black families were affected. The National Black Child Development Institute (NBCDI), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, began collecting data on the number of African-American kids in the foster care system. Along with highlighting the affects of poverty and drug use, the two-year study concluded that "black children in foster care too frequently languish anonymously" for long periods, with "little attention directed to their needs, and inadequate services devoted to their families."

In North Carolina, some folks had already reached this conclusion. In 1980, similar concerns had inspired the creation of North Carolina Friends of Black Children, a private nonprofit group committed to helping social workers find adoptive families for black children. In 1995, a second organization was formed, Another Choice for Black Children. Both had a dramatic impact on black adoption rates in the state, but the problem persisted.

The following year, while operating under the Families for Kids (FFK) initiative--a public-private partnership spearheaded by the Kellogg Foundation to reduce the number of children in foster care--the state Division of Social Services and several private nonprofits stepped up the initiative's special focus on kids of color. Funds were provided to a small number of counties to address the overrepresentation of minority children in the system and expedite their placement. State Division of Social Services officials give it credit for decreasing the numbers and lengths of stay of black children, but many believe the true purpose of the program was to focus attention on the problem.

Meanwhile, in 1997, Congress got into the act, passing the Adoption and Safe Families Act. This required counties to initiate the termination of the birth parents' rights after a child has spent 15 months in the system. The legislation intended for states to forego lengthy attempts at reuniting children with their birth families so that children could be freed for adoption faster.

In Wake County, state officials began monitoring the county's system in late 1999 after data from fiscal year 1996/97 revealed that Wake's foster kids--who are close to 70 percent African-American--spent a state-high median of 788 days in foster care. The state median at the time was 403 days. The numbers have since improved in Wake County, with the median stay dropping to 644 days (vs. 370 days statewide), but the pressure for improvement remains.

Last September, the Children's Services arm of Legal Services of North Carolina asked a Wake County District Court judge for access to confidential records of children who have spent over three and a half years in the system. The nonprofit lawyers' group seeks to ensure that the rights of these children to federally-guaranteed health, mental health and special education services under Medicaid are being met, given these lengthy stays. A recent brief by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. revealed that foster youth have disproportionately high Medicaid expenditures, and are more likely to have a mental health or substance abuse condition than other Medicaid-enrolled children.

"All we are doing is offering to provide free services to kids who have stayed in the system for far too long," says Lewis Pitts, director of Legal Services' Advocates for Children. "The request for records is merely the mechanism through which we determine who needs the most help, and how we can provide it legally."

The judge dismissed the petition in November, a decision which Legal Services has appealed.

Poverty and Bias
Why do so many of the state's African-American youth have to be in foster care in the first place? And once there, why do they stay in the system longer than white children?

A number of studies have linked the stress created by living in poverty with an increased incidence of child abuse. The National Black Child Development Institute study found that "overcrowded and inadequate housing are fertile conditions for child abuse or neglect."

Poverty affects the numbers in other ways. Division of Social Services justifications that precipitate the removal of a child from a family, such as "insufficient supervision" or "failure to provide for the basic needs" can be a result of the absence of an affordable daycare provider or a lack of safe or decent housing.

"There may be times when we disproportionately bring African-American children into the system due to poverty issues," suggests Chuck Harris, director of the Children's Services Department at DSS. "I am worried about that dynamic, especially given that the majority of kids in the system are there due to neglect, and the majority of these kids are African-American.

"County child welfare staff must receive 72 hours of training before they can work with families," Harris explains. "Issues of cultural diversity and respect are interwoven throughout the curriculum."

Nevertheless, many believe that social workers are removing kids from homes based on an inaccurate or insensitive perception of risk. "Differences in culture can sometimes affect a social worker's perception of abuse and neglect," says Al Deitch, deputy director of the state Youth Advocacy and Involvement Office.

A lack of cultural awareness or the existence of bias on the behalf of caseworkers can affect initial removal decisions. Such considerations can also affect which families get referrals to effective prevention services, aimed at avoiding the removal of a child, and reunification services, aimed at putting the family back together. State figures show whites are roughly twice as likely as blacks to receive such services--which may contribute to why there are twice as many blacks in the system as compared to their percentage of representation in the population as a whole.

Such cultural concerns may be further exacerbated by the lack of diversity at the policy-shaping levels of social services.

"If you look around the state at the 100 departments of social services, only a few have African-American directors," says Deitch. "I'm not saying that hiring an African American director is a panacea, but clearly we could be doing better. Especially since the majority of the people passing through DSS doors are African-American."

A Plan that Works
Like Youth Profile in Greensboro, Charlotte-based Another Choice for Black Children feels like a home. The adoption agency is headquartered in a converted single-family house, its walls covered with pictures of smiling children. Ruth Amerson, its director and chief executive officer, is warm and welcoming, like a proud mother.

A Sanford native and longtime social worker, Amerson believes that inflexibility and insensitivity cause most public agencies to have an antagonistic relationship with families. Strict education and income requirements combined with poor service and accessibility, she says, keep many black families out of the adoption process.

