by Katie Anastas
When LaShaun Bellamy and her husband decided to adopt a child, they knew they wanted an American child of color. She was aware that children of color were overrepresented in the foster care system, and they wanted to make a difference.
Bellamy spoke to friends who had experience with foster parenting and adoption, did online research about the foster care system, and called local organizations about specific concerns, such as health risks facing children with prenatal exposure to drugs.
“We did our homework to get around what’s true and what’s not,” Bellamy said. She eventually fostered and adopted her son through Amara, a local nonprofit foster care agency based in the Columbia City neighborhood.
But not all prospective foster parents can conduct this type of independent research before getting involved. Many – especially those belonging to communities of color – are often dissuaded by myths about the foster care system or the impression that their family must fit a narrow set of requirements. Bellamy said these myths serve as huge barriers for potential foster parents.
To address these concerns head-on, Amara recently started an initiative to recruit more African-American foster parents. This initiative will involve building relationships with community leaders, forming an African-American advisory council, and developing a new outreach plan.
Since summer 2016, Amara outreach coordinator Trey Rabun has met with African American leaders in social work fields, academia, the LGBTQ+ community, and religious groups.
Rabun said building connections among community leaders will allow Amara – and the idea of foster parenting in general – to become more familiar with local communities before asking people to get involved.
“Then, we’re not just an outside agency coming into communities saying, ‘Hey, we need you,’” Rabun said. “We want to make a two-way relationship there.”
Eventually, Rabun hopes to create the aforementioned African-American advisory council consisting of community leaders, current foster parents, and former foster children from King County and Pierce County. He said this council would represent various aspects of the African American community and work together to craft an outreach strategy.
Amara currently offers a variety of services for families at all stages of the foster care process, including sanctuary housing for a child entering foster care, therapeutic child care, health screenings, and trips to the zoo or aquarium. Not all foster parents adopt their children, but for those parents who do, Amara offers post-adoption counseling and organizes support groups.
Rabun said a child’s cultural needs are just as important as health and education.
“We realized that we should try to increase the diversity of the foster families we’re working with to meet the cultural needs of these kids,” he said. “Kids tend to thrive best in families with parents who look like them.”
Bellamy said many people feel like their families or homes aren’t good enough to take care of a foster child. She said any family can provide the love and support a foster child needs, regardless of the parents’ sexual orientation, marital status, race, or financial circumstances.
“There’s no one definition of a family, and their homes don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “You don’t have to live in that shiny home in Medina to be a foster parent.”
Rabun also seeks to address concerns about the foster care system itself, especially in the African American community. In 2016, parents of color were twice as likely to experience investigations into reported child abuse than white parents. Rabun said concerns about the state’s role in the foster care system are valid because of the history of high abuse allegation rates.
“There is some distrust of the state and of this system, given that long historical context,” Rabun said. “We want to address that and let them know that we’re here to support them and address those concerns openly and honestly.”
As the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services wrote in a report on foster children of color, the high number of African-American foster children isn’t due to higher abuse rates. Instead, other factors like institutional bias play a role. For example, African-American children are more likely than white children to be removed from their homes after being referred to Child Protective Services.
“In addition, child welfare systems nationally are challenged to license enough African American foster families to provide substitute care for children who cannot return home,” they wrote. “More often than not, black children are placed into the homes of caring, compassionate white caregivers, who, while well-intentioned, lack some basic knowledge about the very real risks and struggles black children face.”
Bellamy said many foster parents worry about the difficult circumstances a foster child may have experienced prior to entering their home. She said foster parents should be aware that they have to be comfortable with any responsibility they are taking on.
“Foster parenting is voluntary. If you feel that a child requires more care than you can give, then that child won’t be placed in your home,” Bellamy said. “There is a certain amount of control that foster parents need to understand that they have. They’re not handcuffed to particular wills of the state or wills of the social worker. They do have choices.”
Bellamy said this element of choice and awareness is what makes foster care unique among other parenting options such as international adoption. Details like the child’s parents, medical records, and prior living situations are available in state records.
“You’re not in the dark about your child’s circumstances,” Bellamy said.
Soek Mun Ng, Amara’s communications manager, said Bellamy’s situation is unique because she considered adopting through foster care from the beginning. She said many families have come to Amara after unsuccessful fertility treatments or international adoption attempts.
“They’ve tried other avenues to parenting, and then they see foster parenting as a last resort,” Mun Ng said. “What we’re trying to do is present it as an option that they should consider along with the suite of other parenting alternatives that are out there.”
Rabun noted that transracial families can also be successful. Amara offers trainings that focus on supporting white families who are taking care of children of color. Bellamy said that, as long as parents are aware of cultural differences, transracial adoptions can work.
“The number one thing is that a child has a loving, stable home,” Bellamy said. “There are some extra things you have to work at with a transracial adoption, but I think any dedicated parent can make that work.”
Mun Ng said Amara welcomes all types of families.
“We are open and inclusive,” Mun Ng said. “We welcome anyone who has a desire to do this.”
In May, Amara plans to host a community conversation about foster care at the Northwest African American Museum. The event, which will officially mark the beginning of Amara’s initiative, will include a film screening and a panel discussion to debunk myths about foster care and address concerns.
“I’m hoping that, once these community leaders know about Amara, learn more about us, learn more about foster care and the realities of it, that they can then spread it out through their networks, their congregations, and their friends,” Rabun said.
Bellamy said it’s important to remember that, regardless of a family’s race or financial circumstances, any dedicated family can provide foster children with the loving home environment they need.
“Don’t necessarily assume that your family is not the right one for a child,” Bellamy said. “Most of these children are in circumstances that are not of their creation. Stability, a dedicated set of parents, and consistency are the best medicine.”
Katie Anastas is a senior at the University of Washington pursuing a major in journalism and a minor in Spanish. She has written for various publications in Seattle, including Crosscut, The Seattle Globalist, and The Daily of the University of Washington. Follow her on Twitter at @KatieAnastas.”