An estimated 80% of the more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States are struggling with significant mental health issues as a result of trauma associated with neglect, abuse, parental drug use, the death of a mother or father, and more.
In Arizona, the nonprofit Aid to Adoption of Special Kids works to help children persevere during their time in the system through training, mentoring, and additional services for foster children and parents alike.
“The greatest value we can add to the foster system is providing relationships with children who say, ‘No matter how you identify, no matter what race you are, no matter what happened in your home or who your parents are are or what they’ve done — we see value in you and we’re here for you,'” said Russ Funk, director of community engagement for the Phoenix non-profit organization known as AASK.
Established in 1988, the group strives to place children in permanent homes while providing them with support to help them cope with the circumstances that put them in foster care in the first place.
“One of the things that all children in foster care share is that they went through trauma — the trauma of abuse, neglect, or being abandoned that led them into the child welfare system in the first place,” Funk said.
“Added to this is the trauma of being removed from their home. You haven’t done anything wrong. … But sometimes they’re just pulled out of school or daycare, or literally wrestled out of the arms of their caregivers.”
For children of color and LGBTQ youth who find themselves in foster care, that trauma is multiplied, Funk and other experts said.
In Arizona, about 12,000 children are in third-party care, according to statistics from the Arizona Department of Child Safety, with Black and Native American children being overrepresented in the system compared to the general population.
The same differences exist nationally, according to statistics from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In 2020, Black children made up 20% of children placed in foster care but only 14% of children in the US, while Indigenous children made up 2% of children placed in foster care and 1% of all children.
Research also shows an over-representation of LGBTQ youth. A 2019 study found that 30% of youth in foster care identify as LGBTQ+ and 5% as transgender. This compares to 11% and 1% of LGBTQ youth who are not in foster care, respectively.
Casey Pick, senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a California-based nonprofit that supports LGBTQ youth in crises, said her organization is among those working to narrow those disparities — in part through funding of more acceptance and reconciliation in families with LGBTQ children.
The project’s research team is also examining the mental health experiences and challenges of LGBTQ youth placed in foster care to inform policy.
“Much of this work begins with data collection that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as clear categories so policymakers can better understand the populations they serve and the unique challenges they face in the care system,” said Pick in an email to Cronkite News.
For years before his death in 2020, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., lobbied for a bill to prevent federally funded child care providers from judging potential foster or adoptive families based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status. Others in Congress have taken the torch from Lewis with a goal of increasing the number of foster homes for children, but the bill remains stalled.
“As an LGBTQ adoptive parent and a proud mother of four boys, I am painfully aware of the widespread discrimination in the adoption and foster care system in this country,” said U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., as she introduced the 2021 bill again a. “No state should allow discrimination against LGBTQ foster children or adoptive parents who can provide a safe and loving home.”
In a 2015 resolution calling for more federal investigation into the overrepresentation of black children in foster care, the NAACP found that black youth tend to stay in foster care longer, “move more often, receive fewer benefits, and are less likely to either.” returned home or adopted” than other children.
In Arizona, AASK offers the Foster Parent College program, which teaches foster families gender identity issues and how to care for children from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. AASK has even included seminars on specific topics, like hair care for black children.
Funk, who is white, and his wife were foster parents and two of their four children are adopted and multiracial.
“They integrated into our home from a very early age and so it was just a natural thing,” he said, adding that those experiences have pushed him to work with other foster families.
And while AASK and similar groups may not be able to prevent the differences that exist in the system, Funk said, “We just live with it and then try to address it.”
“We … have always been committed to the belief that the most important thing children need is the relationship, and that relationship must start from an attitude of openness and selflessness,” Funk said. “As a foster family, I should be committed to helping children, regardless of race, regardless of (any) personal bias about race.
“I really need to focus on the kid.”