Learn why culturally competent engagement and support is key to sustaining a pool of Black, Indigenous, and Latinx foster and adoptive families.
As Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children and youth continue to be overrepresented in foster care, child welfare systems—including staff at all levels—need a renewed focus on meeting the needs of children of color. One need that we must urgently address is recruiting and sustaining a more diverse pool of foster and adoptive parents.
The federal Multiethnic Placement Act/Interethnic Adoption Provisions (MEPA/IEP) require agencies to make diligent efforts “to recruit foster and adoptive parents who represent the racial and ethnic backgrounds of children in foster care.” To meet this requirement—and do better for children of color in foster care—child welfare professionals need to think critically about our ability to properly engage and support Black, Indigenous, and Latinx prospective caregivers once they have been recruited.
Culturally competent support for these families starts at their first interaction with our child welfare system. This means that, as professionals, we must begin by doing the deep and important work of being self-reflective and understanding how our biases can affect our ability to authentically connect with diverse communities.
Laying the groundwork for culturally competent engagement
Recruiting families of color requires much more than getting them to make an initial inquiry. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx families have experienced repeated harm caused by the systemic racism in our child welfare systems. It makes sense that prospective resource parents from these communities may be wary of engaging with our agencies. As a result, our agencies must demonstrate to families of color from the start that we will respect them, support them, and treat them fairly. The following steps can help you lay the foundation for culturally competent engagement and support of families of color.
- Understand the history of systemic racism in our national child welfare system—and in your community specifically. Though most child welfare professionals know that Black, Indigenous, and Latinx children are disproportionately represented in foster care, many don’t learn about the specific legacy of harm the child welfare system has caused. Educate yourself and your staff about how families of color have been—and continue to be—treated by your child welfare system. You can start learning about systemic racism in child welfare in this article from Fordham Law Review.
- Familiarize yourself with current racial disproportionality and outcome disparities in your area and around the country. The National Center for Juvenile Justice has a dashboard on the disproportionality rates for children of color in foster care where you can begin your research on your region.
- Ensure all staff receive training on cultural competence and implicit bias. Partner with experts in this area to ensure that your staff are equipped to support families who are different from them. Even with the best of intentions, every person has biases and blindspots. Learning about our biases is critically important to engaging authentically with all people so that we do not inadvertently cause harm. Evaluate your efforts, seeking input from the communities you serve to see if cultural responsiveness improves over time.
- Develop and publicize information about what your agency is doing to respond to racism. Share talking points with your staff and post information on your website. Be sure your actions reflect these words and check in with community members regularly to make sure your efforts are resonating.
- Recognize that respect is culturally defined. Every culture has a different way of defining what respectful behavior looks like. Differences in how respect is demonstrated and experienced can cause people from different cultures to struggle in developing relationships. Staff should understand that respectful behavior will be defined by the person they seek to serve and they are expected to be flexible so families feel respected. Encourage staff to be curious and ask questions so that they can understand what each family expects. Questions such as “How would you like me to address you?” and “What do you expect of me when I come into your home?” can help staff to avoid miscommunications and maintain respectful behavior for everyone.
- Learn about your agency’s strengths and weaknesses from the people you serve and hope to serve. No one is better equipped to tell you about your agency’s strengths and shortcomings than the prospective families you engage. Think about ways to invite families to offer feedback, such as by using surveys or convening focus groups. You may consider using an outside entity or facilitator to encourage honest responses. Once you’ve determined a way to seek feedback, ask the important questions related to impressions of your agency and its standing in the community. Do community members have positive impressions? Do they trust that you have the best interest of children and families in mind? Do they consider you to be a good community partner? The impressions of those you hope to serve will help you understand what you need to improve in your work with communities of color. Then, follow up with those who offered feedback to let them know what your agency is doing to improve.
