Voices and Viewpoints

Biases and Stereotypes: Two Key Barriers to Empowering Former Foster Youth

by Heather L. Fox / Oct 25, 2016

There is growing awareness of the educational barriers facing former foster youth, especially at the postsecondary. Likewise, research has shown that former foster youth are less than half as likely as their peers to complete their postsecondary education (Davis, 2006). Colleges and universities, as well as funders and policy makers, have worked to develop interventions to promote resilience among former foster youth, and while these programs reach only a small fraction of former foster youth, the evidence of positive impact is promising. Primarily these programs lack the resources to go to scale and produce lasting impact on the postsecondary educational outcomes of former foster youth. However, a lack of resources is not the only barrier to taking these programs to scale and providing former foster youth the supports necessary for them to be resilient in postsecondary settings. To effect this level of change we have to acknowledge the systemic biases that impact who is engaged in the child welfare system and the resources made available to them.

There is a persistent overrepresentation of children from culturally marginalized populations within the child welfare system. Specifically, children of color and children living in poverty are overrepresented in child maltreatment cases (National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, 2011; Sedlak, et al., 2010). The highest rates of child maltreatment cases involve Black, American Indian, Alaska Native, and multi-racial children (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2016). Among these racial groups, the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care is most notable, as approximately 14% of all children in the United States are Black while 24% of all children in foster care are Black (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016; Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2016). The disparity by socioeconomic class is the most notable, with the rate of child maltreatment for children living in low-socioeconomic households five times that of other children (Sedlak et al., 2014).

This overrepresentation of families of color within the foster system reflects in part the higher rates of poverty that impact populations of color, the criminalization of both men and women of color, and racialized stereotypes of parental unfitness (Cooper, 2013; Roberts, 2012; Smiley & Fakunle, 2016). Some of the most pervasive stereotypes reflect persistent biases against low-income parents of color. Men of color are plagued by stereotypes criminalizing their activities, characterizing them as violent “thugs” associated with organized crime or drug- or gambling-related activities (Cooper, 2013; Roberts, 2012; Smiley & Fakunle, 2016). Despite evidence to the contrary, Black men in particular are characterized as absentee fathers who frequently wantonly abandon their partners and children (Kohn, 2013). Similarly, low-income women of color are portrayed as “welfare queens” who are characterized as having large number of children, with little regard for their well-being, despite national data illustrating that White women comprise the largest number of women on welfare (Cooper, 2013; Delaney & Scheller, 2015; Roberts, 2014). Stereotypes of parental unfitness targeted at parents of color and low-income parents fuel biases held by individuals throughout the child welfare and judicial system. As a result, child welfare reports involving families of color are more likely to be investigated, increasing the odds that children of color will be removed from their homes and further reducing the likelihood that children of color will be placed with family members (Cooper, 2013).

Not all stereotypes about child maltreatment are about the parents. There are also stereotypes about the children who are abused. These stereotypes take two forms; both forms are incredibly damaging. The first are stereotypes that take the form of victim blaming. These stereotypes paint child victims as “troubled,” teen parents, juvenile delinquents, addicts, and runaways, portraying the child as at least in part contributing to the abuse and neglect inflected on them (Lynch, 2011). The second form of stereotypes describes children who have been abused and neglected as damaged. These stereotypes characterize children in the foster system in terms of deficits resulting from both the abuse and neglect and from their experiences in foster care. These stereotypes describe these children as being behind educationally, suffering mental health and emotional problems, lacking trust for adults, etc. These children are described as part of a self-perpetuating system, where those who are abused as children grow into the next generation of abusers.

While these stereotypes are prevalent, they are only a small sample of the stereotypes that impact current and former foster youth. Acknowledging the impact stereotypes have on former foster youth in the system is an important step in understanding these young adults, their needs, and what is necessary to empower them to be successful in their postsecondary studies and beyond. The stereotypes about the families and children in the foster care system not only support a retention of the status quo but also provide those not involved with the system the means to shield and distance themselves from acknowledging the impact of child maltreatment in our society (Cooper, 2013). In most cases the stereotypes are intentionally supported by only a small fraction of those in the child welfare system, and as such they do not reflect the care and concern of the vast majority of the social workers, lawyers, and judges who serve foster children. However, these biases are systemic and are supported both internally and externally, with and without intent. We need to consider how these stereotypes impact former foster youths’ perception of themselves and others. Through reflection and engagement we need to hold ourselves and others accountable for our biases that through intent or not harm former foster youth. And finally, until we have successfully dismantled these biases and eliminated their impact, we need to design supports that empower former foster youth to transcend these stereotypes.

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