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The Intersection of Race, Foster Care Status, and Children with Disabilities: Creating More Equitable Education Systems – Part II


Jill Rowland and

Kelsey White

Research Assistance by Alaina Moonves-Leb and

Karen Martinez-Chung

Alliance for Children’s Rights

In Part one of this article, we explored how historical and structural racism and implicit bias are built into our education system by providing an overview of housing and school segregation in the U.S. as well as a summary of existing research on implicit bias. In Part two, we look at the consequences of this history and its ongoing impact by examining the disproportionate representation of children of color in the child welfare, special education, and school discipline systems as well as the disproportionately poor life outcomes for youth in these areas. We present each of these parts to implore all professionals supporting youth in the education system to always evaluate education inequity in the context of history to craft interventions and, ultimately, create more equitable education systems.

 Unpacking Current Data and Trends

 Disproportionate Representation of Children of Color in the Child Welfare System

 A Look at the Data

Children of color, particularly African American and Native American children, are disproportionately overrepresented in the child welfare system. Nationally, 33% of children in foster care are African American, but only 15% of the child population is (Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare, Nat’l Conf. of State Legislatures (Sep. 28,2020)). As illustrated in Figure 1 above, in California, African American children are only 5.2% of the child population, yet 21.7% of children in foster care. Similarly, American Indian/Alaska Native children are only 0.37% of children in California, yet 1.3% of children in foster care. Although Latinx children are 52% of the California child population and 50.3% of the foster care population, prior research has shown that they are overrepresented in the child welfare system in other states like Utah, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In contrast, white and Asian children are under-represented in the child welfare system. Whereas white children are 26.6% of children in California, they are only 22.5% of children in foster care. Likewise, Asian children are 10.8% of children in California, but they make up only 2% of children in foster care.

 Discussion

Extensive research has been conducted to further understand the causes and consequences of disproportionality in the child welfare system. This article does not fully review that research, but rather encourages careful attention to the ways in which structural racism, classism, ableism, and bias operate in conjunction to produce and exacerbate inequities in the child welfare system and beyond.

For instance, it is impossible to understand the overrepresentation of African American children in the child welfare system without considering the over-surveillance of African American families through mass incarceration, mandated reporting, and the child welfare system itself, as well as systems of poverty. In the United States, five million children have a parent who is or was previously incarcerated, and these children are more likely to grow up with limited resources or enter foster care. This is especially troubling since African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons between five and ten times the rate of whites. Moreover, children of color are overrepresented in reports of suspected maltreatment by all groups of reporters (including mandated reporters) (Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare, Children’s Bureau (Nov. 2016)). Prior research has shown that African American women are more likely to be reported for child abuse when their newborns test positive for drug use and that hospitals over-report abuse and neglect among African Americans but under-report maltreatment among whites.

Studies have also shown that when presented with physical injuries, doctors are more likely to diagnose them as “accidents” among affluent families but “abuse” among poor families. Parents accessing income supplements come under increased surveillance by the state through their system contacts. Poor parents are more likely to face charges of neglect and possible child removal based on conditions related to their financial circumstances such as “poor food quality or lack of medical supervision – factors with which affluent parents are not confronted.” Thus, African American children, who are almost four times as likely as white children to live in poverty, are exponentially more likely to be funneled through a child welfare system plagued with disparate rates of removal and reunification.

Finally, children with disabilities and children of parents with disabilities are overrepresented in the child welfare system. Children with disabilities compose up to 50% of children in the child welfare system even though the rate of disability in the total child population is only 13%. Factors contributing to such disparate rates may include but are not limited to disability bias in the child welfare system, the multiple stressors of parenting a child with a disability, drug and alcohol exposure in utero, and the mental health and behavioral disabilities created by the trauma of living in the child welfare system. Of note, parents with disabilities often face allegations of abuse based in the devaluation of their parenting skills, and their disability itself can be used as grounds for termination of parental rights. Thus, as with race and class, disability serves to negatively influence outcomes for children and families in the child welfare system.

 Disproportionate (Over and Under-) Identification & Representation of Students of Color and Children in the Child Welfare System in Special Education

The stated purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education, including special education and related services, designed to meet their unique needs. However, the special education system’s history of maintaining the subordination of students of color calls into question the presumed neutrality of the IDEA. For example, after Brown vs. Board of Education, schools relied on special education to subvert desegregation orders and over-referred students of color to segregated classrooms.

