The Coalition RESPONDs to the Need for African American Foster Parents

“African Americans adopt more than anyone, we just do it informally. It is a part of our history and culture.”

Our local community is in desperate need of more African American foster parents. Why?

Racial disproportionality is a pervasive issue in child welfare. In St. Louis alone, African American children represent nearly 70% of kids in foster care, but less than 1/3 of the general population. Furthermore, only 13% of local foster parents are African American. Twice the number of African American children are placed into foster care compared to Caucasian children. African American children remain in foster care nearly a year longer than their white counterparts, creating more trauma and instability in these children’s lives

We know that children placed within culturally similar foster homes have a better chance to heal. Several studies show that having a strong, positive cultural identity leads to greater self-esteem, higher education levels, better psychological adjustment, improved coping abilities, and decreased levels of loneliness and depression. At the same time, having a strong cultural identity contributes to high levels of social well-being.

A vital step in dismantling social injustices in foster care is implementing anti-racist practices that safely support children in their families and communities of origin. But that is not always possible. As a result, local African American children are routinely placed in Caucasian homes. This is a rare civil rights issue with a proven solution.

In the 1900s, there was a model developed by St. Louis African American foster parents – called RESPOND – that provides a roadmap to ensuring African American children are placed in foster homes that reflect their ethnicity, race, and culture.

With the blessing of the founding RESPOND families, we are reestablishing RESPOND as a program of the Coalition. Natasha Leonard, Coalition’s Director of External Relations, had the privileged to interview the RESPOND program founders, Howard and Vicky Denson, and Rose Wallls. Here is what we learned from them:

NL: Why did you become a foster parent and what barriers did you face? African American children being overrepresented in the agency is not new; what was your first negative experience with the system that made you both think, if we are going to make a change we have to create the unique space for this change?

VD: We went straight to adoption. We decided that adoption was for us, we searched out some agencies and found out that they wanted a hefty sum for a black child. We offered them a donation equal to the fee and they said no. Children’s Home Society was having trouble finding Black parents for children. We found another two that wanted to adopt and started a parents’ group. It didn’t make sense for the agency to charge so much for Black kids. Most Black families don’t have big money to pay for an adoption.

HD: To offer an agency a donation instead of their fee and for them to say no, that was the catalyst. After identifying the North American Council on American Children (NACAC), we started targeting their conventions and workshops and meeting the people in the industry, and learning about the barriers. It became clear that no one was attacking these areas of disparity. After finding out what was funding those parts of NACAC we looked into the Adoption Opportunity Grant. We named that grant Once and For All. We wanted to prove “once and for all” that African Americans would stand up to take care of our own children. These barriers were compounding one on top of the other so we found Rose Walls and turned her loose! After the grant, we went to the conference to bring all the grantees together. Rose, went to the conference and when she finished speaking everyone in the room knew they were in the presence of royalty.

NL: Tell us about the start of RESPOND and your experiences with rolling out this program.

RW:  We became involved with RESPOND because we were foster/adoptive parents. When the job became open, I applied and thought, “Okay I think I would enjoy this work.” We were lucky we had some paid spots with the university with practicum students. We had a very dynamic staff, they were excited enthusiastic, and committed. They were all willing to work nights and weekends for this program. Rolling out the program, we wanted to do informal research to find out the barriers. I gave everyone the task to sign up for foster parent training and to call and visit an agency to find out the criteria of what’s needed to be a foster parent. That was the most important thing I did, there was judgment on where you live, there was a lot of maltreatment around single males, some people were pushed to international adoption, and the fees were all over the place. It was a maze! How are we going to support and train people when it’s a maze to figure out. There was an inconsistency of standards and a lack of information on subsides. When we looked at all these barriers we were able to design aimed or meeting those needs.

For example, you would call and ask for information and it would take three weeks to get back. With RESPOND you would get a call back within 24 hours and a home visit within 48 hours. We had two support Groups. One was called Imani, to help people go through the process every two weeks. We really helped people process their fears and overcome barriers. The second one was called Kumba, which means creativity, this was people with placements already or they were foster parents. They came together every month and we would find out about typical problems with bonding, and share strategies to overcome the issues. They were aimed to go 90 minutes but would go hours just due to the excitement. We wanted to create a safe space to get information but also advocacy and support. That was a very important part of our program to provide support for this community. We did training for our staff as well as child welfare in the private and public sectors. We did training on the adoption bill, Hispanic and Latino culture, Native American disparities, as well as advocacy and awareness, advocating for the families and the child and creating awareness in the public. As far as recruitment, the first year we were going to find 100 homes for 100 families, we met that within 6-months. We had an active staff, board, and volunteers/members that were willing to do anything to meet the needs. They would lend their skills, resources, and time. The graduate students really helped us reach the public, Curtis Williams made an effort to always be in the community. He made a list of every black professional group and we got on their calendar. Everyone else was saturated with the churches, we found more success in the professional groups. We even used the census to find out where the middle class and upper-class Black families were.

HD:  Two major focuses in the grant were to raise awareness of the need, and the second was to kill the myths. The myths were destroying us and acting as an underground code to filter us out. We needed to squash the myths and raise awareness to get parents. When Rose arrived she said, “It might be nice to have some programming.” Who Rose was had a lot to do with the success. It was her sincerity and competency, and she became the face of adoption for our community. She became an expert in the field gaining so much respect she changed policy and effected change. She was quietly changing adoption policies that were serving African American children and that was really important. Rose and her staff made sure to match parents with the right agencies. There was constant monitoring to make sure that each match was going correctly. The industry had nothing but respect for what RESPOND was doing. It was just hard to believe that something like this could be successful that quick.

