By Jewel McFadden

May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month and National Foster Care Month. Foster parenting is when an adult provides temporary care for children who are unable to live with their biological parents for reasons such as abandonment, neglect, abuse, or parental incarceration. Becoming a foster parent was a full-circle moment for me. Born and raised in Washington D.C., I spent time in foster care as a young child until being formally adopted by my paternal grandparents. Being able to provide a haven for at-risk youth was a calling I always knew I wanted to fulfill. 

I was serving as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Chair for WWPR when late one afternoon, my partner and I received our first placement call for a vivacious 12-year-old girl with noted mental health challenges. Having an institutionalized mother, and a father who felt incapable of caring for the child’s needs, she arrived shakily at our doorsteps but was too fearful to come inside our home. After some coaxing from her social worker, she listened as I assured her that I understood her fears and revealed much of her story mirrored my own. We eventually were able to show her to her new bedroom. Today, we are currently fostering our third child. Our latest placement occurred after their biological mom, who suffers from severe mental health issues, became incarcerated.   

Currently, D.C. has nearly 2,500 children who have been placed in either traditional or in-home foster care. Nearly all the children are Black (82%) or Hispanic (16%).

Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than White adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress. Yet Black people are far less likely to seek care for mental health issues. Statistics reveal that about 25% of Black Americans seek mental health treatment, compared to 40% of White Americans.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, some barriers to mental health care include: 

  • Black people have historically been negatively affected by prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. healthcare system. We are less likely to receive guideline-consistent care. Provider bias, both conscious and unconscious, and a lack of cultural competency can result in misdiagnosis and inadequate treatment. This ultimately leads to mistrust of mental health professionals and creates a barrier for many to engage in treatment.
  • Black adults are underrepresented in medical research. In 2020, only 8% of participants in trials for new therapeutic biologics and molecular entities were Black.
  • Socioeconomic factors can make treatment options less available.

In nearly every foster care placement call we have received, mental health illness has undoubtedly played a significant role. 

As a byproduct of the foster care system myself, and a communications professional for the World Bank, I feel especially equipped to speak to children who are in the throes of displacement. As a foster parent, I listen with empathy, use patience, and always try to lead with positive reinforcement. I make a point to create a safe space to share feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly feelings. We speak of therapy in a positive light and acknowledge mental health wellness as important as physical health. Many foster children will be subjected to therapy at some point while in the system, so it’s important to me that they enter those rooms without shame. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, adolescents with foster care experience are diagnosed with PTSD at twice the rate of U.S. war veterans.

Recently, we received a standard home check-in from the Child and Family Service Agency. Social workers will often stop by your home to do wellness checks on the children you have in care. I left the room to give them privacy and allow for honest responses. Perhaps the most gratifying moment of my life came when the social worker asked our current foster kid what she does when she feels unsafe or scared. I was later informed that her response was, “tell Ms. Jewel.”

Jewel McFadden is a publications officer at the World Bank and 2023 WWPR DEI chair.