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First You Have to Gain Our Trust
Parents’ prescriptions for keeping kids of color out of foster care.

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Illustration by Kaite Martin and Frank Malkum

The Birth Parent National Network, coordinated by the Children’s Trust and Prevention Funds, connects parent leaders nationwide. Here, BPNN members Jeffrey Mays, parent partner at the Public Children Services Association of Ohio in Cleveland; Shrounda Selivanoff, parent advocate at Evergreen Manor Inpatient Treatment and volunteer at Catalyst for Kids in Washington State; and Piazadora Footman, editorial assistant at Rise in New York, share parents’ perspectives on how to bring fewer children of color into the system.

1. Make It Safe to Ask for Help

Piazadora: I’ve seen so many people in my community lose their children, including my own mother, that when I get that knock on the door, I already feel like I’ve lost.

It’s hard to be a parent when you’re feeling scared. When I got my son back from foster care, I was so afraid that if I gave him a timeout, he’d start screaming, someone would call child protective services, and I’d lose all my children. I couldn’t even discipline him. If he felt like he needed cookies at midnight, I’d give them to him. If he didn’t do his homework, I’d say, “Fine, don’t do it.”

If child welfare systems want fewer kids of color in foster care, they have to let parents know about services before something goes wrong. There have to be good services in our neighborhoods. And parents need to know they’re not going to get a case because they asked for help!

2. Partner with Communities of Color

Jeffrey: Before my kids went into foster care, I never would have gone to the child welfare system for anything, not even food. When they sent their trucks with their logo on the side into our neighborhood, the first thing I’d think is: “Someone is getting ready to get their kids removed.” I really hated the system and all I wanted was to get them out of my hair.

That was my attitude until the day they came and asked me to help them change the system by becoming a parent partner. I truly believe that attitudes in our communities can change—if child welfare systems change, and partner with us to create supports that make sense to our communities.

3. Help Families Address Poverty

Shrounda: Child protective investigators don’t always seem to understand the pressures that poverty can put on a family.

Piazadora: When my son was in foster care, I couldn’t work because I was in programs five days a week, but I still had to pay a portion of my rent. I was always running to appointments, and a lot of times I didn’t have carfare, but no one seemed to care. That stressed me out.

Shrounda: Here in Washington State, social workers seem not to inform their clients that there are housing resources available to them. But when Black families stay in neighborhoods that are high risk for drugs, and parents aren’t empowered to find ways out of poverty, that contributes to children going back into the system.

4. Understand How Racial Disproportionality Feels

Jeffrey: When I went on visits and I saw more Black families than Whites or Hispanics, I would feel very paranoid. I would look at all the Black kids and wonder if the system got more money for Black kids. I would want my kids to be quiet and for nothing to go wrong. It seemed like the system was expecting me to fail. Just seeing racial disproportionality makes it harder for parents of color to succeed.

5. Address Racial Disporportionality Directly

Shrounda: In Washington State we created a tool for agencies to ask themselves how every new policy might affect different racial groups, and whether those groups were at the table when the policy was created. That’s a good beginning. Systems should also track the number of families of color entering and leaving the system so they can hold themselves accountable.

6. Provide Supports That Matter to Parents

Piazadora: When my daughter was 4, the system sent me to a parenting class where I was taught to burp and swaddle a baby. That was not helpful. In anger management class, I was taught to count to 10 when I really needed meds for my mood swings. I was finally sent to the psych ward, where instead of shoving me into services, people asked me what I needed. My therapist both felt my pain and was tough with me. If parents are going to succeed, they need to feel like someone really knows them—not just as cookie cutouts but as real people.

7. Ensure Parents Have Strong Lawyers

Shrounda: Many parents meet their lawyers for the first time in the courthouse, with no time for the lawyer to learn about them or truly represent them. But good parent representation is critical to protecting families of color, and all families deserve it. My lawyer played a healing role in my successful outcome. He invested in my family, and my family and community benefited.

8. Parents: Organize

Piazadora: A lot has already changed in child welfare because parents are getting together to become knowledgeable about the system and to demand change. As parents of color, we need to keep pushing policymakers across the country to pay attention to disproportionality in child welfare and to make the changes we believe will help our families.

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