- Earn the trust of the community. For prospective parents to want to engage with your agency, they must trust you. That trust needs to be built through authentic relationships. Based on what you learn from members of the community, take concrete steps to improve how you, your staff, and your agency show up in partnership with communities of color. It will take time for you to build trust with people of color if your agency does not yet have a good relationship with the community. Be patient as you take steps to improve, being more visible in these communities, and, if needed, making amends for past harms.
Understanding families’ experiences through process mapping
Process mapping, in this context, involves walking through every activity a prospective family must complete to become an approved foster or adoptive parent. Start at a family’s first contact with your agency. Though agency staff may feel like they know what the process is like for families, describing every activity in detail from the family’s perspective can be eye-opening. If we understand what we are asking families to do, we can identify barriers, disrespectful aspects of the process, and gaps in support.
As you examine your process, think critically about whether every activity is necessary to help you assess if a family is cut out for foster care and adoption. It’s possible that some of the hurdles families see are based on outdated—and often racist and classist—assumptions about what makes a family suitable. Consider partnering with other agencies in your area to compare processes and assessment criteria. It also may be important to make—or advocate for—changes to licensing or approval criteria if they consistently present as barriers.
Although your process map will be specific to your agency, there are common challenges that many families of color experience. Any barrier that a family encounters can prevent them from moving forward in the process, so every barrier should be taken seriously. Let’s look at important questions to ask at each stage of the process so that you can begin to identify barriers. Consider these questions and, if possible, engage members of the diverse communities you hope to serve to check your answers.
The first encounter with an agency is incredibly important. This contact is where you set the tone for how families will be treated throughout the process. If this experience goes poorly, you’re unlikely to hear from these prospective parents again.
- Prior to contact: What information are families seeing about your agency before they contact you? Do they see parents of color in your materials, on your website, or on your agency’s social media presence?
- Reaching out: When families first reach out to your agency, whom do they speak to? Do they talk with someone who treats them with respect? Will they engage with someone whom they recognize as being from their community? Can they communicate in the language and the method they prefer?
- Once contact is made: Do families get a timely response when they call or email? Look specifically at the families that get the responses first—are there patterns of which families get priority? Do families get unbiased help or support from someone on how to decide for themselves if foster or adoptive parenting is a good fit? Do they know how to proceed? Are families asked about what their needs are as they consider foster care or adoption?
Application and paperwork
Agencies ask families to share extremely personal information, including their health information, relationship histories, and any criminal record they may have. People from communities that have been historically harmed by medical systems, criminal justice systems, and child welfare systems may be justifiably hesitant to provide your agency with this information. The way we approach prospective families as we request this information can make or break the relationship we are forming with a family.
In addition, paperwork and applications are not culturally neutral. You may not realize it, but the way your paperwork is written conveys messages about what your agency values.
- Distributing the paperwork: How do staff explain the application and approval process? How and when is paperwork presented? What context is provided to explain the need for the information requested? Is there an opportunity to build relationships before moving on to paperwork?
- Paperwork fields and questions: Is all of the information you request truly necessary? Is it clear what medical or legal issues are disqualifying and which aren’t? Are families checking their race and ethnicity in boxes? Is “White” listed first? Can families describe their race and ethnicity in their own words?
- Ease of filling out paperwork: Have you reviewed how easy or difficult it is to read the paperwork (looking for acronyms, agency jargon, and reading level)? Is it clear to families why they must provide this information? How do you know if this information is clearly presented? Can applicants fill out paperwork in their preferred language? Have you asked families about how challenging they found the paperwork or the process?
- Paperwork support: If prospective parents have questions, are they met with openness and care versus frustration and judgment? Are families treated with respect if they don’t understand parts of the paperwork? Are staff available to provide support on any paperwork, especially about the background check process?
Orientation and training
The development that families receive is critically important to them becoming successful foster or adoptive parents. It’s important to review all components of orientation and training that families receive to ensure that they are culturally competent and inclusive. As you evaluate your training sessions, try to consider the full experience that families of color would have, including the environment and the other prospective parents attending the class. And of course, gather information from other parents who have been through the process.
