African American Children in Foster Care:

HHS and Congressional Actions Could Help Reduce Proportion in Care

GAO-08-1064T: Published: Jul 31, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2008.

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Kay E. Brown
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A significantly greater proportion of African American children are in foster care than children of other races and ethnicities relative to their share of the general population. Given this situation, GAO was asked to analyze the (1) major factors influencing their proportion in foster care, (2) strategies states and localities have implemented that appear promising, and (3) ways in which federal policies may have influenced the proportion of African American children in foster care. This testimony is based on a GAO report issued in July 2007 (GAO-07-816), which included a nationwide survey; a review of research and policies; state site visits; analyses of child welfare data; and interviews with researchers, HHS officials, and other experts. It includes updates where possible.

According to our survey results, key factors contributing to the proportion of African American children in foster care included a higher rate of poverty, challenges in accessing support services, racial bias and distrust, and difficulties in finding appropriate adoptive homes. Families living in poverty have greater difficulty accessing housing, mental health, and other support services needed to keep families stable and children safely at home. Bias or cultural misunderstandings and distrust between child welfare decision makers and the families they serve also contribute to children's removal from their homes into foster care. African American children also stay in foster care longer because of difficulties in recruiting adoptive parents, the lack of services for parents trying to reunify with their children, and a greater reliance on relatives to provide foster care who may be unwilling to terminate the parental rights of the child's parent--as required in adoption--or who need the financial subsidy they receive while the child is in foster care. Most states we surveyed reported using various strategies intended to address these issues, such as building community supports, providing cultural competency training for caseworkers, and broadening the search for relatives to care for children. Researchers and officials also stressed the importance of analyzing data to address the proportion of African American children in care in order to better understand the issue and devise strategies to address it. HHS provides information and technical assistance, but states reported that they had limited capacity to analyze their own data and formulate strategies to address disproportionality. According to our survey, states viewed some federal policies, such as those that promote adoption, as helpful for reducing the proportion of African American children in foster care. However, they also expressed concerns regarding policies that limit the use of federal funds to provide preventive services and support legal guardianship arrangements. As an alternative to adoption, subsidized guardianship is considered particularly promising for helping African American children exit from foster care.

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