Ten years later, very little progress on fixing racial disparity in state's foster care system

SEATTLE – Right now, more than 9,000 Washington kids are in the state’s foster care system. Black children make up 16% of those kids, even though black people make up less than 7% of the state’s population.

In 2008, Washington lawmakers decided it was time to take a closer look at the disproportionate number of children of color within foster care. A committee was formed to find out the problems and suggest solutions. But as Q13 News reports, 10 years later, not much has been done to combat the problem.

“It’s just a joy. He’s three. I mean, I love him,” said foster parent Trey Rabun.

Biology has nothing to do with the chemistry you see in photos of Rabun, his partner, and the foster son.

“I just knew I needed to step up to the plate to do my part to at least give one or two black kids a short or forever home, whatever they needed,” said Rabun.

Along with being a foster parent, Rabun has dedicated his life to trying to fix the disproportionate racial makeup within the state’s foster care system while working at the nonprofit organization Amara.

A report released just last year by research organization Partners for our Children in connection with the University of Washington and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services shows black children are more than twice as likely and Native American children are nearly three times as likely to be placed in foster care compared to white children.

“They’re more likely to get a call to CPS in the first place. More likely to be removed by CPS once they do the investigation. And once in foster care, they’re going to stay in foster care longer, less likely to be returned home, but also less likely to be adopted,” said Rabun.

In 2018, lawmakers funded the Washington State Racial Disproportionality Advisory Committee to track the problem and offer solutions on how to fix it.

But 10 years later…

“The impacts are not as strong as they could be,” said new Department of Children, Youth, and Families Secretary Ross Hunter.

The new state department started on July 1 after Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers wanted an agency that focuses on kids and their success.

“There was dissatisfaction that we were not preventing children from entering the child welfare system,” said Hunter.

A higher rate of poverty among Native American and black children is one of the reasons why they’re more likely to enter foster care. But the committee also found another contributing factor, writing, “…bias or cultural misunderstandings and distrust between child welfare decision makers and the families they serve.”

“There are people struggling with addiction, homelessness, poverty across all races. And so that’s not the reason why kids of color are coming in, because that’s the reason why white kids are coming in as well,” said Rabun.

So after more calls of concern from mandatory reports and more state investigations into allegations of abuse or neglect, “the state’s racial disproportionality committee tells us black and Native American children are more likely to enter the system."

“That’s not something that we really control is how many calls are coming in. What we control is what happens every step after that,” said Hunter.

Hunter says the state can try to control the number of foster care placements and length of stay for children. He also says the state is working on one of the recommendations made by the 'racial disproportionality committee' when it comes to training.

In the committee’s 2016 legislative report, it found the majority of staff members have completed “Prejudice Reduction Workshop Training.”

But Hunter argues the training isn’t reaching everyone in the agency.

“The impacts are not as strong as they could be because there’s too much turnover in the agency. So a lot of what you need to do is training so they recognize that everyone had implicit biases and gives you the cognitive tools to make the decision,” said Hunter.

In the last 10 years since racial disparity has been addressed on a statewide level, Hunter admits there’s plenty of work to be done. But with just a month on the job, he argues he needs more time to fix it.

“I think you should be impatient. I think you should push us to get better on this. Because this is one of the key places where we could make the system work better,” said Hunter.

But Rabun isn’t waiting for the government to fix one part of the problem. While there are more children of color in the state foster care system, there are not enough foster parents of color to match. So Rabun, along with colleagues at Amara, held a panel discussion to encourage more people of color to become foster parents and to dispel myths.

“I don’t own my own home, I live in an apartment -- you’re good. I’m not married, I’m single -- you’re good. I don’t make a lot of money -- you're good,” said Rabun.

He says placing a child in a home that mirrors their cultural identity helps to prepare the child for the real world.

“There’s a set of skills that black youth, especially black boys and teens, need to survive in the world with higher policing rates and being followed around in stores and just really navigating racism as a black person, and every black family has that conversation with their child,” said Rabun.

Rabun argues finding more foster parents of color is really just treating the symptom of the problem. He says the state and community partners need to work to keep kids out of the system in the first place.

Congress just passed the “Families First Act,” which provides more federal dollars to child welfare agencies to help keep families together.

Rabun hopes those federal dollars will help families struggling with addiction, the housing crisis, and other issues and sometimes lead to kids being placed in foster care.