MANHATTAN, Kansas — Tara Coleman grew accustomed to being the only person of color at classes for licensed foster parents.
“Maybe there’s one other person of color,” she said, “but generally not.”
Coleman isn’t surprised that in predominantly white Kansas Black foster parents are rare in the state. That’s not to say it could still use more of them.
Black kids can thrive in white homes. Still, foster children and parents say the trauma of leaving a family to live with strangers can prove even more unsettling when you throw in a racial divide.
Even prosaic things like a familiar dish on the dinner table, the programs playing on the living room TV, the availability of the right hair products — they can all ease the shock of leaving, even temporarily, biological parents behind.
“I can do anybody’s hair. But if you are a Black child who has kinky, coily hair, I also have products in my house and can help you do whatever,” Coleman said. “There is comfort in familiarity.”
State agencies that license foster parents need all types of people. They want Black, white and Latino families. Straight and gay. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim. Chess fanatics and soccer obsessives.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families didn’t respond to requests for comment and the Kansas News Service didn’t find demographic breakdowns of foster parents online.
Yet some of the companies hired by the state to run foster care services give a clue about the lack of diversity.
Both KVC Kansas and TFI Kansas, two of the state’s larger foster agencies, said about 80% of their foster families are white. KVC said only 3.8% of its families are Hispanic, though 25% of parents did not disclose their ethnic background.
Nine percent of TFI foster homes and 6.8% of KVC foster homes are Black. That roughly reflects the population of Kansas. But not the foster population. Black children make up about 20% of out-of-home placements. Similar disparities don’t exist for Asian, Native American or Hispanic children.
Laney Uphoff, director of recruitment for TFI Family Services, said the agency has more Black children in care than it has Black homes.
A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine examined over 100 children in New York who entered foster care. It measured how different languages, countries of origin and ethnicity impacted children. The study found that children with different cultural backgrounds than their caregivers were more vulnerable to social isolation, depression and behavior problems.
Nathan Ross, a Black child adopted by white parents in Missouri, said that difference affected his sense of belonging and even made him feel shame. He originally wasn’t interested in connecting to anyone, and “ seeing that we looked different made it easier.”
“Not having reference points, people who … look like me, it does make you feel kind of isolated,” he said.
Ross lived with a foster family until he was placed with his adoptive family. Both sets of parents were white. He did live with his biological parents until age 10 and he was placed with his siblings, but he struggled to connect with his cultural identity.
Ross has begun to reconnect with this culture as an adult, but he wonders how his life would have been different if that had come earlier.
“It really felt like they were two separate things. I had my family, and then I had my racial identity formation and trying to figure that out. But they didn’t really go together because no one really bridged that for me,” he said. “You don’t quite fit into either world.”
Race also wasn’t talked about much during his childhood. That made talking about the racism he experienced uncomfortable. Ross loves his adoptive parents and has no regrets about how he was raised, but he said foster care agencies need to invest in communities more so children aren’t put in his position.
TFI is working with “influential black leaders in our community” and recently hired a diversity, equality and inclusion team to examine how the agency handles diversity. It partnered with salons to teach parents how to care for all hair types and has staff take cultural competency courses. KVC Kansas launched a campaign to get more Black parents to become licensed. Black homes were only 4% of KVC’s foster parent population around six months ago when the campaign started.
“Do I think we’re doing enough? Yes, and no,” said Uphoff of TFI. “We’re doing everything that we know how to do right now. Are we still looking for ways to improve? Absolutely.” Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa. Foster parents hoping to talk about their experiences in Kansas can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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