"At Another Choice, we write our assessments from a strength-based model," says Amerson, noting her lack of reliance on such traditional adoption requirements. Though she admits things like education and income are important, Amerson believes in developing relationships with prospective parents to uncover less quantifiable assets, such as determination, spirituality and leadership.

"My family was poor, and my mother only had a high school education," says Amerson, who was one of 10 children. Her parents were tenant farmers, and four of her "siblings" were neighborhood kids whose parents were either deceased or too ill to care for them. "But they sure did a wonderful job of raising all of us," she says. "That's something these agencies can't understand."

Mary Sanders is a single mom who adopted two teenage girls from the agency three years ago. Because of her single status, the Wake County bus driver initially thought she couldn't meet any adoption agency requirements. After being referred by a friend to Another Choice and being introduced to the process, she thought otherwise. "They're very supportive," says Sanders. "They were there holding my hand every step of the way."

While the child welfare establishment regards adoption scenarios like Sanders' as nontraditional, Amerson believes that such arrangements not only work, but are anchored in tradition. As a people, she says, black folks have historically and successfully taken care of their own, regardless of means.

"When I first started out as a social worker, I was immediately introduced to the myth which states that 'black folks do not adopt,'" recalls Amerson. She knew this to be untrue, given her recognition of her community's use of informal kinship care--the practice of taking in relatives or neighborhood children similar to her own family's experience, but not recorded by the state. She knew the key to formally bringing such families together was to eliminate the institutional attitudes and obstacles hampering the process. Another Choice promotes respect for its clients and accessibility. The staff provides adoptive families with their home phone numbers and offers evening hours to avoid conflict with a client's working hours.

"Our families often tell us 'you don't act like those other agencies,'" says Amerson. "And we respond, 'that's right, because we do what works for us.'"

"Their approach is key," agrees Chuck Harris of the state Division of Social Services. Another Choice is one of 20 private agencies that the state contracts with for adoption services. But as for its success rate in placing black children, Another Choice stands alone.

Since its doors opened in January 1995, the nonprofit has found homes for nearly 400 children, about 65 per year. To put that in perspective, in state fiscal year 1995/96, a total of 305 black kids were adopted in the entire state, including those arranged by Another Choice. The numbers are more significant when considering the agency finds homes for those labeled "hard to place": siblings, children over five years old and "special needs"--those with significant emotional and/or medical problems. The agency has been recognized as a model by social service institutions around the country.

Though the agency has experienced success, Amerson is quick to point out the ongoing obstacles that make her job more difficult. She feels that too many African-American children are being taken out of their homes, and that biased investigative practices on the part of intervening social workers contributes to the large number of foster children in need of placement. She suggests that more black families can be preserved if "agencies can take a better look at families on the front end," instead of unnecessarily placing kids in the system due to a lack of cultural awareness.

Noted psychologist Dr. Ellen Pinderhughes suggests the same. "The traditional service delivery model," she wrote in a 1990 paper, "reflects a homogeneous, middle-class and white standard as a measure of their client's functioning. (Those) who operate from such a framework make assessments with little awareness of the impact that this standard, combined with their own cultural background, has on decision making."

Lengthy foster care stays also add to placement difficulties. "Children that have been in the system for a long time are not going to make it easy on our adoptive parents," says Amerson, noting her agency's equal commitment to post-adoption services. "We try to prepare our families for that."

Apparently, they do so with some success. Less than 1 percent of Another Choice's adoptive placements are interrupted prior to the finalization of the legal adoption process.

Ultimately, this down-to-earth approach goes a long way when making homes for children.

"We're just everyday folk who know there are children out there who need families," says Amerson, with a casual shrug and a smile. "And we know that everyday-folk make the best kind of parents for our kids."

Survivor
Dayshawn Marton never had the opportunity to have those kind of parents, but with luck he has managed to move on. He no longer lives at the Youth Profile group facility in Greensboro--he moved out a year ago so he could live near his current school--but Marton maintains a close relationship with the staff. "Whenever I visit, I still feel the love," he says. "That place is like home to me."

He faces an uncertain future, given that foster youth age out of the system on their eighteenth birthday, and he is finishing up his last high-school semester. Even though he has saved money and is preparing for college, the transition from the system to the "outside world" is known to be a tough one. A 1998 report by the state Division of Social Services acknowledges that "far too many (foster youth) end up in prison, in mental hospitals or in the homeless population." Though there are independent living programs designated to youth leaving the system, state funding is limited.

Meanwhile, Marton has decided to go it on his own. Recently, he was given the opportunity to go home to Detroit. Three months ago, an aunt in Michigan sent him and his brother one-way plane tickets. She encouraged them to live with her. Clay accepted, Marton didn't. "There's nothing for me in Detroit," he says, dismissively. "I'd rather chill by myself. That's the best way to do it anyway.

"I don't ever want people to feel sorry for me or for what I've been through," says Marton, knitting his brows. "I want them to see me as a survivor." EndBlock

Staff writer Damien Jackson is also a Journalism Fellow at the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute (NCCAI). NCCAI contributed to this story.

  • Black kids spend longer in foster care than white kids--but there are solutions to the problem.

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