by Sarah Corn
When it comes to supporting the disproportionate numbers of LGBTQ+, African American, and Native American children entering Washington State’s child welfare system, everyone has something to contribute. And every contribution matters.
“It takes one person to make a difference,” said Dae Shogren, LGBTQ+/ Disproportionality/Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) program manager for DSHS Children’s Administration. “And there’s no reason that one person can’t be anybody sitting in this room.”
Audience members nodded in agreement as Shogren spoke with colleagues Dr. Marian Harris from the University of Washington Tacoma School of Social Work and Larisa Koenig, Fostering Together’s Native American Liaison at the Rainier Arts Center on Saturday, April 28.
Moderated by Amara Family Outreach Specialist and South Seattle foster parent Trey Rabun, panelists on stage for “Critical Conversations: How Can We Support African American, Native American, and LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care?” suggested an extensive list of personal, community, and system-level places for people to get involved.
Dr. Harris recommended individuals who could spare a few hours a month volunteer as mentors. For LGBTQ+, African American, and Native American youth, navigating the foster care system can be an isolating experience, and mentors provide an invaluable sense of belonging and stability.
Larisa Koenig called on those with time and a car to volunteer as drivers. The travel to and from court appearances, doctor’s appointments, and visitation days can significantly stretch caregivers’ resources. Foster support services like Amara organize transportation helpers to ease the strain.
Visitations are another opportunity for individuals to make a big difference, Koenig said. Birth parents also need transportation assistance, and the visits themselves require volunteer supervisors.
Communities can support family visitations by building better, more natural visitation spaces. Currently, most visits take place in sterile government rooms or MacDonald’s play areas, according to Koenig. Neither location is great for forging personal connections.
Dae Shogren emphasized that community spaces that engage their cultural identity are critical sources of support for children in care.
“Part of it too is just getting with your people,” Shogren said, “and seeing people that identify like you, who look like you, who are like you in many ways.”
Groups like Pizza Klatch for LGBTQ+ youth in Thurston County, neighborhood Girl Scout troops, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the upcoming Spring Youth and Family Mini Powwow, connect youth to peers and mentors with shared experiences.
Trey Rabun invited identity-focused community members, in particular—with the time, resources, and inclination—to consider becoming licensed Safe Space or foster care providers. Much of his outreach work at Amara focuses on recruiting more African American and LGBTQ+-identifying foster care folks.
Potential foster parents who do not identify as Native American, LGBTQ+, or African American should not let that stop them from opening their homes. But, said Dr. Marian Harris, they must be prepared to shoulder the emotional burden and learn to check their biases.
“It’s the responsibility of the foster parent to learn about that child’s background—be it racial, ethnic, or cultural—prior to taking the child into their home. It is not the responsibility of any child, no matter what that child’s orientation, coming into a foster home, to educate the foster parent,” Harris said.
Dae Shogren illustrated the effectiveness of LGBTQ+ training with a story from her office.
A cisgender caregiver they worked with discovered the seven-year-old in her care was gender-fluid while clothes shopping at Target. Recognizing that gender expression may have contributed to their placement in care, she checked herself and followed the child’s lead, collaborating on both gender-neutral and gender-presenting looks.
“I think that caregiver did the best she could with what she had,” Shogren said, “and I totally give her a gold star.”
While personal and community efforts have immense impacts on individual lives, they’re only treating symptoms of the larger problems, said Dr. Marian Harris, author of the book Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare.
“Until the child welfare system really decides to address the issue of racism in that system, we’re not going to resolve this issue,” Harris said.
A legacy of trauma born from centuries of slavery, forced boarding school attendance, and child exploitation gets passed down through generations. It shows up as mental illness and substance abuse at high rates in affected communities, which all three experts agreed was the number one reason children ended up in care.
Dr. Harris encouraged the audience to lobby for a sweeping overhaul of the child welfare system by addressing systemic biases and prioritizing the needs of high-risk children before they enter care.
Harris had a policy wish list at the ready: expand home assessments that prioritize stabilizing families when abuse is not involved; strengthen kinship care support for vulnerable youth; increase mental health services that treat family units. Changes like these would permanently improve the situations for Native American, African American, and LGBTQ+ youth in foster care and their birth families, according to Harris.
A question toward the end of the panel prompted participants to describe their dream child welfare system.
Dae Shogrun’s response spoke for the room:
“We wouldn’t need one.”
Sarah Corn is a Rainier Beach resident
Featured image: (From left to right) Panelists Dae Shogren, Dr. Marian Harris, Larisa Koenig, and moderator Trey Rabun answer the questions projected behind them at “Critical Conversations: How Can We Support African American, Native American, and LGBTQ Youth in Foster Care?” on Saturday, April 28 at the Rainier Arts Center. Audience members could submit questions anonymously online and upvote ones they liked. (Photo by Sarah Corn)