Today, as shown in Figures 2-4 above, students of color and children in foster care are still disproportionately represented in special education. The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights has confirmed continued over and under-identification of students of color as having disabilities, unlawful delays in evaluating students of color for services, and the overrepresentation of students of color in special education. Over-identification is the inappropriate identification of a student who does not have a disability and does not need services as a student with a disability, whereas under-identification is the failure to appropriately identify a student who has a disability and needs services as a student with a disability. Overrepresentation is when a high percentage of students of a certain race are identified as students with disabilities as compared to the overall enrollment of students of that race.

Notably, as illustrated in Figure 5 below, students of color are disproportionately overrepresented in the most subjective eligibility categories, whereas less subjective categories (e.g., blindness/deafness) are ascribed proportionately. Whereas African American students make up only 5.4% of students in California, they represent 12.7% of students identified as having emotional disturbance (ED). African American students are also overrepresented in categories with a historically negative connotation, such as intellectual disability (8.4%).

Students of color who are initially under-identified and/or experience unlawful delays in assessment and/or the provision of appropriate services, are also more likely than white students to be placed in restrictive, segregated classrooms and harshly disciplined. When white and African American students present with the same behavior, teachers are more likely to see African American students as more aggressive, relegating their “Blackness” to deviance and normalizing whiteness. Thus, behind the IDEA’s presumed neutrality “lies a colorblind ideology, which fails to explicitly recognize how Whiteness is often viewed as race neutral[;]” this “contributes to an understanding of disability that is separate from race and therefore racialized outcomes are located within an individual rather than in systems of oppression… limit[ing] the ability of research-based interventions to eliminate disproportionate outcomes in special education.”

Moreover, recent research has shown that school segregation strongly influences disproportionality in special education: African American and Latinx students are over-identified in predominantly white schools, yet substantially under-identified in schools with large shares of students of color. Disproportionality is produced not only through individual teacher biases or school policies, but also through larger, structural forces.

 Disproportionate Overrepresentation of Students of Color in School Discipline

 A Look at the Data

Students of color are overrepresented in all stages of school discipline including suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and arrest. Teachers are significantly more likely to discipline African American students for relatively minor infractions than any other group, and often want stronger disciplinary actions taken against African American students with a second minor infraction than white students. Nationally, African American students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended than white students. Despite comprising only 18% of public school students, 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are African American. Further, 70% of school discipline cases referred to law enforcement are African American or Latinx students. Decisions to involve police are often informed by both conscious and unconscious biases, which is especially significant considering that the teaching profession is predominantly white.

Students of color with disabilities and those living in foster care experience even higher rates of school discipline. As illustrated in Figure 6 above, students of color with disabilities living in foster care experience the highest rates of suspension in California compared to all students, students with disabilities, or youth in foster care alone. This phenomenon is also observed in the percentage of students with multiple suspensions. As shown in Figure 7 below, 30% of all California students have multiple suspensions, yet nearly 56% of students with disabilities in foster care have multiple suspensions. This data highlights only a few of the ways in which race, foster care status, and disability intersect to produce and exacerbate inequitable school discipline outcomes. However, as detailed below, it fails to capture the unique experience of Black girls.

 Intersectionality: Adultification of Black Girls

Most research on school discipline has focused on African American boys, showing that they are perceived as less innocent and more adult than their white peers. Recent research has shown that African American girls too are viewed as less innocent and more adult, but also as needing less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort. The adultification of African American girls contributes to disproportionate discipline rates, harsher punishment, and an increased risk of juvenile justice system contact. In part because teachers often perceive them as loud, defiant, or precocious, African American girls are more likely to face exclusionary discipline for subjective reasons and are often punished more harshly than their peers for the same behaviors. African American girls are also more likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school. In the words of Dr. Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, “Black girls are being criminalized in and by the very places that should help them thrive.”

 Disproportionately Low Education and Life Outcomes of Children of Color, Children in the Child Welfare System, and Children with Disabilities

Vast disparities in education outcomes persist among youth by race, foster care status, and disability. For example, as demonstrated in Table 1 below, whereas 47% of all students did not perform at grade level on California English Language Arts (ELA) testing, 76% of youth in foster care, 83% of students in special education, and 92% of youth in foster care with special education needs did not perform at grade level. In other words, only 8% of youth in foster care with special education needs met grade level standards compared to 53% of all students. Students of color are even more likely to fall behind. Among students in foster care with special education needs, 94% of Latinx students, 95% of African American students, 97% of American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 100% of Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students did not meet grade level standards in 2018-2019. Math state testing scores reflect similar disparities.

