In a public demonstration of their presence and pain, dozens of young people and their supporters gathered under bright New York skies Saturday for what they billed as the first-ever march for Black foster youth.
The crowd accompanied by drummers reached 150 people by late afternoon, when the “March for Forgotten Youth” stopped traffic to cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan and supporters rallied in front of the Administration for Children’s Services.
“We demand our humanity be recognized,” Larry Malcolm Smith Jr., 21, who helped organize the event told the crowd in a voice that echoed off the marble steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall. After entering foster care as a toddler, Smith passed through 23 different foster homes before aging out of the system. He now lives in a shelter for homeless youth.
Facing the headquarters of the city’s child welfare agency, Smith read out a list of 15 demands focused on prioritizing affordable housing for foster youth, increasing training for foster parents, and recruiting more foster fathers. He also called on David Hansell, the agency’s commissioner, to meet with former foster youth in person.
Speaking boldly into microphones, other foster care alumni shared their stories of how they found their footing after aging out of the system. After entering foster care at age 12, Jamell Henderson, now 35, said he was lucky to live in just one home with a foster mother who patiently guided him through his teen years and helped him find independent housing.
Many in the crowd also had troubled journeys through the child welfare system. Talisha, 31, spent 18 years in foster care and knows the system “like the back of her hand.” She brought her school-age daughter with her to the Saturday march.
“I was not protected or cared for, and it’s by the grace of God that I’m alive,” she said. “I’m here to fight for the future children.”
The crowd included foster families and adoptees as well as activists and supporters with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Amid calls to defund the police following the killing of George Floyd, both local and national advocates have renewed calls to reform and upend the child welfare system as it is currently operates throughout the country – disproportionately separating Black and Native American children from their families and terminating their parents’ custody rights at higher rates than in white families.
Last month, another group rallied in the Bronx calling for ACS to be abolished outright.
In a statement sent Sunday afternoon, ACS said it had contacted the march’s organizers to discuss how they could “work together to accomplish our shared goal of supporting youth in foster care.”
Though it did not respond to the organizers’ demands directly, the statement noted that ACS now requires every staff member to take an implicit bias course and has been advocating to have training on implicit bias added to the mandatory reporter training, which is offered by the state Office of Children and Families.
“It’s true that there are racial disparities in child welfare, not just in New York but across the country, which is why it’s something the Administration for Children’s Services is very aware of and concerned about,” said the statement.
Those disparities are personal for Shamiyl Bilal, a 17-year-old Black activist who spoke at Borough Hall – just steps from the ACS office where she had been interviewed a few years prior, following her parents’ split. Bilal recalled feeling pressured to say that her mom had been abusive. Despite investigations that stretched on for several years, ultimately she was never removed from her home.
“I don’t know how life would be without my mom – it probably would have been a disaster,” Bilal said. “In an unstable world that doesn’t accept my skin color, at least I’m in a stable home.”
Another speaker invoked the name of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old foster youth who was killed by a Chicago police officer in 2014. After video was released the following year showing he had been shot 16 times, the city erupted into protests.
More than half of all Black children are investigated by child protective services by the time they turn 18, according to a 2017 study by professors at Cornell and Washington University in St. Louis. That disturbing fact was present in the crowd of marchers Saturday, who shared the internal cost to the young people raised by government agencies.
“There are thousands of Black foster youth who just want to be loved and supported,” former foster youth Henderson said. “They have been ignored – but today, the world heard our anger and our pain.”
This story was updated to include a statement provided by the Administration for Children’s Services on September 27, 2020.