The Oregonian: Native American, African American children more likely to be taken into Oregon foster care
Author: By Michelle Cole
Posted: April 12, 2010

After 13 years in Oregon foster care, Hannah Morrison is only beginning to learn who she really is.

Morrison knew that she is part Native American and part African American. But she wasn't exactly sure what that meant.

Taken into state protective custody when she was 6, Morrison has lived in more than 25 different homes, mostly with white foster parents. She never lived in a Native American home.

Now 19 and eager to graduate from both high school and state foster care in June, Morrison is seeking out her Ojibwa tribal heritage.

"Culture for a person is really important," Morrison said. "It makes up who you are. When you lose it, you feel like a part of you is gone."

The Oregon teen is sharing her story this week during the National American Indian Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect being held in Portland. It's a sad yet inspiring story but not radically different than the stories of many other minority youths taken into state care.

Authorities report that the rate of child abuse is about the same for white families as for minorities. Yet, in Oregon, Native American children are in foster care at nearly six times the rate that their population would suggest. African American children are twice as likely to be in care.

A study last year by Portland State University indicates children from those groups also stay in state care longer.


To find out, PSU researchers convened focus groups with more than 200 caseworkers, families, tribal leaders and others from both urban and rural communities.

In a report released last month, researchers said they heard about bias throughout the system. Focus groups said the state needs to recruit more Native American and other minority foster parents and offer more help to parents instead of rushing to take their children away.

"The issues in Oregon are very similar to the rest of the country," Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said Monday.

Cross noted that Multnomah County has one of the nation's most disproportionate rates of Native American children in foster care.

He cited the need for Oregon to work more closely with the tribes and said the state should spend its money on preventing family problems -- helping parents find a job, kick a drug habit or get mental health care -- rather than pay the $24,000 a year it costs to keep just one child in foster care.

At the same time, Cross said, he is encouraged that Oregon is talking about what it needs to do to reverse the number of Native American children taken into state care. The PSU research is part of the work under way by a governor's "Child Equity Taskforce," which is scheduled to deliver its recommendations in October.

Erinn Kelley-Siel, director of the state's Children, Adults and Families division, says "Oregon has work to do to reduce the overrepresentation of Native American children in foster care.

"We are absolutely committed to that work," she said, "which means engaging tribal partners from the beginning, providing culturally specific services to families, and actively working to safely keep families together."

Hannah Morrison loves her current caseworker, but still she wishes the state had done more to keep her family together or to help her connect with other relatives.

She and her stepsister lived in the same foster home when they were little girls but were separated when Morrison was 12.

If her mother had been able to have parenting classes, employment help or an affordable place to live, Morrison says, "Maybe I might have gone home sooner."

But that is not how Morrison's story turned out.

Her mother died in 2008. Morrison has instead sought help from the Native American Youth & Family Center in Portland to reconnect with her other relatives and her Ojibwa heritage. After high school, she plans to start dual enrollment classes at Portland Community College and Portland State University. She hopes to become a child welfare caseworker.

Morrison smiles and reports that she has learned to say "hello friend" in her native tribal language.

"It's like a missing puzzle piece," she said. "It's hard to complete the whole picture without it."