I wrote this article in response to an op-ed piece on WashingtonPost.com.
Relisha Rudd has become the poster child of a flawed system recently. Her face and story were plastered on WashingtonPost.com last week and the public began examining the “safety net” that failed to protect her.
Shamika Young, a 27-year-old mother of four was living in a D.C. homeless shelter that was once General Hospital. Her eldest, Relisha, often spent time with the shelter’s janitor, Kahlil Malik Tatum. But in February, she went away with him and never came back.
After the little girl was missing for a month, police launched a manhunt and discovered Tatum’s body in a shed. Reports say he died from a self-inflicted wound. His wife was also found dead. Police suspect a murder suicide. But the search for Relisha continues.
By asking why Relisha wasn’t “taken away,” writers like Petula Dvorak seem to vilify poverty and endorse a flawed foster care system.
Poverty is a state of being poor, which, as a result, limits people’s ability to live well-rounded, healthy lives. Living in poverty is about survival both physically and mentally.
Just like wealthy people who vacation or binge shop to escape their realities, poor people splurge on trips to the mall and brand named clothes to temporarily feel normal and maintain a sense of dignity. Everyone indulges in escapism, not just the poor.
Dvorak, however, believes that Young’s spending habits and attempts to temporarily relieve the stress of their reality is indicative of her inability to properly care for and protect her children.
As a journalist working the social justice beat in Los Angeles, I’ve interviewed and written about poor women whose children have been taken away, as Dvorak suggests.
Mothers have shared their stories with me, confessing their sins while still desperate to regain custody because they fear for their child’s wellbeing.
One woman, Angelina of Long Beach, Calif., sent me photos of her twin daughter’s severed fingers, explaining that the incident occurred while the baby was in custody of her foster parents. The foster parents had no reasonable explanation.
Also, both of her twin daughters were showing signs of sexual abuse during her visits. Despite reporting her concerns to a social worker, her daughters remained in the care of the assigned foster parents.
Other mothers shared similar testimonies about children acting out in school, rebelling, picking up bad habits and exhibiting emotional distress after being separated from their families.
I interviewed Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) about these issues. Although she couldn’t comment about any individual case, she did say that the system is in need of a serious renovation.
“The number of African Americans in the system is extremely unbalanced. Our kids stay in the system longer and don’t fare as well,” she said. “I think one of the reasons is that our kids are removed from homes inappropriately … I think social workers may sometimes mistake poverty for neglect.”
According to the Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, in 2012, African Americans made up 35 percent of the children in foster care while white children made up 39 percent. But the numbers do not reflect the U.S. population. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Blacks make up 13 percent of the national population while 77.9 percent is white. It also reports that Blacks experience extreme poverty much more than other races.
A study conducted by Theresa Knott and Kirsten Donovan revealed that African American children have a 44 percent higher chance of being placed in foster care compared to whites. It further concluded that race and possibly economic status may play a role in the disproportionate number of African American children in the system.
Wendy Smith, Clinical Associate Professor at the USC School of Social Work, explained that many social workers lack cultural understanding when it comes to impoverished families.
“If you don’t have enough money to provide food, clothing and shelter, it looks like neglect,” she said. “So children are removed for that reason.”
She also added that social workers, which tend to be middle-class white women, often experience a racial, cultural, and economic divide. They often misinterpret those differences as harmful. They frequently separate families of color because their judgment is clouded by prejudice.
Smith went on to explain that social workers are being trained to make better attempts at keeping families together because children are often damaged by separation.
“… There’s been a big emphasis toward keeping families together and bringing families back together because it’s obviously better for everyone if families can remain together,” she said.
The issue isn’t with the parent, in this case Shamika Young, as much as it is with the lack of resources (including therapy) for impoverished people. Dvorak should be questioning the role America plays in the proliferation of poverty and discussing ways to fix the system.