When child advocates in Connecticut look at the faces of children in foster care, they can't help but notice that most of them are black or Hispanic.
Statewide, African American children make up nearly 36 percent of those in foster care, even though they make up only 11 percent of the state's overall child population, according to the Department of Children and Families.
It is similar for Hispanics: They make up about a quarter of the foster care population, but only 13 percent of the general population.
And DCF statistics show that the trend permeates nearly every stage of the child welfare system. A disproportionate number of families of color are referred to state officials, investigated for abuse or unstable homes, and have their cases substantiated by investigators.
And, ultimately, the percentage of minority children who enter foster care is higher than the percentage of minority children in society.
"As you go deeper down the spectrum," said Hector Glynn, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, "it actually gets darker."
Connecticut's numbers mirror those across the country. A federal report released late in July scrutinized why African Americans enter foster care at a more disproportionate rate than any other ethnicity.
The report found that although African Americans make up 15 percent of the child population nationwide, African American children make up 34 percent of the national foster care population.
DCF officials said they have long been aware of the situation, and in July they completed a pilot program in Waterbury that officials hope can be emulated statewide to decrease the number of African Americans and Hispanics under their care.
During the two-year program, officials met with children, parents and community group leaders to discuss how and why African Americans and Hispanics end up in foster care, and they hammered out strategies to try to rein in the trend.
DCF officials said some of those strategies - such as new training that encourages caseworkers to help children learn more about their racial identity - have been or will be implemented across the state.
Leaders of state child welfare groups and watchdog agencies praised DCF's program as a good first step toward addressing an age-old problem.
But they also said the state needs to follow up with serious action or risk the momentum withering on the vine. And state officials and watchdog groups alike say tangible solutions are hard to come by because the root causes of the problem are broad.
Minority parents tend to live in impoverished communities more often than whites do and have limited access to resources, like drug or mental health counseling, that help keep families together.
They also tend to interact more often with child care workers, which can create the perception among parents that the child welfare system is out to seize their children.
Augmenting the problem is the fact that caseworkers, even those of minority descent, are not always properly trained in how to interact with families of color.
"A lot of time, certain caseworkers might perceive African Americans as more assertive or not as compliant as people of other cultures are," said Cindy Ayers, assistant director of the Government Accountability Office, which authored the federal study.
"And they might not deal with that appropriately or know how to deal with that appropriately."
Glynn, of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, said many foster care workers do not appreciate that everything they do - from how they interview a parent to what details they choose to note on home inspections - can reflect their own economic or racial biases.
"Whether we recognize it or not, [caseworkers] are gatekeepers to the system," he said. "You can look at the numbers and see the problem exists. We are the ones doing it."
DCF officials pushed the Waterbury pilot program, in part, to address some of those issues. Officials chose Waterbury as the site because it was a large urban center with demographics similar to those found statewide, said Siobhan Trotman, a DCF program director who oversaw the program in conjunction with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Based on meetings and discussions with parents, teachers and children in Waterbury, DCF officials introduced several measures there that they hope to replicate at other sites.
Among those measures are introducing more outreach and early intervention programs at schools with high numbers of minority students, and contracting out positions to make sure family members who might not speak English can still access DCF resources. Both measures are geared toward breaking down barriers between DCF caseworkers and minority communities that might distrust them. If that can be done, DCF officials believe children in those communities might have a better chance of avoiding foster care altogether. Other measures take a more circuitous route to addressing the high minority populations in foster care.
For instance, many foster children said in interviews that they wished they knew more about their ethnic heritage. One girl of Hispanic descent told program officials that she wanted to learn Spanish and how to cook ethnic food, Trotman said.
So program officials drew up new training for caseworkers that encourages them to talk to foster children about their heritage and enlist their natural and foster parents to do the same.
Now, a caseworker might urge the white foster parents of an African American child to have the child's natural parents come to the home once a week to do the child's hair, or teach the foster parents about skin care, Trotman said. Though Trotman acknowledged that such a change in training might not seem to correlate with the number of minority children entering foster care, she said just getting caseworkers and foster parents to think more about race is a good step.
"If people are paying more attention to race and ethnicity," Trotman said, "it's going to impact the disproportional population eventually."
The program's recommendations are sound, child advocates and watchdogs said. But they also said the state could do more.
For example, DCF staff in Waterbury began distributing questionnaires to troubled families, asking about their relatives, with the goal of finding out whether extended family might be willing to care for a child in lieu of foster care, Trotman said.
But in Washington, D.C., some caseworkers go door to door in neighborhoods to map out which households would be willing to help struggling families by babysitting children or taking custody of them, Glynn said.
"They might not be the resources DCF is used to," he said. "But they're the resources the family relies on the most, like neighbors and extended family, and so forth."
State leaders could also increase access to subsidized legal guardianship, critics said. According to the federal study, other relatives besides parents are often willing to take custody of African American children in danger of entering foster care.
But often they ultimately do not because they cannot afford to, Ayers of the GAO said.
Connecticut does provide subsidized guardianships, but the children have to enter DCF custody for at least six months before the guardianship takes effect.
This waiting period can sometimes deter families from applying for the subsidy, which in turn means that more children end up in foster care.
"If a family is in trouble and wants the grandmother to take care of the kids right away, the grandmother might not have any resources to do that," said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
State lawmakers, Stone added, could rectify the problem by shortening the six-month waiting period.
Although Trotman said she was confident that the Waterbury program led to some progress, she cautioned that it could be years before there are significant changes in the numbers.
"That's the frustration with this issue," she said. "It's not like I can implement a program and say the numbers immediately went down because of that program."
Glynn agreed that the challenges facing state child welfare officials are daunting.
"DCF can't solve racism, and they can't solve a lot of the issues that come up because of it," he said.
"But if they don't address it upfront, it will always be a catalyst for problems and one of the reasons that things don't get solved."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at