- Contents of the training: Is the importance of culture, for both children and caregivers, explicitly discussed during orientation and training? Does the orientation or training information center on the experiences of white prospective parents? For example, do discussions of transracial placement assume and prioritize the experience of a white parent caring for a child of color?
- Representation: Would families of color see people from their communities leading the orientation or training, either as staff or as experienced parents? Are individuals likely to be the only people of color in the room during the orientation or training?
- Training environment: Where does the training take place? What will they see and feel during the training?
- Facilitation: Are staff trained on how to respond to microaggressions or racist actions from training participants? Do the training facilitators know how to ensure everyone is included and feels safe to participate authentically?
Home study, assessment, and approval
No one likes to be scrutinized, and the assessment process is rife with scrutiny. Staff often have to have uncomfortable conversations with families, asking about sensitive topics. It’s important that staff do whatever they can to be respectful during this process so that families are willing to continue their journey. And remember, respectful behavior is likely to look different for families from different communities.
During the assessment process, the agency makes decisions and passes judgment on families. When the agency has this much power over people’s lives, processes must be in place to prevent biased decision-making. Encourage staff to question themselves and each other about their thought processes. Group decision-making that includes diverse staff can also help you make less biased decisions. Be transparent with families about how you make decisions and what they should do if they disagree with the agency’s decision.
- Staff Interactions: Do staff prioritize relationship building with families during the assessment process? Do staff explain the assessment and approval process and offer support? Are staff trained on how to handle difficult conversations that families may consider intrusive? How are staff supported and supervised when these discussions are necessary?
- Cultural responsiveness: How do staff talk with families about the need to enter and assess the family’s home? Are staff trained on how to approach home visits and interviews with respect? Are staff sensitive to cultural differences in definitions and expressions of respect? Do the staff who are interviewing the family and entering their home come from their community? If not, are they trained about being culturally responsive?
- Approval process and appeals: How are approval decisions made? Are there processes in place to reduce the likelihood that staff are making biased decisions? Do families know how the agency makes decisions? Was a diverse group of staff and families involved in developing your decision-making processes? Is there an appeal process if a family doesn’t agree with the agency’s decision? How are they informed about it and how do they access it? Do you review your data to check against biased decision-making?
Get the ball rolling
It can be hard to know where to start with this difficult work. Here are some concrete actions to take to become more culturally responsive in your work with resource families.
- Review this article as a team. During your next staff meeting, discuss this article. In which areas are you already strong? In what areas do you see a need for improvement?
- Learn from others in the field. Many leaders in the field are grappling with how to improve their practice in recruiting and supporting families of color. The AdoptUSKids Minority Professional Leadership Development (MPLD) program has seen many graduates take on this challenge. Review how these leaders took action in Georgia, Florida, California, and Washington. Could you take similar steps at your agency?
- Bring stakeholders together. Convene a group of community stakeholders–specifically from populations that you aim to serve better–to discuss what most needs to change. Focus groups of families of color can help you address parts of your inquiry, training, or approval process that are outdated or feel racially-targeted to them. It can also help to demonstrate your agency’s commitment to the community’s best interests and make your agency more visible in the community.
- Get capacity-building support. AdoptUSKids may be able to help your agency in this work. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to talk to us about your system’s needs and priorities.
Leaning in to difficult feedback
We will all be required to confront difficult truths in order to improve our child welfare systems for children and families of color. This work requires a deep commitment to bold leadership and humility to ensure our agencies are culturally responsive and respectful. It is important that we remain open to hearing difficult things about ourselves, our staff, and our agencies so that we can improve our practices and ultimately better serve families of color.
Developing and maintaining culturally competent and racially equitable child welfare practice is complex work that is never finished. You can learn more and dive deeper into focusing on race equity in program change and implementation in this publication from the Capacity Building Center for States.