Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Courage and a Plan

By Adwoa Masozi
This post was originally posted May 14, 2013 on Reclaiming Futures' blog.

Since 2003, Washington D.C. has seen a 43 percent decline in children placed in foster care. Though some progress has been made we are still seeing greater numbers of families struggling to access the resources they need to stay together when compared to the rest of the country. Our nation’s capital has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country with nearly 50 percent of youth in Ward 8 and 40 percent of youth in Ward 7 living below the federal poverty line. In 2011, Ward 8 had the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

These same wards are predominantly African-American and have the highest rates of children entering the child welfare system, of which 99 percent are youth of color (93 percent African-American and 6 percent Latino) according to research in Fostering Change, the latest report put out by the Justice Policy Institute. Fostering Change shows how family and neighborhood poverty are two of the strongest predictors of child maltreatment, and that the conditions poverty creates can ultimately lead to a child being removed from their home.
When considered in a broader socioeconomic context, poverty becomes more than the absence of income and or earning potential—that is, a lack of work opportunities, quality or not, to support oneself and her or his dependents. It is also dealing with the collateral effects of not being able to take care of basic needs such as buying food, medical care, school supplies and adequate clothing or paying for transportation, utilities and rent. These are just some of the conditions that can lead to children being maltreated. JPI’s report found that abused and neglected children are 59 percent more likely to be arrested, 28 percent more likely to be arrested as adults, and 30 percent more likely to commit a violent crime. In 2011, half of youth under the supervision of the District’s juvenile justice agency, Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services (DYRS), were from Wards 7 and 8.
You see, in the end, these children grow up. For all people currently incarcerated in the United States 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men report a history of abuse as children. So, when we think about the needs of children in poverty, equal thought must be extended to that child’s family on whom she ultimately depends.

How many hardships would be mitigated and lives spared the trauma of family separation and or justice system involvement if they had access to quality jobs, mental health services and for the child, an uninterrupted education? Fostering Change cites parental incarceration, substance abuse and inadequate housing as some of the leading causes for youth involvement in the child welfare system. Nationally, 80 percent of children entering foster care are a result of at least one parent experiencing a substance abuse disorder. In 2010, 1 in 6 District youth entering foster care had an incarcerated parent. Think if substance abuse were treated like a public health issue rather than a criminal one? Or if instead of building exorbitantly priced condos, there were parallel investments made in maintaining and increasing the availability of affordable housing that kept pace with the need, as articulated by the city’s poverty levels?

These problems, however daunting, aren’t insolvable. Families are doing their best and brave varying levels of unrelenting uncertainty every day. That is courage and something we need a little more of in this city—not from those going through it, calling for it, and writing reports about it but the decision makers with the power to eliminate these conditions that flat-line the trajectory of countless African-American and Latino youth in D.C.’s at-risk communities.

The other half of what’s needed is a comprehensive plan that’s viable. Substance abuse, disproportionately high incarceration rates, poor health, and low educational attainment are symptomatic of deeper systematic social inequity and a historical lack of access. Fostering Change is a report in a four-part public safety and juvenile justice series that offers a way forward for the District in the way city agencies, through strategic collaboration and community partnership, address the needs of its most vulnerable residents. Public safety starts with securing our city’s youth, and their families, who need it the most.

Adwoa is JPI's communications associate.

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