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Multiracial Youth in Care

Document Author: Lisette Austin
Publication: The Connection, Spring 04
Posted: 4/04


People often come up to me and ask the question, "What are you?" I get upset, because what they are really asking me is "Are you Black or White?" I have a hard time answering that question. I confuse people because I have features from both my Black father and my White mother. In my group home, the majority of residents are Black. When I first walked in I was scared, because of problems I've had with people who were confused about my race. Now I'm just trying to be me. It's hard, because people want me to choose one race over the other. To be honest, I don't know how to choose. People are more complicated than any category. 
-Michelle Brown, foster youth


It is indeed a complicated business, straddling races. And it can be particularly complicated when someone is in foster care. Stories like Michelle's are becoming more common as multiracial youth make up one of the fastest growing minority populations within the American foster care system. But theirs is a story that is rarely told or listened to. The reality is that many multiracial foster youth are forced to identify with only one race, and not just by their peers, but also by case workers, foster families, and advocates-a demand that can exacerbate already challenging life circumstances.

In a country that has historically clung to monoracial categories, awareness of multiracial issues is only beginning. Although multiracial individuals have always existed in America, it is only recently that they have been recognized as a large and growing section of the population. The U.S. Census 2000 was the first time that respondents were allowed to report their multiple racial identities. 6.8 million people, or 2.4 percent of the U.S. population, selected more than one race, with nearly half under the age of 18. In cities like Seattle, Sacramento and San Antonio, nearly one in six babies born is multiracial. And with interracial marriage rates soaring, the number of multiracial children will inevitably increase.

As multiracial youth become more visible, so do their unique challenges. MAVIN Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about multiracial issues, recently published the Multiracial Child Resource Book. This unique and timely collection of chapters written by experts in the field of multiraciality provides a wealth of information about the issues that multiracial youth face in America today. 

In a chapter on discrimination, Dr. Heather Dalmage, a sociology professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, discusses how multiracial people often face tremendous pressure to conform to one ethnic identity. This pressure not only comes from majority institutions that still require individuals to "check only one" race on forms, but also from minority groups that pressure multiracial individuals to authenticate themselves by passing cultural litmus tests (ways of talking, who they associate with, rejection of other cultural heritages). "Individuals who comfortably claim one racial identity.may feel confusion, anger, skepticism, concern, pity, hostility, curiosity or superiority when they meet someone who does not seem to fit neatly into a preset racial category," states Dalmage. 

Matt Kelley, founder and president of MAVIN Foundation, says that this pressure is inherently confusing for many mixed heritage youth. "For children who grow up familiar with two or more cultures, it can be traumatic to be forced to choose a single racial identity. They know that they are part of more than one culture, and yet the messages that they receive often reinforce the idea that they are unnatural or alone," says Kelley. Indeed, a recent study of 90,000 middle and high school students found that adolescents who identify as mixed race are at higher risk for health and behavior problems such as depression, substance abuse, and difficulty in school as compared to adolescents who identify with only one race. The researchers hypothesize that one of the main risk factors is stress associated with identity conflict.

It is true, however, that the multiracial experience is as diverse and varied as the number of cultures that coexist in this country. How people experience being multiracial is influenced by where they live, what cultures they have been raised in, and their own personal sense of self. Where some view being mixed race as a challenge, others are comfortable and even enjoy blurring the lines of race and identity.

When identity challenges do exist, they can be compounded when multiracial youth find themselves in foster care. The combinations of an unstable racial identity, an unstable family identity and issues like neglect and abuse can intensify feelings of not fitting in. Add to that a system still biased towards monoracial categorization, and you are left with young people who face potentially frustrating identity conflicts without an understanding support network. Dr. Gina Miranda, an assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, saw this reality firsthand during her years as a social worker. "Because there isn't the built up wisdom in the system on how to deal with multiracial kids, foster care parents tend to go on their own belief systems of what the child needs or doesn't need," she says. "Unfortunately, they are often approaching it from a monoracial mindset."

The fact that the foster care system is not uniform in the way that race is categorized only adds to the confusion. States collect data differently; so depending on where children live, they may be more likely to be labeled as monoracial and viewed through that lens. According to Melissa Wolfe, a former CASA administrative employee who wrote the Multiracial Child Resource Book's chapter on multiracial foster youth, this inconsistency sends the wrong message to workers and families. "It sends a message that it's not worth paying attention to-that multiraciality doesn't matter," she says. 

Placement of a child into an appropriate foster home, an already difficult task, becomes increasingly complex when the child comes from a multiracial background. Those involved have varying opinions, depending on their own racial biases, on where the child would most feel comfortable. "If someone feels that a multiracial child should connect with a parent of color more, then that will affect their placement," says Miranda. People often assume that the child should identify with only one race, usually the one they most closely resemble. Cindy Howe, a former foster youth whose father is African-American and mother is Korean, was frustrated by this assumption. "They placed me with a Black family, which they thought would work best," she explains. "I stuck out like a sore thumb," she says. "Even if someone looks like they are the same race or cultural group, it may not be the best match." 

