Layer of Identities: How Foster Parents Can Learn to Affirm Identity

By Chantel Ross

Growing up in Ohio, Diamond Walker felt like Cinderella — out of place, unwanted, unloved and unheard.

She entered foster care at age 9, after her mother never came home one evening.

“I just knew people were talking about me,” said Walker, 25. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s the foster kid. Oh, that’s the kid that has a mom who is on drugs. Oh, that’s the kid that got kicked out of her grandma’s house or aunt’s house.’”

Like Walker, many children in foster care struggle to understand who they are and why they’re in the system. Even after earning her degree in social work, Walker said that foster care label never quite goes away.

But growing up in foster care leads to just one of many identity struggles. Children being raised outside of their parents’ homes also struggle to keep strong connections with their race, ethnicity and culture, often alone and with little support. All too often, children from communities of color are placed in white foster homes, complicating the wellness equation.

Foster parents have their own adjustments to make.

How can caregivers and foster parents affirm children’s complex racial and ethnic identities? In interviews with Fostering Families Today, child welfare professionals and those who grew up in foster care said when welcoming a new child into your family home, communication is critical — making the transition smoother and opening up space for future dialogue.

Building Rapport

As a first step, Jeanette Yoffe, Long Beach, California, psychotherapist advises foster parents to spend time educating themselves about the ethnicity, culture and racial background of any child who joins their family.

“The goal is to help the child stay connected to his/her roots, by bathing the child in a variety of culturally rich experiences which affect all of the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting, so the child will see themselves reflected and give them a sense of pride in their heritage,” Yoffe wrote in an email.

Families can let a child choose a meal, or play their favorite music — day-to-day slices of life allowing them to stay connected to their heritage and background.

“Show respect for diversity and differences,” Yoffe said, and be open to frank and honest conversations about race.

An important part of building respect is letting your child know that you’re here to listen, and giving them permission to be themselves. Establishing mutual respect with the birth family is also essential to more fully understanding a child in foster care — letting them know that they can love, care for and identify both with the household they were born into, and the one caring for them temporarily.

“Your child does not need to choose between one or the other,” Yoffe said. “Help your child know that you are glad that some of his fine talents were probably given to him by his birth parents.”

This equation is not always simple, as foster parents typically don’t know a child’s entire history before they arrive, nor the circumstances that brought them into foster care. Leaving space for a child to choose to communicate their needs or wishes is among the ways foster parents can best show their respect.

Maleeka “MJ” Jihad, founder of MJ Consulting in Denver, Colorado, dedicates much of her professional work to ridding the child welfare system of practices she calls culturally incompetent, adding to the burden of those who come from marginalized communities — and too often, a sense of shame.

Understanding Disproportionality and Racism

There are other fundamentals the experts point to. Foster parents must understand their part in the foster care system, and how a child’s racial or ethnic identity can impact their family’s trajectory.

According to the federal statistics, African Americans and Native American children are more likely than other children to be removed from their homes and more likely to have their parents’ rights terminated.

In a 2019 report, the American Bar Association identified primary reasons for this disproportionality, including the connection between poverty and reports of maltreatment, and racial biases among child welfare professionals.

“Biases can impact our work with families in the child welfare system. Bias that goes unchecked can impact the trajectory of a child welfare case for many families. While implicit bias is not always negative, it can lead to discriminatory actions,” the report states.

Make Race an Everyday Conversation

To be sure, Jihad acknowledges it can be difficult to speak about topics that are generally avoided. The discomfort can extend to caseworkers, judges, guardians, attorneys and judges — a network within the foster care system that too often avoids the discomfort of discussing race by pretending it is never a factor in the decisions that affect a child’s life in foster care. Jihad said kids who bring attention to it often can even be “gaslit” — made to feel they’re crazy for assuming racism is at play in their lives.

But since the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer and the international protest movement against racial discrimination that ensued, these conversations within foster homes are more important than ever. Initiating discussions about racial injustice within the foster care system can position foster parents as allies with children of color in their homes, and lead to greater communication on a broad array of topics.

Jihad said this understanding must be foundational: “White people are unqualified to work with communities of color unless you become an ally to that community and you are a part of that community,” she said. “If you are coming in as an overseer of that community, you are an occupied force that was not asked or wanted to be there.”

Not talking about race and acknowledging a youth’s racial identity can be harmful, she added.

Assuming the system is “colorblind is very damaging to people of color because you’re saying ‘I don’t see you. I don’t see that you’re different. I don’t see your struggles,’” Jihad said.

Opening up discussions about race and ethnicity can help children and teens in foster care feel safe discussing other topics central to their identity — including sex and gender identity and mental and reproductive health. Foster parents are advised to be prepared to respond favorably. When a young person is ready to talk, meeting their needs is essential.

Reinforce Identity in Your Surroundings

To affirm is to support, writes Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman in their book “The Social Construction of Reality.” In it they note that identity is strengthened through everyday interactions, daily social and cultural practices, and reinforcement by immediate family and friends.

Foster parents can play their part by surrounding children with activities and items that represent their culture — items like feathers, pieces of cloth and necklaces that trauma expert Yoffe advises parents to place in children’s rooms.

Parents can also choose toys that show respect for the child’s cultural heritage, including finding dolls whose skin color matches theirs. Nightly reading time can include age-appropriate books and materials as well.

“Read books which celebrate the diversity of families around the world,” Yoffe said.

Resources for foster parents can be found on the websites of the Texas Court-Appointed Special Advocates for Children and MJ Consulting. A few included on Yoffe’s booklist, “Eyes that Kiss in the Corners” by Joanna Ho, “Brown Like Me” by Noelle Lamperti, “I am Enough” by Grace Byers, and “Something Happened in Our Town (A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice)” by Marianne Celano are all available on Amazon. •

Chantel Ross is an Emma Bowen Fellow and summer reporting intern for The Imprint and Fostering Families Today. She is a recent graduate from the University of Washington, where she studied journalism and public interest.

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