By Nyell Lopez

The foster care-to-prison pipeline is becoming a national crisis and represents a phenomenon in which youth are disproportionately funneled out of the foster-care system and into the criminal justice system.  

As it pertains to Black girls, this situation is particularly egregious. Yet, not enough people are talking about it. 

In 2018, The Vera Institute of Justice reported that over 60% of girls admitted into the juvenile detention centers in New York were Black. In addition, research conducted by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality confirms that Black girls are 20% more likely than white girls to have a complaint filed against them in juvenile court. It is undeniable that Black girls within our society are deemed less innocent and more adult-like than their white-counterparts. This is further evidenced by the fact that many young girls are forced  into the criminal justice system from as young as six years old, which can be seen in the arrest of 6-year-old Kaila Rolle.  This underlying bias within our justice system says Black girls are “more independent,” they need “less nurturing” and “less protection.” 

The danger of this is that Black girls are being less protected and are entering the criminal justice system at alarming rates. Black girls are more likely to be disciplined for their actions and are vulnerable to authoritative figures like their teachers and law enforcement in comparison to their white counterparts.  

How does this relate to the foster-care system?  

Well, let’s take a look at what Teen Vogue calls the “forgotten care system” by which they mean the foster care system. In their 2018 report Foster Care to Prison Pipeline: What it is and How it Works, they analyze the ways in which the foster care system has drastically changed the lives of millions of children. Girls in foster care are far too often targeted for sex trafficking and because of the criminalization of sex work they are often (once again) funneled into the criminal justice system. Black girls are at higher risk of being sex trafficked because they are susceptible to foster-care involvement, disciplinary actions, and adultification, which is defined as “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations” by researchers at Georgetown Law Center. Moreover, adultification bias can lead to harsher punishments for Black girls, especially those in the foster care system.

The relationship that Black girls have with academic achievement and their households are sometimes a direct indicator of their future success. Thus, transforming the lives of the young women we encounter through mentoring, relationship building, social emotional learning and professional development would best serve this community.

One of the main purposes of the foster-care system is to support children and offer them safe and stable homes. This includes nurturing, caring for, and uplifting them to put an end to this cycle. Allowing them to have a voice in matters that directly affect their lives is not only essential but necessary.  

Black girls within the foster care system are often unstudied, which hinders the system’s ability to  encompass all of the ways in which they experience intersectionality. For example, while you may find  research on the racial disparities within the foster system, you will not find much information on racial gender variances. According to a Pew Research Study in 2019, Black people are 14% of the National Population, but the National Women’s Law Center found that Black girls represent 23 percent of individuals in foster care. Outrageous? Yes, and their population within this system, unless helped, will continue to grow. 

As an effort to prevent the foster-care-to-prison pipeline for Black girls we must also address the  government agencies that were established to protect and serve the families and inquire as to why the institutions have been failing Black girls. We must begin to hold all city agencies accountable for their lack of concerns for equity issues when it comes to supporting marginalized groups. For better or worse, government agencies like the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) are responsible for the overrepresentation of Black children in foster care. In 2017, 53% of the children within the NYC foster care system identified as Black. Tricia Stephens, an assistant professor at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, states “ and where race and poverty are closely paired together, you are absolutely going to see Black children in disproportionate numbers”. As active members of society we must take a closer look at  how these children are being treated once they are in the system. To do so, we need to hear the voices of  the youth who have direct experience with these systems. 

Additional beds are not a sustainable solution. Nor is putting a band-aid over our racist and sexist systemic history. But, supporting our girls by offering stipends, job training and college readiness may assist in this recovery.  John H. Chafee Foster Care for Successful Transition to Adulthood program (Chafee program) provides funds and resources to youth who are currently or previously in foster care.  Each State is responsible for allocating payments and case planning to help youth achieve independence and self-sufficiency. However, recipients must be 18 through 20 years of age. Congress should  adjust the age restriction policy so that children can access the funds at 13 years of age and use the additional grant funding that was allocated to NYS of $12,961,217 for this population. 

It’s time to support more powerful bills that involve youth members’ viewpoints: positive communication, consistent mentors,  and uplifting activities all need to be embedded in the core values of the foster care system as a whole, but also particularly as it pertains to Black girls in order to dismantle this pipeline. 

Where does this leave Black girls? 

Though COVID-19 has drastically impacted foster care and the public education system in NYC, it still remains that over 86% of children in foster care as of 2019, identify as Black and Latinx. 

Their future is ultimately in the hands of the system and the people who control it. Our country can take off the bandage and start the process of healing by giving the stage to Black girls in the foster care system and allowing them to voice their needs. 

Nyell Lopez is a second year MPA student at NYU Wagner. After completing her MPA, she hopes to create access and continue advocating for marginalized groups to create racial and social equity for all. Her main interests include education policy, economic mobility, and community organizing.