Legal representation in foster system could reduce child separation

A child’s involvement in the foster system can affect their lives well into adulthood. An estimated 20 percent of young adults become homeless when they age out of the system. They’re also more likely to experience mental health issues and involvement in the criminal legal system.  

The numbers are starker for Black families. In Illinois, 15 percent of children are Black, but they make up 38 percent of children in the foster system. Racist stereotypes and practices that date back to slavery cause Black families to be disproportionately harmed in a child welfare system that equates neglect with poverty.  

In 2022, Gov. J.B. Pritzker created a task force to examine racial inequities in the child welfare system and offer solutions. Last month, the task force issued more than 50 recommendations that call for investing in families with low income, not surveilling and separating them.

“The system gives deference to families with resources over families without,” said LaTanya Jackson Wilson, vice president of advocacy at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law and a co-chair of the task force. “There is also a difference between the way white and Black families are treated. The bottom line is that too many Black families, and in particular Black mothers, are punished for being poor.”

The origins of the modern child welfare system date back to Emancipation. Southern planters used so-called “apprenticeship laws” to seize Black children from their families and force them into unpaid labor.

The legacy of Jim Crow persists today. Due to underinvestment in Black neighborhoods and decades of redlining, Black communities experience higher rates of poverty and policing. They also face structural barriers to health care, housing, and good-paying jobs. These overlapping systems of racialized oppression, combined with negative stereotypes about Black families, increase the likelihood that a Black child will be reported to the Department of Child and Family Services.

To reduce racial disproportionality, a top recommendation of the task force is to step up legal protections for families under investigation. Crucially, the government would be required to provide families with an attorney as soon as they’re under investigation by the child welfare system. Attorneys are currently assigned to parents once a child has been removed from their home.

Task force members working within the system report that even short-term separation can cause long-lasting harm to children and should be limited to cases of abuse. They also note that in wealthy communities, parents have the means to hire lawyers to speak with investigators on their behalf. This immediately offers families with financial means a layer of protection.

Cook County has already begun to give families a lawyer after an initial encounter with the system. The task force believes this should be implemented statewide, helping alleviate racial inequity and bring uniformity across Illinois’ 102 counties.

Jackon Wilson says the task force’s goal is nothing short of transformational change. The system is predicated on the idea that government knows how to parent a child. Reports of neglect and poor outcomes spanning decades show that this just isn’t true. “ I want to get to a place where we center families, not the system,” Jackson Wilson said. “When parents can’t care for a child, the next step should be to place them within their kinship network. The system should always be the last resort.”

The task force’s 50-plus recommendations echo the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s work. In its guide for child welfare agencies, the foundation calls for systems that measure outcomes to improve the well-being of children. These metrics include reducing child separation, keeping children with relatives when they’re removed from their homes, and decreasing the time they spend in the foster system.

As the task force wrapped up last  month, the hard work of building a coalition to carry out these recommendations begins. To make real change, a holistic approach is necessary and involves all the systems that touch a child’s life. A family-first approach requires collaboration from the Department of Children and Family Services, in tandem with the juvenile justice system, the Department of Health and Human Services, schools, and health care providers.

To put it plainly, when families have the resources they need, their children can thrive,” said Vanessa White, director of Community and Family Justice at the Shriver Center, and a leader of the task force. “I want to prevent children from entering the system. That starts with investing in our families.”

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