Youth in foster care face unique challenges that contribute to low education outcomes. These youth move an average of eight times while in care and lose up to six months of education with each move. Over 70% of youth in foster care over seven present with trauma and/or mental health symptoms. Youth in foster care are also more likely to be retained a grade, have irregular attendance, or be placed in special education. In fact, by third grade, 83% of youth in foster care repeat a grade.

Figure 8 below illustrates how race, foster care status, and disability intersect to produce inequitable outcomes in graduation rates. Whereas 84.5% of all students in California graduate, only 67.7% of students with disabilities, 56% of youth in foster care, and 46.1% of students with disabilities in foster care graduate. In nearly every category, students of color are less likely to graduate than their white peers. Much of this gap is explained by the level of racial segregation in high schools: schools with higher concentrations of disadvantaged students and fewer resources struggle to provide students of color with support and equitable education opportunities.

Unfortunately, low education outcomes often translate into poor life outcomes. Within two years of aging out of foster care, more than 50% of these youth experience homelessness, face incarceration, or must rely on an abysmal social safety net. Only 3% of students in foster care obtain a higher education degree. To obtain a bachelor’s degree, African American students must borrow significantly more than other students, yet they receive the lowest pay after graduation. Such income inequities factor squarely into and reinforce longstanding wealth inequities: in 2016, median white wealth was $171,000, but median Black wealth was only $17,150. Moreover, the history and current patterns of segregation in the U.S. have made it such that African American families are more likely live in poor neighborhoods, which means African American children are more likely to attend poor schools and experience low education and life outcomes.

 Conclusion

These articles have explored how historical and structural racism and implicit bias are built into our education system and, drawing upon CRT as an organizing principle and using an intersectional lens, unpacked current data and trends in the child welfare and education systems. Despite legislation designed to promote education equity, vast disparities in outcomes persist among youth by race, foster care status, and disability. Federal, state, and local policies and practices as well as individual-level biases have contributed to the disproportionate representation of children of color in the child welfare system, the disproportionate over and under-identification and representation of students of color and children in the child welfare system in special education, the disproportionate overrepresentation of students of color in school discipline, and the disproportionately low education and life outcomes for children of color, children in the child welfare system, and children with disabilities. These disparities were not accidentally created; rather, they emerged from and are continuously reinforced by policies, practices, and biases that function to maintain the status quo and uphold existing systems of power.

Addressing such disparities requires acknowledging these realities and deploying a multi-faceted approach that encompasses policy work at the federal, state, district, and school levels, as well as individual, client-level advocacy. While this work is intensive, and resources to learn more have been included throughout the article, a few starting points include: striving to improve data collection by race, foster care status, and disability to increase accountability; working to shift education funding away from a model based on property taxes; removing police from school campuses and implementing restorative justice practices in schools; providing educators with the tools they need to teach this important history; and pulling upon some of the history and data provided herein when evaluating assessment results or advocating for parents or children in Individual Education Program (IEP) meetings. In each case, it is important to always evaluate education inequity in the context of history to craft interventions and, ultimately, create more equitable education systems.

For more information about the history and ongoing impact of structural racism and implicit bias on the education system and representing children of color in our education system, check out Racial Justice in Education 2021, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

Jill Rowland is the Director of the Education Program at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a nonprofit legal services organization dedicated to ensuring that children have the safe, stable homes, healthcare, and education they need to thrive. Jill is an expert in every area of education impacting foster youth, including early intervention, special education, general education, school discipline, and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kelsey White is committed to serving children and youth impacted by the dependency and delinquency systems, especially in areas related to their unmet education needs. During law school, Kelsey interned with the Education Program at the Alliance for Children’s Rights and, after law school, was awarded a Skadden Fellowship to return to the Alliance and help defend the rights of low-income students of color with disabilities living in foster care.

Alaina Moonves-Leb joined the Alliance for Children’s Rights in 2011 as an Equal Justice Works Fellow to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline for youth in foster care. Alaina advocates for youth in special education meetings and at school discipline and delinquency hearings. As the current Senior Staff Attorney for Statewide Education Rights, she also works on local and statewide policy and lawmaking efforts that impact her clients.

Karen Martinez-Chung worked at the Alliance for five and a half years serving in different positions as Legal Assistant, Education Coordinator and Staff Attorney. She is committed to defending the education rights of system-impacted youth in Los Angeles County through representation in special education and school discipline proceedings.

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