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Finding more African American families for children in care

Trey Rabun is a foster care services supervisor and former outreach specialist with Amara, a nonprofit organization in Washington State that supports children in foster care, adoptees, and the families who love and care for them. Trey and his husband are licensed foster and adoptive parents.

Trey graduated from the AdoptUSKids Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program in 2019. We talked with him about the experience and the action research project that he completed as part of the fellowship.

What made you want to participate in the leadership program?

I had been in the child welfare field for about eight years, working directly with families at Amara, a private child welfare agency in Seattle. I felt ready to make the jump into a higher position and wanted to gain leadership experience that I needed to do that.

A key component of the MPLD program is completing an action research project. Yours focused on increasing the number of people of color who foster and adopt. Why is that important?

Because kids of color—Black, Native American, Hispanic/Latino—are overrepresented in pretty much every state in the country. We need to be sure that their cultural needs are met. And one way to do that is to have more families of color, who don’t need to be taught how to parent and support a child’s cultural identity while fostering and adopting.

With my action research project, I looked specifically at the licensing and placement process and the obstacles people of color face at those stages.

What was your process for researching?

I started with a case review of all of the 20 Black families we worked with at my agency in the last five years whose cases had closed. I reviewed their case notes for cultural nuances and to see if there were any common themes around obstacles families of color were encountering and reasons they weren’t able to make it through the process.

I also surveyed families of color—mostly Amara families, but also a few from out of state—about the barriers they experienced after contacting an agency up to the point of getting a placement and potentially finalizing an adoption.

What did you learn from your research? What were some common themes and barriers?

Like a lot of systems, our child welfare system is set up using middle class white values that dictate cultural norms. Some families said that they felt like they were in the position of having to explain—and justify—their beliefs and lifestyles to social workers who did not share or understand their culture.

Isolation was another common barrier people experienced throughout the process. A lot of families said they felt like they were the only family of color in trainings and support groups. And that some of the topics seemed to speak only to White people. For example, transracial adoption trainings about White families adopting Black children.

Some families said that in these situations, they not only felt excluded, they felt tokenized because they would be asked to educate the other people in the room about the experience of being a person of color.

Those are some substantial barriers. How about solutions? What can agencies do to improve the way they recruit and support families of color?

There is obviously not a quick fix. It’s a long-term solution.

The first thing is to acknowledge that there is a historic distrust of the child welfare system among families of color—because their children are being removed at such a higher rate—and take steps to build that trust. I think that one way to do that is to get out in the community and engage with groups large and small in a real way. When I was in a recruitment role at my agency, I held big events at our local African American history museum, talked with small groups at service clubs, and everything in between. I showed up, and I listened.

Of course, the cultural competence piece is huge. My message is always: license in, not out. Take the approach that, in theory, almost everyone can be a foster parent. Think of how you can help a family get around barriers. Be flexible. If there is a language or education barrier that makes filling out a form confusing, help the family fill out the form. If not having a fire extinguisher is preventing someone from getting licensed, buy them a fire extinguisher!

What changes have you encouraged at your agency based on your work as an MPLD fellow?

We just hired a licensed social worker and therapist who has done a lot of work with Black families. He’s going to work with our majority White social work staff to help them see their jobs through the lens of cultural competency.

We’re also planning to create a support group for families of color. We’re going to start online, with a Facebook group initially, and then look at an in-person group.

And we’re having a lot more conversations on our social work team about what racism looks like in the workplace. You can’t address a problem if you don’t recognize its existence.

Final thoughts?

With my MPLD research project—and a good portion of my career so far—I’ve I focused on recruiting and supporting families of color. But that doesn’t mean that these families are the only ones who benefit. I truly believe that when you break down barriers for families who are more in the margins—people of color, low-income families, nontraditional families—you end up helping everyone.

I also want to add that while Amara is investing in doing a better job in serving children and families of color, it’s important to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect and have lots of work to do on this front.