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Does the Media Help Keep African American Boys in Foster Care?

Does the Media Help Keep African American Boys in Foster Care?

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African American children who enter foster care after the age of 5 are much less likely to be adopted than their White peers and the situation is more grim for African American males.

Experts on the foster care system say the media play a role in painting negative stereotypes of African American boys that make the job of placing them in adoptive homes more difficult.

Chet Hewitt is President of Sierra Healthcare Foundation. He served 6 years as the director of Alameda County Social Services Agency, one year overseeing the Child Welfare Department and was a foster parent for 12 years.

Hewitt believes the way young African American males are depicted in movies, how they're described in literature and how a Black youngster involved in a violent incident is described in the news media all affect the public's perception of Black youths.

"No one will be surprised if a suspect in a crime is described as wearing baggy pants, baseball cap and oversized hoodie, " he said." Who does that call up for you? And, if it calls up an individual African American male, what does that call up in your sense of their academic attainment, their behaviors?"

The problem, said Hewitt, is African American youths are not the only ones to dress this way.

"You can walk into a mall in any city in America today and you can find a young person with oversized pants, an oversized hoodie, a baseball cap and the chances are they won't be Black. "

He thinks this is one reason why so many African Americans languish on the foster care system.

In its report on "African American Children in Foster Care," the federal Government Accounting Office said that in 2004, Black children accounted for 162,911, or 34 percent, of the 482,541 children in state care. This is double the proportion of Black children in the general child population, the GAO said.

In Alameda County the figures are troubling.

"Children from infants to 17 years old make up about 15% of the county population," said Hewitt. "Of the kids in care three years or longer – kids who are being raised by the system – 70% of the kids are African American."

Robert Phillips, Director of Health and Human Services at The California Endowment, said the media make two mistakes when writing about African American boys in foster care.

First, many stories look at those who have bad outcomes and ask, 'why can't everyone do as well as others.'

"Second, they make some assumptions about the children who are in foster care and their families," he said. "That there's an inability for these families to either take responsibility or care for their children. And that's not ever the case."

Hewitt said the media seem to be reluctant to cover stories about foster care that have positive outcomes.

"We had a wonderful situation with Cal State University Eastbay where we opened up a dormitory in the summer to give some of these kids a place to come home to because, without that dorm opening up, they would not have had a place to spend the summer."

The children were all in colleges around the country. They had all aged out of the foster care system but had no families to take care of them when their college dorms closed for Christmas, holidays and summer breaks.

"What you saw was these young kids some with baggie pants, oversized hoodies and baseball caps but they were all doing extraordinary things. We had great difficulty getting anyone in the media to cover that story, to show up on campus and interview those particular children."

By contrast, Hewitt remembers a case where a young man who had been associated with foster care in the past was involved in a terrible shooting. There was no shortage of reporters asking questions that time.

Both men believe the news media play a critical role in shaping the psyche of adoptive parents. If they always see African American youth portrayed as belligerent adolescents with bad behavior it could affect the decisions they make when it comes time to decide whom to adopt.

"There is a sense of concern, that often goes un-articulated," said Hewitt. "that 'what is this young man going to look like when he's 15? How will I, the adoptive parent, be able to cope with the behaviors he might exhibit?"

It reinforces the stigma that 'these kids are not trustworthy so why let them into the house?'

And Hewitt says the proof is in the foster care caseload in Alameda County.

"You may be five times, four to five times less likely to get adopted if you're Black than your White peers, he said."

The solution is for reporters to realize there are facts around race, gender, generation and class that impact this story.

"Most reporters are well-intentioned but we all bring our own biases and our own lens to the work," said Phillips. "The question is can you cover a story that actually challenges some assumptions or beliefs that you deeply hold that might not necessarily be true?"

"Can you give folks the full picture rather than the picture through your own lens?"

(Read the second part in this series for more ideas about stories in the foster care system.)

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