No U.S. city is immune to the challenges that affect children who’ve languished in foster care and juvenile justice systems from coast to coast. Nearly half of America’s homeless population has spent time in foster care, and youth who are incarcerated face a significantly diminished likelihood of ever earning a high school diploma.
Many children face trauma and uncertain futures even in San Diego County, where the idyllic weather stands in stark contrast to the reality that thousands of youth are separated from their families each year. It’s here that the Clinton Foundation, The San Diego Foundation, and the County of San Diego are collaborating to identify sustainable solutions to the challenges encountered by families involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Building on the progress of the Live Well San Diego action framework in achieving better health for all populations, this partnership aims to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and may provide important lessons for communities across the United States.
How Circumstances at Birth Can Lead to Disparities in Health and Separated Families
A report of child maltreatment usually marks the beginning of a family’s interaction with San Diego County Child Welfare Services. An initial report of such abuse or neglect, or interaction with law enforcement, offers an early opportunity to provide parents with resources that may prevent a child from having to be removed from their home. The traumatic process of removal is carefully considered and rarely the first response as it can have long-lasting consequences – for example, children placed in foster care have disproportionately high occurrences of mental health disorders, higher teen birth rates, and lower high school completion rates and earnings throughout their lifetimes.
But many families face inequities that social service agencies and community based organizations can address to prevent maltreatment and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Among the biggest risk factors for a family’s involvement with the child welfare system are socio-economic status and zip code. In parts of San Diego County, housing insecurity, minimal local employment opportunity, poor transportation access, and lack of affordable child care contribute to persistent poverty. Working parents without adequate public transportation and affordable childcare options may sacrifice child supervision in favor of earning money to provide basic human needs – shelter, food, and clothing.
Race also plays an outsized role in determining whether a child will become separated from their home. National research has shown that African-American families are more likely to face child removal and foster care than families of other races. In San Diego County, African-Americans and Native Americans are disproportionately exposed to the child welfare system.
Meeting the Needs of At-Risk Families
Although the problem is complex, conducting extensive research and interviews has helped us identify a number of actions that agencies and organizations can take to improve outcomes for families involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Here are just a few.
- Address conscious and unconscious racial bias. Over time, racial disparities have created and reinforced a sense of distrust between families of color and well-intentioned agencies. Many parents are hesitant to accept help earlier out of fear that their children will be removed from their care. This multi-generational distrust can be eased by embracing more robust, community-led efforts to address the uneasy relationship, and by significantly expanding mandatory staff training on racial bias.
- Invest in behavioral health. Anxiety about social and environmental issues such as poverty and unemployment may also contribute to two other risk factors for child welfare system involvement: substance abuse and mental health issues. Considering that substance abuse is a common reason for child removal in San Diego County, making dependency and behavioral health services more accessible to low-income San Diegans could help to curb some of the causes of child abuse and neglect.
- Improve collaboration between family-serving agencies and their community partners. Child protective issues are complex and require an integrated system of seamless coordination. Appropriately bridging gaps to support parents, as early as during pregnancy, can ensure that resources are maximized for the long term benefit of children.
We believe that the inclusive coalition we’re building can improve the health and wellbeing of families whose lives are touched by the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and reduce the disparities experienced by African-American and Native American families. Stay tuned for the March 12th release of our Blueprint for Action, which will identify specific actions that the coalition will take to bring about sustainable, systemic change.