Happy #HispanicHeritageMonth! Each year, from Sept. 15-Oct. 15 we celebrate and honor the heritage of the Hispanic community and their contributions to our country. There are currently 62.1 million Hispanic people in the U.S., comprising 19 percent of our total population.
Who is Hispanic?
For starters, “Hispanic” is an ethnicity and not a race. Hispanic people are those who speak Spanish or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations (think Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican)—as opposed to Latino/Latina people, who come from or are descended from people from Latin America regardless of language (Brazilians, for example, speak Portuguese, and thus are not considered Hispanic.) Despite the differences in these populations, the terms Latino and Hispanic are often used interchangeably, sometimes generating debate and disagreement. The U.S. Census bureau leaves it up to residents to self-identify as Hispanic.
To gain a clearer understanding of the history and nuances of defining Hispanic identity, this article from Pew Research Center is very helpful. It states, in part: “The terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” are pan-ethnic terms meant to describe – and summarize – the population of people living in the U.S. of that ethnic background. In practice, the Census Bureau most often uses the term “Hispanic,” while Pew Research Center uses the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” interchangeably when describing this population.”
Notable Hispanic Americans include Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Sen. Marco Rubio, Cesar Chevaz, Sandra Cisneros, Zumba Fitness Founder Betro Perez, and “Cinderella” star Camila Cabello.
Hispanic Children in Foster Care
Nationally, Hispanic children are underrepresented in the foster care system; more than 25 percent of our child population is Hispanic or Latino while they account for nearly 21 percent of children in foster care.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Massachusetts or Connecticut. In Connecticut, Hispanic and Latino children represent 33.4 percent of children in foster care, but only 19.5 percent of children statewide. In Massachusetts, Hispanic and Latino children are the most overrepresented population in the child welfare system, comprising 32 percent of children in care and just 19 percent of the Commonwealth’s child population.
In a February article in Commonwealth magazine that examined the overrepresentation of Hispanic and Latino families involved with DCF, advocates attributed the higher level of involvement not to higher rates of abuse and neglect by Hispanic and Latino parents, but rather to a variety of factors such as poverty, cultural bias, and language barriers.
Maria Mossaides, the Massachusetts Child Advocate, described how these factors can come into play in child welfare decisions:
“For example, Mossaides said, if a child falls out of a tree, breaks their arm, and goes to the emergency room, white parents from Weston are unlikely to be questioned about why the child was in the tree and not properly supervised. A black or Latino parent from Worcester or a non-English speaking parent is more likely to be questioned, and potentially reported for neglect.
“‘In a middle-class family, a kid falls off the bed, the presumption is it’s a horrible accident, they learned their lesson,’ Mossaides said. ‘With poor people, there’s a sense of, you should have known better. There are different standards that apply depending on your financial circumstances.’”
Another advocate, Susan Elsen of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, pointed out how cultural bias in the system can adversely impact Hispanic families:
“For example, the agency might impose space and room requirements, which would consider having a child sleeping on a living room couch unacceptable, even if the child is comfortable. Latino families may be more willing to rely on extended family or community to supervise a child, while DCF wants more supervision in the immediate household.
“‘Often, if you evaluate a family from a perspective of a white middle-class person and you haven’t been trained to understand the way another culture might operate, what their strengths are and how they do parenting, then you may just see differences as deficits, and you may not even perceive the strengths,’ Elsen said.”
In acknowledging the disparities for Hispanic and Latino families in its most recent annual report, DCF stated that it is “mobilizing specific initiatives to address the disparities in child welfare in Massachusetts while paying close attention to racial equity work in child welfare agencies nationwide. Initially, the Department will look closely at available data and address workforce, policy, and program strategies to promote equitable outcomes for children and families.”
The Commonwealth article notes that DCF has established a racial equity workgroup and steering committee to do that work, in addition to recruiting and hiring a more bilingual and bicultural workforce as it looks to make the system more equitable.
In Connecticut, the state committed in 2013 to remaking its Department of Children and Families into a “racial justice child welfare agency.” In 2016, the department created a Statewide Racial Justice Workgroup, which has since held two racial justice summits focused on racial disparities in education and the need for racial justice across child welfare, educational, judicial, and youth advocacy organizations.
Another possible solution is the use of race- and ethnicity-blind decision making about removing children from their homes, which we have blogged and otherwise written about before. In this model, out-of-home placements are determined without knowing a family’s race or ethnicity, names or addresses (which can provide clues about race/ethnicity). Instead, the decision is made solely based on information about current and past allegations of abuse and neglect, and risk factors such as mental health, substance abuse, parental stressors and the number of children in the family. The Nassau County Department of Social Services saw a dramatic drop in the number of black children being removed from their homes after piloting a race-blind decision making process.
Issues Facing Hispanic People Living with Disabilities
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in six Hispanics live with a disability. Among some Spanish-speaking cultures, stigma around disability can run deep. As YouTube influencer and disability rights activist Andrea Lausell has pointed out, the only words in Spanish to describe disability are “negative … like broken or bad.”
The disability rights nonprofit RespectAbility maintains a list of “Talented Hispanic and Latinx People with Disabilities.” It has also highlighted the contributions of Hispanic and Latino/Latina celebrities like Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Salma Hayek who use their platforms to share what it’s like to live with a disability in order to reduce the stigma associated with having a disability. Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, told RespectAbility: “It’s important to speak up about the things you believe in, because your voice will be heard no matter what position you’re in. I just happen to be in a position where more people would hear my voice.”