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Decreasing racial disparity in permanency: a conversation with Tatenda Perry

Tatenda Perry

Tatenda Perry, MSW, LCSW is the State Director of Foster Care at Access Family Services and a graduate of AdoptUSKids’ Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program. During the program, she completed an action research project, titled “Unequal Outcomes: Decreasing Racial Disparity in Permanency.”

Tatenda’s project focuses on outcomes for children and youth of color in the foster care system and illuminates the role that race plays in permanency disparities. Her research also suggests that cultural competence training is vitally needed for caseworkers, therapists, and others who work in the child welfare field.

An excerpt of Tatenda’s project states the following:

“‘Once African American/Black children are removed from their homes, their length of stay in foster care is nine months longer than white children’ (U.S. Government Accountability Office 2007). Furthermore, ‘In the fiscal year 2020, the rate or permanency for African American/Black children was lower than white children’ (Lutheran Social Services). It took 3 months longer to find permanency for Black children than for white children.”

We spoke with Tatenda about her project and experience in the MPLD program.

What were the benefits of participating in the MPLD program?

MPLD enhanced my leadership ability. I learned how to give my staff a sense of purpose and impart leadership abilities so they feel equipped to succeed in their work. I have also learned how to research a social problem and develop an intervention to address the issue.

MPLD allowed me to network and discuss social problems with workers around the country. Drawing ideas from like-minded colleagues helped me develop unique solutions to social justice issues within my practice. I have always had a passion for social justice issues and a desire to make a change in my community, especially for disenfranchised populations.

I believe all children in our child welfare system should be given a chance to be a part of a family and reach their highest potential.

What motivated you to take on this project?

One of the things that troubled me in my agency at the time, and also looking at data across the country, is that Black and Brown children were coming into foster care at a higher rate than Caucasian children. They were also staying in foster care longer. That spurred me to investigate this issue and to see what the root cause was.

Relatedly, foster care became something that was targeted at poor families. When someone is impoverished, the more interactions they have with various institutions and systems. So, when people of color have interactions with the child welfare system, and they don’t have access to representation, they are faced with stereotypes and bias.

How can you address the bias and other race-based factors?

Who makes the CPS calls and how are they investigated? There is a lack of understanding of minority families and how we live and how we raise our children.

African American children are staying in foster care longer than their Caucasian counterparts. That’s where my passion is—for racial equality for our children. The longer a child stays in foster care, the more diagnoses added, the more children being medicated, and the more behavior problems.

Foster care is not anything that was meant to be long-term or a place where children were meant to grow up.

What do you want people to know about how race plays a role in CPS calls?

African American families are perceived a certain way sometimes. For example, there is the stereotype of the angry Black woman. When we raise our voices, we’re perceived in a certain way. If an African American mother is raising her voice in a public place, someone might call CPS on her, whereas if you have a Caucasian woman who’s raising her voice in the same public place, CPS might not be called.

On some occasions, law enforcement can become involved in family disputes. How can this kind of situation escalate?

There is a trauma response associated with that. As an African American mother, if you have an interaction with a police officer, you might have a trauma response that can result in CPS being called to take your children away. Someone who is not African American might not have the same trauma response.

Are there other cultural nuances that are present in the African American community?

Sometimes there are expectations around community and parenting. We like to raise our children in our community. There’s training that’s needed if you walk into our home and start asking the children questions like, “Who takes you to school?” Maybe it’s an auntie or uncle or maybe the mother works an overnight shift. Maybe you have older siblings caring for children or don’t have a traditional two-parent household.

There can be biases because of that. Our social workers need training around the assessment.

What are other solutions to these problems that exist?

There are starting to be conversations around focusing on family preservation. This involves investing in home services and family support and prevention services. Our dollars need to go to preserving the families as the first option before foster care. Foster care should be a last resort.

At what point in your life did you first realize this is what you wanted to do?

I sort of stumbled into social work. I knew I wanted to help people. I started as a mental health therapist doing home-based therapy. I was working with children that were coming into the system because they were truant.

I then became the foster care director at the Children’s Bureau in Indiana. From there, I started working in the foster care system and developed a passion for training case managers in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy.

What aspect of the work resonated with you and motivated you to move forward in your career?

I started learning a lot about trauma. I learned about the trauma that children go through with their biological families and also in foster care. Children are traumatized and have to heal, and the families also have to heal. The solution isn’t removing the children from the family. It is helping the family to heal together.

We live in a society that likes labels. How are children in foster care unfairly given labels or stereotyped?

I think the stereotype about children in foster care is that something is wrong with them—that they’re damaged in some way. Ending up in foster care could happen to anyone.

I’ve learned some of the most profound lessons in my life from children in foster care. Some of the biggest success stories and people who inspire me to be better have been people who have been in foster care.

Watch a video of Tatenda presenting her research.