RW: Vickie did phenomenal work from the first support group bringing together families and interracial families. We had a pool of volunteers to reach out to in case they couldn’t reach us. That was an informal dimension that made it really personable. It gave them another support person to go through the process.

HD:  The home visits were designed to be a preemptive strike against all the barriers. When they left the parents were empowered and engaged to deal with the systems. It became a central point of contact, information, and support. The disparity of African American children being overrepresented in foster care is not new.

NL: Tell us about the first RESPOND team?

RW: Our staff was really just three people. Rose was the team leader and created programs, Curtis Mullins did recruitment, and Janelle George was over public relations and marketing. Curtis reached community events and networks, he did public service announcements with Mayor Boseley. He was always looking for outreach and coordinating the team to get us out to people. We did public events. For trainers, we brought in people from the community. Spaulding for Children was one of the best. At that point, any child over age five, a sibling group, or a minority child was considered special needs. Because those were the children they were having trouble getting out of the system. Elaine Frontier helped educate about the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). There were many excellent people that came through but we had a few national ones as well. African Americans adopt more than anyone we just do it informally. It is a part of our history and culture. in the 1940’s & 50’s they didn’t even allow children to come into the system in some states. We tried to stay away from people who were already doing the work so we didn’t impede their efforts. We found out we could meet everyone in the community spaces we love and share, food stops, barbershops, laundromats, shops.

HD: To my knowledge, no one ever said no to RESPOND, from the St. Louis American running profiles, TV PSAs, Radio PSAs, I’m not sure if anyone ever said no. We had done all the work to establish ourselves.

NL: How does it feel to know the program you helped build that made such a difference will be rebooted in 2022 with ongoing funding and support from the state and community?

VD: We can’t be anything but thrilled and overjoyed. It was so sad to close it just due to money. To know that you guys are realizing it with enough funds and support to make a difference in what’s still a problem in the black community. The fact that a RESPOND adoptive kid was the one that helped spearhead the funding – just wow!

HD: It was sad when we had to close. I was convinced,” RESPOND WOULD LIVE AGAIN!” I remember when I shared Rose’s research with the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition to see how successful this was. When I learned that a freshman black female state Rep. helped convince Missouri to take the lead in making this happen, it was magnificent. There is a God, and I always believed it would come back.

RW: I’m hopeful. There are children waiting, and because there are children always waiting any initiative to try to move them out makes me hopeful.”

NL: What is one thing we must remember or something you’d like to tell those looking to foster/adopt as we navigate this important work?

HD: That initial match- Really vital to keep people continuing to be foster parents, we have to keep feeding positive experiences back. The match is so important in making sure the parents are equipped and ready for the needs of the child. Keep that match issue in the forefront of all you do.

HD: You cannot let the system constrain you, you have to stretch the system.

RW: We did targeted recruitment around special populations regarding those who would consider foster care and adoption. The empty-nesters took teenagers and they were used to the abuse, being yelled at, and sneaking out. They were used to having teenagers (the whole group laughs). We did targeted recruitment around Black Nurses Association and Black Social Workers Association, groups already capable of dealing with the issues. They didn’t even bat an eye at the issues our kids would have. Going after people who did it every day at work. Keep the focus on the love of these kids.

VD: Matching is so crucial, it’s so important. We hear in the news about matches that didn’t work. When you don’t do your homework to make sure it’s a good match that’s horrible for the child. That’s one of the most important things to remember while doing this work.

RW: Parents- Patience and flexibility because the system is slow. We have to be patient, flexible, and on top of our documentation to move things forward. Agencies- see the people beyond where they live, the resources they have, and embrace the love and excitement they have. Even though you all are doing this work every day, let this work energize you.

HD: Joy and Love. This should be the most joyous employment opportunity you’ve ever found. You have to believe you can. Celebrate every success, big or small, and have fun. Surround everybody in love, you can’t lose with that stuff. Don’t dare this in just STL or Missouri, this is a national issue. You have the chance to prove that this issue can be solved and save money in the process, think big, live big, and don’t keep your success a secret. Get deeply engaged in the national associations, make them jealous.

Looking forward…

The Coalition is ramping up to launch the RESPOND program in the St. Louis Community soon. It is our commitment to developing a robust program to meet this very urgent need. We have created a RESPOND Advisory Committee consisting of 18 professionals including; community volunteers, stakeholders, corporations, funders, and Governing and Junior Board Members. The committee exists to provide insight into program development, oversight of program outcomes, and community ambassadorship. Additionally, an in-house education and advocacy team will work to identify and address legislative roadblocks to RESPOND’s implementation.

 Jenny Jones is the RESPOND Program Director. Jenny has worked at the Coalition as a Family Development Specialist with the Jones program for over 5 years, providing extensive training and unparalleled support to community families seeking foster care licensure and adoption readiness. In this new role, she is looking forward to the future of RESPOND and the life-changing impact it will have on African American children entering foster care.

Jenny shared her passion and excitement with us at the end of this wonderful interview: “I’m passionate about this work. Building families has been a passion of mine for a very long time, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. I’m even more passionate to make sure that our [African American] children have families that can support them, and look at them as more than just a number in their household but can see them for who they are, and be that person who is going to ensure that they are successful.

I just keep thinking about the future! In 80 years when none of us are on this earth, they will be here. So we all have the responsibility to ensure that they are going to be able to be successful when we are no longer here. I feel so honored to take is this role. I do not take it for granted.”

The RESPOND program will roll out in 2022 to increase the number of non-relative African American foster families for African American children in foster care.  We look forward to sharing more about this journey with you!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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