The rising number of children in foster care points out how Illinois fails Black women and their families

Publisher: Andi Durbin

family playing on lawn

As we stand at the intersection of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it’s time we examine a system that has an ugly history for Black women. The child welfare system, or foster care as it is known, separates parents from their children following allegations of abuse or neglect. In this country, forcible family separation has its roots in slavery; as Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome demonstrates, that toxic legacy still reverberates today.

Black families are twice as likely to be investigated and Black children are more than 2.5 times as likely to be taken into protective custody than white or Hispanic children, according to the latest analysis by the Child and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois School of Social Work. Racial disparities continue throughout children’s experience in the foster care system, with Black children more than three times as likely to languish in care for more than 36 months.

In Illinois, 62% of children in foster care are there due to neglect — families having problems caring for their children. Physical abuse trails far behind as a reason for children being taken away from their parents. A reasonable person might look at those racial disparities and the overwhelming reason children come into care and conclude that child welfare punishes parents for lacking the resources to care for their children, with Black parents disproportionately policed by the child welfare system.

On the day before the Illinois state budget impasse began in 2015, Illinois had 17,308 children in foster care. By the end of this fiscal year, Governor J.B. Pritzker is predicting that we will have more than 23,200 children in care – an astonishing and heartbreaking 34% increase in the number of children separated from their families in just a few years.

And so we must ask ourselves, why is this? What is driving this rapid increase in the number of children entering foster care?

Child protection data, including investigations and intakes into foster care, are lagging indicators of how well our human services infrastructure performs when it comes to supporting families facing challenges. When our human services system is working, families get the help they need, and children do not experience abuse or neglect.

The services that help struggling families build a strong foundation for themselves and their children are the very ones that were targeted by then-Governor Bruce Rauner when he embarked on his hostage-taking strategy five years ago by denying payment to those providing services under state contract. Housing. Mental health care. Addiction treatment. Domestic violence. Crisis intervention. Services to help runaway and homeless youth. Early childhood and home visiting supports. Employment programs. These and many other services that help people achieve wellbeing and realize their potential so they can contribute back to our community were gutted.

After two years with no state budget and no payment to community providers for the work they did, the availability of services began to collapse. By the end of the budget impasse, child welfare investigations and intakes into foster care began to surge upwards – a trend that has not reversed itself. Black families have disproportionately suffered as a result.

Human services had just started the long process of rebuilding when COVID-19 struck, leaving a weakened infrastructure challenged to provide essential services to children and families during a pandemic.

In the absence of an adequate human services system, we have a child welfare system that polices women, especially Black women, in their homes and punishes them by taking their children away for being poor and without resources. Once we break those families apart, we do a poor job of reuniting them. Sadly, Illinois is one of the worst states in the nation for lengths of stay in the foster care system, perpetuating the intergenerational trauma of family separation.

Rather than punishing struggling parents, we should be helping them. When children come into foster care, we put them in safe and stable homes with caregivers who receive training and support from case workers. We supply the foster caregivers with money to feed and clothe the children, and we make sure that they get healthcare, counseling, and education.

We would all benefit if we made those same kinds of investments into the wellbeing of children and families before a child experiences neglect. Instead of spending more than a billion dollars a year on child protection and policing of families in their homes, we could be helping parents create safety and stability there. We could interrupt this expensive and escalating intergenerational cycle of family separation, trauma, and neglect, and replace it with a system that helps parents construct strong foundations for their families.

This would be a meaningful way to acknowledge Black women’s histories and to repair the damage done to Black families.

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