The Imprint has recently published dozens of articles exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on foster youth, and how they perceive and participate in this country’s current reckoning with systemic and institutional racism. It is clear that young people are at the nexus of a set of intersecting crises – most of which have been decades, even centuries, in the making, and only one of which is “novel.”
The pandemic has brought unprecedented stress and anxiety, isolation and economic devastation, all while undermining healthy coping mechanisms. Health disparities that already existed are exacerbated as there are differential impacts along lines of race and class. For example, the ability to maintain social distancing and access healthcare is a privilege directly affected by housing environment, occupation and socioeconomic standing. People of color are more likely to have little choice but to show up to work, directly increasing their risk of contracting the disease and spreading it to their families.
Therefore, it is no surprise that foster youth and families are going to be disproportionately affected as well. A survey from The Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research found that the majority of foster youth surveyed in April 2020 reported COVID-19 had adversely affected their mental health, with 56% reporting clinically significant levels of anxiety or depression.
This was before young people were confronted with the footage of George Floyd’s murder. Millions took to the streets – foster youth as well – despite the pandemic, making clear that they acutely feel the pervasive and corrosive effects of racism and injustice.
Former foster youth recognized and decried their own experience of the police. In a Letter to Black Foster Youth, writer and speaker Sade Daniels described “the intimate nature in which we Black foster youth have been hyper-aware and subjected to the presence of police in our lives.”
Of course, the current protesting is a demand to deal with systemic injustices that are interwoven into the fabric of who we are as a nation. The overrepresentation of youth of color in foster care is understood to both reflect and manifest systemic racism. Racial injustices in the implementation of child welfare systems result in more removals, longer stays, and troubling foster care experiences for children of color.
The intersection of the COVID and racial injustice pandemics will have lasting consequences for marginalized and oppressed communities in the United States – foster youth among them. Whether trauma arises from oppression in the community, families having inadequate support, or structural racism in our systems, young people will need proactive and sustained support to live, grow and thrive.
Yet, only a small minority of foster children ever receive mental health services, and youth of color are the least likely. Access and continuity of care are undermined through a set of structural barriers – insufficient provider capacity, logistical challenges and administrative dysfunction. And when youth leave or age out of care, they often lose access to any services they were receiving. Given these and other persistent health disparities, it is no surprise that in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, a person’s race, ethnicity and income define the quality and intensity of their suffering, and whether they get any help at all.
The writer James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.” There are two hard truths that America’s child welfare systems must face, and then correct:
Systemic racism is present in child welfare. Systems that consistently achieve a result are performing exactly as they are designed. Change them. All first responders can be trained to handle mental health conditions and to become aware of their own implicit racial biases. Abandon racist structures – from the accessibility of healthcare infrastructure to diagnosis and eligibility criteria that pathologize individuals as a precondition for care. Build a workforce that is diverse on every axis from lived experiences to race to sexual orientation to healthcare approach. Recognize that the combination of the pandemics will have generational effects – and accept the challenge of building generational solutions, over the long term.
Our mental health investment is not close enough. We must ramp up our mental health infrastructure and make it sustainable. Demand investment, innovation and care coordination. This starts with our mental health training programs. Mental health professionals should be trained and incentivized to collaborate across professions and to be first responders so that they are intervening with mental health crises versus relying almost exclusively on police. Make mental health services widely accessible and inclusive. Embrace the challenge of making telehealth work. Constantly cultivate cultural competencies among professionals through ongoing conversations and collective actions.
Over the past several weeks, young people have demonstrated that they can and will make themselves heard – whether in the streets of Minneapolis or in the pages of The Imprint. We must hear them, believe them and act. We must hold each other accountable, examine our own insecurities, and leverage what power and privilege we have to change systems, heal communities, and heal hearts. We must remember what we collectively do now will affect and define us for years to come.
Deanna Linville, Felicia Gutierrez, Saralyn Ruff, Reed Connell and Eliza Blackorby are all staff at the nonprofit A Home Within.