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African American Males in Foster Care: Academics or Atrophy

African American males in foster care face educational challenges.

African American males in foster care face educational challenges.

Parallel Challenges

The following depicts actual events and conversations that transpired almost a decade ago, but the sad truth of this struggle is still standing toe to toe with America. And according to family and children nonprofit organization KVC Kansas, the issue is alive and festering.

Children of all races suffer from abuse and neglect; however a significantly greater percentage of African American children enter and remain in foster care.

I have been told that the greatness of a nation can be measured by how it cares for its elderly and children. The strength of America cannot be denied, but the policies and politics which govern foster care placement predispose the system to wide gaps and trapdoors through which many children fall.

Current research indicates that foster children lag behind their adolescent counterparts in literacy and reading comprehension, that they are more apt to be incarcerated later in life, and that African American males remain in foster care longer than other groups.

The situational obstacles for this population are complex, tragic, and often have no foreseeable resolution. Likewise, there is an overwhelming research consensus that African American males, in general, are at risk of educational failure.

Perhaps no other group is in greater need of specialized learning opportunities than that of African American males living in foster care.

— Steven C. Tate


The Grim Reality

Many African American males are placed in foster care every year due to parental neglect and/or abuse. Foster care placement for African American adolescent males may lessen their chances of moving forward and achieving educational success. The system is overburdened with red tape, long delays, and inadequate staffing for facilities (GAO, 2007).

Yet, I was fortunate enough to gain entrance into a foster home for boys, as a researcher, before the state withdrew funding and abruptly closed the facility in Spring 2010, after 37 years of service to the community.

My study centered on the reading responses of African American males in foster care, in hopes of helping them to improve their reading comprehensions. I was able to sit with, read with, and listen to the voices of four African Americans, ages 14 to 17.

My observations were in a natural setting where the boys were free to explore their feelings, fears, and hopes, by way of poetry written by them and by well- known black poets.

My visits to the home underscored the reality of foster care’s impact on the quality of one’s education while exacerbating other risk factors. In our conversations it was disclosed by the residents that school was boring, and that no one can be trusted.

TJ (real names are not used) stated that he stays to himself to keep away from “all of the drama.” TJ was tall and thin with a fine coat of black eye liner on his lower eyelids. He often wore a black scarf tied around his entire skull and sported very tight jeans.

Factors in foster children’s adolescent development and the search for a positive self-identity become entangled and result in these young men vacillating between a biological identity and a “foster child” identity.

Children removed from their homes, schools, religious environment, physicians, friends, and families are disengaged from their cultural background. They are denied the opportunity for optimal development and functioning.

African American boys at risk of educational failure too often have been victims of abuse and neglect. Raj stated that, “You can be hurt so long by so many people that you don’t feel anything anymore, you just feel nothing.” What stood out in my mind about Raj was the dark blue polish on his fingernails. He was a fair-skinned boy with very direct eye contact.

As I read aloud various poetry selections, my chosen four watched me with the glee of first-graders. However, when I turned the tables and asked them to read the poems, then and only then did they start to verbalize what the poetry meant to them.

On one occasion I mispronounced a word and Raj told me to read it over because he loses meaning when a word is misspoken. Raj wrote a poem entitled, "My Obligation is My Occupation," and occupation meant anything he was doing at the time.

Ken emerged as the leader of the four. He was the oldest, most vocal, and would chastise the others for being late or not reading aloud when asked. It took Ken several sessions before he could establish eye contact. After he established eye contact (which I interpreted to mean “I trust you”), he revealed a troubled past with a drug-addicted mother.

De, the target of much criticism, was preoccupied with having to go to court to see his mother. He did not want to see his mother at all. He did not explain why, but he kept saying it over and over again.

Truancy from the program was a concern, according to the director. She confirmed that most of the boys were from homes where sexual, verbal, and physical abuse was rampant. Furthermore, the boys had multiple placements because of inadequate foster care.

Ken would be 18 soon and would have to leave the facility. The facility was preparing him for independent living. He had no home to go back to. After what was to be my last session with my group, De came to my car and hugged me and told me not to forget to come next week. There would be no next week with them.

Past, Present and Future

It is imperative to underscore how traumatic foster care can be for children of all colors. However, being an African American male in foster care increases the risk factors. Separation from the home leaves the black foster child with a huge disconnect from his cultural identity.

Not being able to form and sustain a cohesive and continuous educational foundation stacks the deck even higher against their future success and well-being.

Intervention by researchers and outside parties with this population is often marred by the residents’ multiple placements and privacy concerns. Nevertheless, research is warranted to bring attention to this population and their plight.

Ken wrote a poem about his past, present, and future. He did not know where his future would take him. He knew that his past was behind him. Nevertheless, he was in a state of cognitive dissonance when it came to his present disposition.

A future or a failure?

A future or a failure?

Works Cited

Government Accountability Office (GAO). Report to the Chairman, Committee on Ways and Means, House of Representatives. "African American Children in Foster Care. "2007. July, 2007.

Krezmien, M., & Mulcahy, C."Literacy and Delinquency: Current Status of Reading Interventions with Detained and Incarcerated Youth." Reading and Writing Quarterly. Vol. 24, {April 2008): 219-238.

Tate, Steven, C. "The Academic Experiences of African American Males in an Urban Midwest

Foster Care." Journal of Social Studies Research, Fall, 2001.

Zabel, R., Nigro, F. "Occupational Interests and Aptitudes of Juvenile Offenders: Influence of Special Education Experience and Gender." The Journal of Correctional Education. Vol 58. (2007): 337 – 355.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Linda Joy Johnson