What further complicates the issue is that each case is unique. Wolfe points out that "being multiracial is going to matter for some more than for others." For some, survival is the main issue; they don't have the time or energy to reflect on their racial identity. Others, just like in mainstream society, are comfortable with having fluid identities, while still others are comfortable identifying with only one of their ethnic heritages. 

With all of this complexity, what can be done to bring a new multiracial awareness into the foster care system, and how can the needs of multiracial foster youth be more fully addressed, whatever those needs may be? 

Cindy Howe has some suggestions that are based on her own experiences. "A greater effort should be made to recruit interracial families and multiracial foster parents," she says. Even if the racial match isn't exact, these families would be "closer to what the kids know." She encourages workers to explore ways to create a supportive and safe environment. "Provide ongoing counseling to help with specific issues and building self-esteem, or have groups where multiracial foster kids can talk to each other," she suggests. She also emphasizes the importance of providing resources for case workers and families.

Although there is a lack of research and training in the foster care system about multiracial issues, there are many new resources available in the greater community. Organizations such as MAVIN Foundation, AMEA (Association of Multi-Ethnic Americans) and Hapa Issues Forum provide materials, workshops and information about community support groups. Websites can be particularly helpful, reaching people who may have little or no experience working with multiracial people due to local demographics. With these resources, case workers, advocates and other foster care employees can begin educating themselves and examining their own racial biases, in turn providing information to families who are open to learning more.

CASA is already looking more closely at the needs of multiracial children and finding ways to educate volunteers. "I regularly ask myself how to make this an environment where advocates can get the support they need when dealing with these issues," says Tracy Flynn, National CASA's training director. She is currently working with MAVIN Foundation to provide training to CASA state directors and staff so they will have information to pass on to volunteers. Although the new 2004 diversity training manual for advocates touches on multiraciality, she recognizes the need for more discussion. "Talking about this is ultimately going to make CASA a better place for people to get the services they need," says Flynn.

Internal support for advocates will be important because advocating for multiracial youth will be challenging. "CASA workers have to recognize that this issue is very political, that people have their own racial agendas," cautions Miranda. "It will be hard to advocate for these kids who will have their own opinions about race, and also work with parents and social workers who also have their opinion." Beginning and sustaining a meaningful dialogue can be especially difficult if people aren't used to struggling with ambiguous racial identities. "The challenge is how to convince foster care parents, particularly monoracial ones, that race often really matters for this group, and in a heightened way that shifts with every person," she says. "The reality is race does matter in our country-whether we want it to or not." 

Diversity is being redefined by the existence of multiracial youth-they are the face of the changing racial landscape of our country. Their very existence forces us to wander into the grey area that exists between racial boundaries, an often uncomfortable journey into what can be an emotional minefield. And with the number of multiracial people growing, it is becoming an inevitable journey that we will be asked to make, whether in our personal or professional lives. Although there is no one formula that best addresses the needs of multiracial youth in foster care, the willingness to begin the dialogue and to ask multiracial youth themselves what they need is an important first step.

Being willing to listen to how children feel about their racial identity can make the difference between their feeling isolated or accepted for who they are. "I've seen kids who are lost," says Howe. "It's one thing when you have your own family and you don't know who you are," she says. "It's even worse when you don't have a family and you don't know who you are. Then you are really lost."


Bill of Rights
for Racially Mixed People

I HAVE THE RIGHT...
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to be responsible for people's discomfort with my physical ambiguity.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy. 
I HAVE THE RIGHT...
To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently from how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently from my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations. 
I HAVE THE RIGHT...
To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial.
To change my identity over my lifetime-and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love. 
Maria P. P. Root, PhD, is author of
The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier

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Multiracial Websites of Interest

Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA) www.ameasite.org 
AMEA aims to educate and advocate on behalf of multiethnic individuals and families by collaborating with others to eradicate all forms of discrimination.

Mixedfolks.com www.mixedfolks.com 
This website boasts a huge database of famous mixed people. Many pictures, links and bios are included.

Polly Wanna Cracka? www.pollywannacracka.com 
Polly Wanna Cracka? is "devoted to presenting quality links and resources regarding interracial, and multicultural families, relationships, organizations, and topics."

Adoption/Transracial Adoption Websites
Adoption Advocates International www.adoptionadvocates.org 
AAI is "an experienced international adoption agency focusing on children from Haiti, China, Thailand, and Ethiopia. We are committed to processing each adoption with respect for the welfare of the child while providing emotional support and guidance for the adopting parents."

Also Known As (AKA) www.alsoknownas.org/splash.html 
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, AKA seeks to serve all people who are or have ties to transracial adoptees. It opens the possibility of intercountry and interracial adoptions for future generations. 

Children's Hope International www.childrenshopeint.org 
Children's Hope International is a nationwide, nonprofit international adoption agency.

World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP) www.wacap.org 
WACAP is one of the largest and most experienced international nonprofit adoption and child assistance agencies in the United States. Founded in 1976 by a group of adoptive parents, WACAP places children with adoptive families and provides medical, educational and financial aid to children in need. 

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This list was provided by the MAVIN Foundation, created by Raymond Lam (Summer 2002) and edited by Jon Higgins (March 2003).


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