Elevation begins with education

Dr. William C. Bell spoke to the Congressional Black Caucus in September 2004.


It’s great to be here, and I’m grateful for this chance to join the Congressional Black Caucus and tell you a little about who I am and what Casey does.

I’m here to talk with you today about two major challenges facing youth in foster care: the over-representation of minorities in the child welfare system, and the critical importance of higher education to these young adults. At every level that we can measure, we find that children from African American backgrounds are over-represented in the child welfare system, for reasons that have more to do with racial and cultural assumptions than economic factors.

We need to reclaim our children from an injustice that too few people act on or even think about. And we need to fight hard in one of the most effective ways we can: by making a college education affordable and achievable for children who are just as qualified as any students in America.

There are so many reasons to be optimistic about the 21st century from the African American perspective. Thanks to organizations like the Black Caucus, we are going to have a great deal to say about where America is going in this century.

But there are some disturbing statistics that you also know. In every area that we can measure, African American children are having trouble making that long hard climb to success as adults. Whether you look at rising poverty figures, or crime, or health problems, or education disparities, the result is the same. I don’t have to tell you that African Americans are under-represented here in Congress, and in the upper reaches of corporate America.

Not all of these imbalances begin with foster care, of course. But I’d like to talk about why it is so important to get this right, and why it is within our power to. Between 1980 and 2000, at a time when an enormous amount of wealth was being created in the U.S., the number of children in foster care nearly doubled, from 302,000 to 556,000. Though African Americans comprise 12.4 percent of the population, we represent 42 percent of the children in foster care. And the pattern is increasing.

In 1982, white children represented 52 percent of those placed in foster homes. In 2001 that had dropped to 35 percent. A report on child abuse and neglect by the Department of Health and Human Services found that African American children are four times as likely as Caucasian children to be put into the child welfare system. All of these statistics are especially pronounced in certain places. In New York City, for example, 73 percent of the children in foster care are black; in San Francisco, 70 percent; in Chicago, 75 percent.

This pattern is pervasive and unfair. Though black and Latino children are far more likely to be removed from families, their families are not more likely to abuse them. Their only crime, apparently, is their higher incidence of poverty, or in many Latino cases, their difficulty explaining their stories in English. Of the white children who do enter foster care, 72 percent are served within their extended families; for black children, that figure is 44 percent.

Families of color are far more likely than white families to be reported to the authorities, or investigated for child abuse. At the same time, they are far less likely to have any contact with child welfare workers.

Why is this so important? For children of color, the disproportion that they begin life with, stays with them throughout life. More of them go into the system. They stay in the system longer. Fewer experience successful reunification with their families than white children. They are less prepared for adulthood, for jobs, and for families of their own.

Then when they do become adults, they are over-represented in the criminal justice and health care systems. Of the African American men between 20 and 29, 9.7 percent are in prison — far more than the Hispanic rate of 2.9 percent or the non-Hispanic white rate of 1.1 percent. While two-thirds of crack cocaine users are white and Hispanic, the people most likely to be convicted are African American. African Americans get HIV-AIDS more than seven times as often as whites. Infant mortality is twice that of whites. Homeless rates are 3.5 times that of whites.

All of you have achieved success in your lives, and I imagine that most of you would give credit to the people who helped you — your families, your teachers, the people in your neighborhoods who gave you a lift on the way up. Imagine what your life would have been like if you were taken as a child from your home by a social worker, with all your belongings in a garbage bag, and sent to an unfamiliar house, in a strange neighborhood, to live with a new family?

To solve these problems, we need a concerted, persistent effort. We didn’t get here overnight — many of these assumptions go back to the beginnings of child welfare in the 19th century. Appropriately, we should think about long-term solutions. We need to acknowledge the issues one by one, and find the right answers for each. We need more early intervention with families, and more home-based programs. We need more Spanish-speakers in the system. We badly need to make sure that if a child is placed into foster care, he or she goes to a home that respects his traditions and culture. We need more oversight and involvement from people like you, leaders of the community. Casey is working hard on all of these fronts.

And I have good news: there is a solution right in front of us. We need to do a much better job on education. At the K-12 level, No Child Left Behind is putting a lot of pressure on school districts, and foster children are rarely getting the attention they deserve. These kids already have a strike against them; we can’t let them get further behind.

And at the higher education level, we can do much, much more. States protect these young people from abuse, but they do significantly less to launch them into adulthood. I cannot stress enough how important it is to get the right help to these students at the crucial moment of their decision to go for higher education. As you all know, the Higher Education Act will be reauthorized soon, and even though budgets are tight, we can do far more than we now do to get these kids to college and keep them in college.

Education is especially important to these kids because it often offers the only family they have. They have a strong desire to go to college — 70 percent want to attend, and nearly half do. But it is hard to imagine the challenges they face. At vacation times, they can suddenly become homeless when their peers are home eating Thanksgiving dinner. Because of differing health insurance systems, they can find themselves without access to the mental and physical health treatment they need. Many leave school after a single setback, unable to find the right support network.

Why is this so important? Because of the good news that if they do get a college degree, our research tells us that the playing field levels out and they do just fine in life after that. But we are not doing enough to act on that knowledge.

In a speech earlier this year, President Larry Summers of Harvard University argued persuasively that class and wealth still play far too great a role in shaping college attendance and therefore the lives of poor young Americans. He called the gap between children of the rich and children of the poor “the most serious domestic problem in the United States today,” and he also argued strongly that “education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.”

