April 25, 2013— -- Hispanic youth used to represent a disproportionately small number of all the children in foster care. Unfortunately, they're catching up.
The Chronicle of Social Change, a site that covers juvenile justice and child welfare, points out that the longer Latino families are in the United States, the closer they get to everything from incarceration to alcoholism and divorce. This, in part, leads to more Latino kids in the foster care system.
In 1995, 10 percent of Latino children in the United States had substantiated cases of abuse and neglect. By 2010, that share had jumped to 21.4 percent, even though they made up just 16 percent of the country's total population.
Heavily Latino Los Angeles provides a pretty clear picture of the reasons for this increase.
In 2000, 39 percent of the kids under Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services supervision were Latino, meaning they made up 21,350 of the 54,651 kids. This is in a county where nearly half the population was Latino at the time.
In February 2013, there were 20,654 Latino kids in the system. The decrease might sound good, but it's only part of the truth. The number of total kids in foster care dropped dramatically, to 35,109. That means Latino kids made up a much larger share, 59 percent, of kids in the care of the Los Angeles County DCFS, while Latinos still made up about half the county's population.
Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor at the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it's important to note that Latinos are a young population though, so while they make up only about half the population of Los Angeles County, they make up close to two-thirds of children in the county.
Even so, there's been a jump in the percentage of children in the foster care system who are Latino.
"The increase of Latino children in the child welfare system is likely due in part to a growing population of third generation Latino children, who are at greater risk of child welfare involvement than their first and second generation counterparts," University of Illinois at Chicago researcher Alan Dettlaff told the Chronicle.
In other words, Americanization isn't necessarily a good thing.
Consider a 2007 report from the Urban Institute.
"Latino immigrant children, most of them Mexican, made up one percent of Texas' foster care population, but seven percent of the total population. The children of immigrants (second generation) represented eight percent of the foster care population and accounted for 20 percent of the total child population in Texas. Latino children born to Americans represented 33 percent of the foster care population while representing only 22 percent of Texas' overall child population. By the third generation Latino children had gone from a marked under representation to steep overrepresentation."
The Chronicle looks at a number of factors, from drug abuse to divorce, to poverty, to incarceration, to a dearth of mental health services. Interestingly, later generations are likely to see some economic and educational gains, but they still fall prey to these other factors.
But why do the families fall apart? Why are divorce and incarceration rates higher?
Dettlaff told ABC/Univision that one theory has to do with a negotiation "that has to occur between the culture here and their prior culture."
That negotiation, Dettlaff said, can lead to various stresses within families. Traditional ideas about gender roles might be upended, particularly if a woman ends up working, and conflict between parents and the children they feel are assimilating too quickly can lead to divisions.
But there are buffers from the negative consequences of such stresses with the first generation. Even though they are generally more poor and less educated, they are protected from negative acculturation, in some ways, by traditional values. There is more aversion to divorce, for example, and drinking or using drugs. Those values can erode over generations, leaving no buffer. At the same time, this negotiation between cultures continues, which can cause the stress that leads to things like gang violence and drug addiction.
Hayes-Bautista said he suspects media may play a role in creating conflict between U.S.-born Latinos and their foreign-born parents. With the onset of adolescence, he said, kids across all ethnicities begin to think their parents don't know anything. But unlike other adolescents, Latino kids start using social media in English and are hit with the media message that their parents are everything from stupid to illegal.
Maria Quintanilla, executive director of the Latino Family Institute, a nonprofit foster care, adoption and family support agency, said that once they're in the child services system, Latino kids also face specific challenges that deserve more consideration.
Some have grown up speaking Spanish and are placed in English-only households, for example. But there aren't always enough families who speak Spanish or share the same background. This is not to say that a white family is not a good fit, but a child of Mexican heritage may be more comfortable with someone who shares that experience.
Elizabeth Jenkins-Sahlin, a spokeswoman for the Latin American Youth Center, which runs several programs aimed at helping Latino youth in the child welfare system, said language barriers can play a detrimental role as well and believes there's a need for more bilingual workers involved in child welfare and more workers sensitive to the needs of Latino kids.
"More losses create more adverse childhood experiences," Quintanilla said, "and we do not want to create further adversities for children."