Cheri Williams looks back with regret at the start of her career as a child welfare caseworker in 1998. Systemic racism is a major reason why.
“I removed probably about 100 kids from their homes in the 15 months I was an investigator … a lot of them were children of color,” said Williams, who's now a vice president of one of the largest adoption and foster care agencies in the United States.
“Decades later, I realized how much harm I personally have caused," she said. “We’ve learned so much more of the value of supporting families, about implicit bias.”
Bias and racism are widespread in the child welfare system. Black children are taken into foster care at a disproportionately high rate and languish longer before being adopted, reunited with their parents or aging out of the system.
Williams oversees domestic programs for Bethany Christian Services, which released a report Wednesday detailing racial disparities in its programs for the first time and joining in broader calls to combat them. As Black families reel from the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation confronts racial injustice, Bethany’s leaders and others connected to the child welfare system believe the moment has come for fundamental changes, notably through better support for at-risk families so fewer children are removed from their homes on the grounds of neglect.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to say let’s stop the madness of unnecessarily removing kids,” said Ira Lustbader, chief program officer and litigation director at the national advocacy group Children’s Rights. “This is an urgent racial justice issue.”
Bethany's report is the first large-scale study of its foster care work based on a racial breakdown of the children. The study reviewed hundreds of cases from programs in four cities — Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Michigan — comparing trends during the pandemic with those from 2019.
Among the findings: Black children accounted for 32% of the children in Bethany’s programs, compared with 13% of the overall U.S. child population. And compared with white, multiracial and Hispanic children, Black children had the lowest rate of reunification with their biological parents — 19%.
Bethany offered several recommendations, notably that governments at all levels should expand support for at-risk families before a child is removed and intensify efforts to reunify children if they are removed.
Bethany also urged a reevaluation of a 1994 federal law that prohibits child welfare organizations from considering race as a basis for rejecting people who want to adopt or be foster parents.
A major purpose of the law was to enable more white families to adopt Black children from foster care, but Williams said this ostensibly colorblind philosophy “can cause a lot of harm to children of color.”
“It’s been a source of great pain if there wasn't space in their families to have conversations about race,” she said, urging changes in the law so that social workers can assess the ability of parents to undertake a transracial adoption.
Among Black adults who adopt Black children from foster care, there’s often a keen awareness of the system's racial inequities.
Leslie Eason, 42, an attorney in Atlanta, has adopted a teenager from a group home and is close to completing the adoption of one of his friends. Both are 17.
“I don’t want to criticize people who are trying to do good, but I think these group homes are terrible places,” Eason said. “It ends up being a place of last resort, with no resources to help these youths become the people they need to become.”
Another Atlanta woman, Bridgette Griffin, has adopted a 3-year-old Black girl from foster care and been a foster parent to many other children, including teenage girls and babies.
Griffin had two stints in foster care as a child, totaling about 12 years, before she left the system at 19 and worked for several years in a strip club. Things changed after she started volunteering at a group home and enjoyed working with the girls.
Though she thrives on being a foster mom, she sees traces of racism ingrained in the child welfare system.
“You see the difference in the courts — two kids coming in for the same type of neglect,” she said. “The judge looks at them differently, the social workers deal with them differently. There’s more sympathy for the white parents, unfortunately. ... It’s not fair.”
Bethany was founded in Michigan in 1944, initially operating an orphanage in Grand Rapids before expanding into adoption and foster care. It now provides services in more than 30 states and nearly a dozen countries.
It is the nation’s largest evangelical Christian child welfare agency, and over the decades, was viewed warily by some children’s rights advocates for policies they perceived as too heavily focused on adoption instead of family preservation. Bethany has evolved in recent years, ending its international adoption programs and announcing that it would begin serving LGBTQ parents nationwide.
“Bethany historically has been an exclusive organization,” Williams said. “We’ve been on a journey to being a much more inclusive one … realizing the value of keeping families together and broadening the coalition of people we're engaging.”
Vivek Sankaran, a University of Michigan law professor who advocates for the rights of children and parents in child welfare cases, said Bethany’s report “gives me hope that we are finally recognizing the harms we have inflicted on families.”
“We need unlikely voices like Bethany to spark this conversation,” he added.
Sankaran says the pandemic has exposed the structural inequities Black people face in housing, employment and criminal justice, which “are the dynamics that drive families into the foster care system.”
He noted that the areas of his hometown of Ann Arbor hardest hit by COVID-19 were Black neighborhoods that also accounted for most of the city’s child welfare cases.
“Child welfare agencies cannot address this on their own,” he said. “They need to link up with other agencies and come up with a more holistic plan.”
Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, said there’s been a surge of concern within his organization about racial issues, prompting a series of virtual town halls for members about racism, white privilege and police reform.
“People are trying to leverage this moment to bring about change,” McClain said.