Contrary to what most of us think, lulled into a false sense of security by occasional tidbits of good economic news, the gap between children of different economic backgrounds has actually increased in the last generation. And census data released just a couple weeks ago confirms that child poverty is on the upswing. I don’t need to tell this audience that the promises of wealth trickling down from tax cuts over the last few years have remained just that — promises.

The Caucus can’t do everything, but it can do a lot. There are many things we can do in the here and now.

How can the caucus help? As I said, a crucial moment in a young adult’s life is the simple decision whether to go to post-secondary school. We’ve been doing a lot of work on this point, and we believe that if we can take three simple steps we will vastly increase the availability of a college education.

First, we need to require the GAO to study how to expand the effectiveness of financial aid by increasing the numbers of students who can receive it and their ability to receive it.

Second, we need to get new recommendations on how to improve the process of applying for financial aid so it does not unfairly discriminate against former foster children, especially children in kinship care.

Third, we need to encourage TRIO and GEAR UP to make foster care youth a priority.

What else can we do together? We should never stop trying to build creative alliances, and on this issue no ally makes more sense than the Hispanic Caucus. The African American community is more affected by foster care problems than Latinos, but the situation is similar enough for each side to pay close attention to the other. This is especially true because so many African American neighborhoods are next to Latino barrios.

We should also build better partnerships with government agencies. Many of you are federal officials. You know that government is not the solution for all problems, but here it — and you — can do a great deal. It’s not just that you find the funding in a tight budget that allows these programs to do their job.

It’s also that good government regulates them and keeps them honest. We applaud you for what you’ve done, but we also want to remind you how much remains to be done. We need more critical data so that policymakers can make the right decisions, and we need to make sure that the states step up to their responsibilities. Ultimately, no one can do that except the federal government. I appreciate that electoral cycle favors quick solutions, but the only way we will really make a difference is if we invest in long-term approaches. And all of this work is bipartisan — we want to work with mayors, governors and legislators from both parties.

Needless to say, we will be there for you if you need information of any kind. Casey is a national operating foundation founded in 1966 that provides direct services and promotes advances in child welfare policy. Not only do we conduct our own research, but we partner with a variety of NGOs and foundations investing time and money on these issues. Our headquarters is in Seattle, but we have a public policy office here in D.C., and nine field offices.

During our 38 years we’ve acquired a lot of expertise in these areas. We know that different problems need different solutions, and that not all communities are the same.

As you know better than anyone, there is no such thing as a single, monolithic African American identity. And there is no such thing as a typical foster care student. Some neighborhoods are black, some are brown, and many are mixed. Los Angeles is not the same as New York. African-Cubans are not the same as African-Salvadorans, African-Brazilians, or African-Africans.

We’re spending a lot of time at the moment forming a much more detailed picture of who is in the child welfare system, including a portrait of more than a thousand alumni of foster care that we compiled with the Harvard Medical School. We are also studying in far greater detail the challenges facing former foster children as they enter post-secondary education.

This year we’ve also begun to focus on putting foster care onto the radar screen of the corporate community, and directing some of their philanthropy and influence toward problems that affect them as well as the rest of us. Last year we worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to convene the first-ever conference of national child welfare and higher education organizations to find better ways to serve both of our constituencies. I mentioned some of our ideas about post-secondary school reforms, and I’d like to offer printed summaries of the recommendations to you.

I’d also like to tell you a story about an African American Casey alumnus. Darold Williamson is now a senior at Baylor University. A few weeks ago in Athens, he won a gold medal in the 1600-meter relay as a member of the U.S. Olympic team. Darold got to that medal stand with a lot of help from his grandmother, who raised him as a licensed Casey foster parent in San Antonio. And he’s continuing his involvement with Casey, acting as a positive role model for his two brothers, Donte and Dwight. A Casey field worker, Jonathan Hardy, said, “We are extremely proud of Darold, but his grandmother deserves the gold medal.”

Let me end with a few final thoughts. We all want the same thing. It’s not that complicated. We want to make sure that no child is taken too early from his or her family. We want to make sure that if a child does go into foster care, it’s with a caring family that cares about his or her traditions, and good teachers who care about his or her progress. And that when that child comes out of foster care, he or she is ready to start a meaningful new life, with adult responsibilities.

One of the great bulwarks of the African American success story in America is the extraordinary strength of the extended family. We want to do all we can to draw from that strength in the 21st century. In 2000 we gave ourselves the challenge of making a positive impact on the lives of 100,000 children by the end of 2006. I believe that we are not only going to achieve that goal, but that we will exceed it. With your help, we can do even better.

Gwendolyn Brooks, in her poem “To the Diaspora,” argued that whenever we join together in a cause, we do good to ourselves as individuals — especially when we help the children of Africa. In that poem, she talks to someone cynical, who distrusts her fierce faith that we CAN make a difference if we work together.

When I told you, meeting you somewhere close to the heat and youth of the road, liking my loyalty, liking belief, you smiled and you thanked me but very little believed me. Here is some sun. Some. Now off into the places rough to reach. Though dry, though drowsy, all unwillingly a-wobble, into the dissonant and dangerous crescendo. Your work, that was done, to be done to be done to be done.