September 15 is the start of Latino Heritage Month. More than 62 million Latinos reside in the U.S. with two-thirds being of Mexican ancestry. They have moved from key states such as Florida, Texas and California to every part of the country including the state of Washington, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
With such a large population, it should come as no surprise that thousands of children of Latino origin form a significant percentage of the U.S. foster child population. The Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Center revealed that the number of Latino foster children increased from 14% in 2000 to 21% in 2011 or roughly 84,000 kids. That’s close to the population of Boca Raton, Florida or San Marcos, California in San Diego County. In 2020, the number of Latino kids in foster care had expanded to more than 90,000.
In what way are Latino foster children being discriminated? All children who are placed in foster care are now under the care of the government. As such they all equally deserve protection, care and services from the government. However, this is not happening for Latino foster children when it comes to family finding.
To be clear, when we talk about Latino foster children, many, if not most, people immediately think about the children who are sent over the southern U.S. border wall without an accompanying adult. The vast majority of these children end up in federal care and generally are not counted as part of the number of children in U.S. foster care. A study by the Urban Institute revealed that contrary to the public’s perception that our foster care system is awash in newly arrived immigrant children, the youths who are making up more and more of the Latino foster care population are instead second and third generation U.S. citizens.
Even though the majority of Latino foster children are first and second generation U.S. citizens, this does not mean these kids have no ties to their country of origin. You yourself may have relatives living in other countries. I still have relatives in Europe and a few years ago met cousins previously unknown to me. Equally so, the majority of these foster youths have great-aunts, grandparents, and other adult relatives still living in Latin America.
Family finding is all about finding not just one relative but all adult relatives. One of the principal goals of family finding is to locate and notify as many relatives as possible. The federal government agreed and supported this goal through the wording in the Fostering Connections Act of 2008.
Sec. 103 Notification of Relatives of the Fostering Connections Act of 2008 states:
“. . . that, within 30 days after the removal of a child from the custody of the parent or parents of the child, the State shall exercise due diligence to identify and provide notice to all adult grandparents and other adult relatives of the child (including any other adult relatives suggested by the parents), subject to exceptions due to family or domestic violence…”
Many states passed foster care laws with similar wording. Senate Bill (SB) 993 from the Texas 82nd legislative session amended the Texas Family Code provisions regarding notification of adult relatives to include the Fostering Connections requirements on this issue and to clarify that “this notice must be provided to all adult relatives related to the child within the 3rd degree of consanguinity (i.e. all grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and siblings).”
California Regulations under their Welfare and Institutions Code 302. (b) state:
“Unless their parental rights have been terminated, both parents shall be notified of all proceedings involving the child. In any case where the social worker is required to provide a parent or guardian with notice of a proceeding at which the social worker intends to present a report, the social worker shall also provide both parents, whether custodial or noncustodial, or any guardian, or the counsel for the parent or guardian a copy of the report prior to the hearing, either personally or by first-class mail.”
In spite of these specific instructions found in national and state laws, thousands of Latino foster children are being denied their equal right to have their relatives located and notified. We are usually not talking about trying to reach a great-great-uncle or fifth cousin. In thousands of cases, we are talking about the lack of any thorough attempt to locate and notify fathers, mothers, aunts and grandparents.
The California Welfare and Institutions Code 319. (d) specifies how a foster child should be cared for by his/her relatives:
(2) If the child can be returned to the custody of his or her parent or guardian through the provision of those services, the court shall place the child with his or her parent or guardian and order that the services shall be provided. If the child cannot be returned to the physical custody of his or her parent or guardian, the court shall determine if there is a relative who is able and willing to care for the child, and has been assessed pursuant to paragraph (1) of subdivision (d) of Section 309.
(f)(2) As used in this section, "relative" means an adult who is related to the child by blood, adoption, or affinity within the fifth degree of kinship, including stepparents, stepsiblings, and all relatives whose status is preceded by the words "great,” "great-great," or "grand," or the spouse of any of these persons, even if the marriage was terminated by death or dissolution.
In order to have these options, proper due diligence to find and notify a foster child’s relatives has to occur. In thousands of cases, foster care agencies may be trying to find a child’s mother, older sister or grandfather but are sadly failing to do so. The principal reason for their failure is that almost all caseworkers lack the training and resources to do a thorough international due diligence. A continual lack of success can lead to caseworkers not wanting to put forth the effort to comply with the laws.
As a leading expert on locating relatives in Latin America, I can tell you that just being able to communicate in Spanish does not mean that the person is gifted with knowing how to find family members in a Latino country. Calling a consulate or embassy does not mean a caseworker knows how to research and locate people in countries such as Mexico, Guatemala or Argentina no more than having food catered by a restaurant and claiming you cooked it makes you a chef. By the way, the general mission of any consulate is not to find its own citizens living in its own country.
Searching for and finding a person in another country takes expertise. Caseworkers are not likely to develop this expertise unless they receive appropriate training. It’s a fact that social workers are overburdened with forty to seventy foster child cases. Consequently, the reality is that there is simply no time to for virtually any case worker to develop a level of expertise where they can consistently do a successful family finding in another country.
Sadly, the end result for thousands of Latino foster children is that family finding is being performed by untrained, although caring, social workers where the results fall far short of the legal mandate to notify “all adult relatives related to the child within the 3rd degree of consanguinity (i.e. all grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and siblings).” The result is that tens of thousands of Latino foster children are left in the system for years until they age out. Those who are forced out of foster care at age 18 or 21 often leave with no family connections or support. (good place to put the iStock image of the guy with a sign, maybe wrap around the text.)
An obvious solution is for U.S. foster care agencies to contract out international family finding at the very least for Mexico. Many agencies across the country already have agreements for other organizations to perform certain services, especially family finding. Their management realized that they lacked the infrastructure or training to do proper due diligence. Rather than being considered a managerial failure, delegation shows a high level of expertise. Those agencies that have recognized that certain activities are better performed by knowledgeable third parties should be applauded.
Unfortunately, even when other agencies have access to a third-party experienced in family finding, the management will use a “lack of funds” excuse in spite of the fact that county agencies are receiving millions from the federal government to specifically perform this due diligence. It's time for agencies to accept their limitations with performing international family finding and enter into partnership with organizations that can execute a thorough due diligence. It’s time for the public to stop letting these agencies take our millions and millions of tax dollars and give us nothing in return.
It’s also time to stop allowing this abuse of Latino foster children because of managerial incompetence by foster care agencies that are putting budgets ahead of the mission to care for and do the best for all foster children in their care. This means that for a certain segment of foster children, more effort needs to be made to do successful family finding. That must be the mission, the goal for every foster child.
All foster children deserve to be treated equally. Parents and relatives are to be found and located to give each child the best opportunity to be placed with a loving, caring family member instead of left to languish for years under the care of a government entity. Denying roughly 90,000 foster children their chance at a better, brighter future because their mother or grandfather lives an hour or two south of the Texas or California border is an obscenity.
Whether you are Latino or not, raise your voice. Call your local Representative and voice your concern because at the end of the day we are talking about innocent children who are victims to begin with and who are now being victimized one more time by foster child agencies. Latino Heritage Month is about family and connections. Let’s do what we can to help more foster children be with their families next year. That would be a cause for true celebration.