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How schools create a “nexus of incarceration” around them

Black foster youth are caught in a nexus of incarceration which is formed by their engagement with child welfare, education and policing. Our recent brief published by UCLA’s Black Male Institute on Los Angeles County public schools serves to elucidate these grim realities.

California public schools educate over 46,000 K-12 students in foster care, and about a third of them attend Los Angeles County public schools. An analysis of 2018-2019 data from the California Department of Education shows that 43% of all Black foster youth students in California are attending public schools in L.A. County. With such a dense population of Black foster youth attending the county’s public schools, it is important to interrogate and address the ways they are being harmed. Educators, social workers and members of the public have a duty to serve and support foster youth.

Black foster youth are being criminalized at every level by their disproportionate experiences with punitive disciplinary sanctions within schools and overrepresentation in the juvenile detention facilities.

Research shows that Black foster youth are being criminalized at every level by their disproportionate experiences with punitive disciplinary sanctions within schools and overrepresentation in the juvenile detention facilities. Emerging research shows that Black foster youth are more likely than their peers of other races to crossover to the juvenile legal system making them more likely to be incarcerated as adults. Black foster youth are unable to escape the carceral traps that come with schooling and engagement with the child welfare system.

Black foster youth students are suspended at a rate of 17% in comparison to the overall L.A. County rate of 2%. Black students in foster care also have the highest representation in special education placement at 37%, as well as the largest chronic absenteeism rate at 34%. It is evident that their schools are not enriching their lives, they are being disenfranchised. Schools are supposed to be places of learning, safety and community. But for Black foster youth, schools have become a threat to their safety. 

It is not surprising that in this context, significant educational disparities exist which impact their high school matriculation. About half of L.A.’s Black students in foster care graduated on time during the 2018-2019 school year. The year before, zero percent enrolled in the University of California system and only 6% enrolled into the California State University system. The county’s Black foster youth are being disenfranchised at almost every turn of their educational experiences. 

We posit that the child welfare system is not broken. Rather it is operating as it was intended to. From slavery to foster care, America is historically far too comfortable with separating Black families. America pathologizes Blackness, categorizes them as more likely to be criminals and neglect their children. This racist pathology serves to justify the dehumanization of Black families. Black families fall to the social trappings of white supremacy capitalism; the majority of neglect cases are because the families are living in poverty. America is touted as the richest country in the world, this is an indictment of the U.S. and the value they place on Black lives.

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To disentangle the most vulnerable youth from within the carceral web we must reimagine child well-being within schools, the foster care system, and the criminal justice system. On campuses and within child welfare, we often create task forces and committees to address inequity, however these often only serve as a conduit to just manage the oppression of Black youth, not dismantle it. We do not need another committee or task force, we need to see actionable change happen within schools and child welfare.

The child welfare system must first interrogate the ways it’s practices and policies uphold systemic racism as well as acknowledging the generational inequity and destruction it has bestowed upon Black families. It must also make changes to the criteria of “neglect,” which historically has been overused in substantiating and trapping Black families in the system. After which, we must begin to build a true community-based model of care which allocates resources to assist families before they become engaged in child welfare and not after.

Within education, we must interrogate the ways that schools collude with child welfare, as they make more child maltreatment reports than any other entity, including law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals. We need to better train school personnel to understand what needs to be reported and also consider revising mandated reporting laws to address bias and ensure that poor families of color are not being overreported unnecessarily. 

Schools must also get rid of exclusionary discipline policies which disproportionately impact Black students and further ensnares them within the criminal justice system. We must focus on providing genuine care for students by removing cops from campuses and re-allocating funding to hire more professionals who help students and families such as counselors and social workers. We cannot have educators who are not willing to examine and challenge how whiteness as an ideology is embedded in language, practices, policies and social traditions. Educators must remove deficit thinking that stratifies students, and empower students to help remove barriers to their success. 

Eradicating racial disproportionality and disparities in child welfare, and the generational trauma it inflicts on Black families, will only be realized when the forcible and involuntary breakup of children from their parents is no longer viewed as an acceptable practice. To put plainly, we need to involve fewer children in foster care.

We need social workers and educators who truly love and care for their students. We need social workers and educators to see the full humanity of Black children. We need social workers and educators who hold power and privilege to understand the plight and oppression of Black children beyond an intellectual and cognitive level. Non-Black people need to understand Black liberation and joy on a somatic level, otherwise our efforts will continue to be futile.

Brianna M. Harvey and Kenyon Lee Whitman Promo Image

We encourage L.A. County child welfare and school administrators to consider the above recommendations, it would aid in disrupting the carceral web which continues to marginalize Black foster youth students and those who are most vulnerable.

Brianna M. Harvey and Kenyon Lee Whitman
The Imprint

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.