May Is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, when we take time to acknowledge the contributions, culture, and achievements of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders to the U.S., and also to acknowledge the hardship and injustices they have faced as a community. As such, it’s a good time to look at some of the issues faced by the AAPI people whom we serve—be they children in foster care, youth aging out of foster care, or adults living with disabilities. It’s especially important given that Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S. and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are the third fastest-growing demographic.
Who falls under the AAPI umbrella?
It is a diverse demographic, to be sure. More than 24 million AAPI people call the U.S. home, with nearly all tracing their roots back to at least 19 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. As of 2019, six origin groups comprise 85 percent of all Asian Americans: Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese. The term Pacific Islanders includes Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Guamanian or Chamorro, Fijian, Tongan, or Marshallese people and encompasses the people within the U.S. jurisdictions of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.
AAPI Children and Families and the Child Welfare System
Locally and nationally, AAPI people are largely underrepresented in the U.S. child welfare system.
According to a 2016 report by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, Asian American children account for 4.8 percent of the U.S. child population, but account for just .5 percent of all children in foster care. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander children, according to the report, are more proportionally represented in U.S. foster care, accounting for both 0.2 percent of the total child population and 0.2 percent of children in foster care.
Similarly, in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Children and Families’ (DCF) most FY2020 annual report, Asian children comprise 7.1 percent of the commonwealth’s child population but account for 0.8 percent of children in foster care. (The report doesn’t include complete data for Pacific Islander children, but notes that there were two Pacific Islander children in foster care in FY2020.)
There is not a large body of research on AAPI families’ involvement with the child welfare system or why they are underrepresented in it. The Child Welfare Information Gateway report noted that it was unclear whether underrepresentation is due to “a lower occurrence of child maltreatment among those populations— perhaps due to cultural protective factors—or if it is caused by underreporting due to cultural perceptions of others or those populations being less likely to report maltreatment because of cultural norms.”
Other researchers have attributed the disproportionate representation to the reluctance of the AAPI community to seek services, a lack of visibility to professionals, language barriers, and systemic bias.
One study found that the children of foreign born Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, Hawaiian, Guamanian, Samoan and Pacific Islander mothers in California were more likely to be reported to child welfare authorities than the average AAPI child of a U.S.-born mother. The researchers posited the increased involvement of Southeast Asian groups (Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians) stemmed from risk factors associated with their histories as refugees fleeing genocide and civil war in their home countries—including mental health issues—and the resultant need for public assistance to restart their lives in the U.S. The researchers speculated that the Pacific Islander groups saw increased involvement with child welfare services due to risk factors including education, isolation from mainland culture and resources, and low health literacy.
Such conclusions underscore the ongoing need for cultural competency among professionals working in the child welfare field, so that they better understand the geographic, cultural, historical, and economic differences among groups within the AAPI community and create treatment plans accordingly.
The myth of the “model minority”—that AAPI people are the most disciplined, hardest-working, best-behaved minority group in the U.S.—may also contribute to the underrepresentation of AAPI in the child welfare system, as people are simply less likely to believe they suffer from family dysfunction. Scot Nakagawa offers a history of this phenomenon—and its damaging effects on both the AAPI community and racial progress in the U.S.—in his poignant 2018 essay “Becoming Asian.” It’s a great read for insight into the experience of being Asian American.
Issues Facing AAPI People Living with Disabilities
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one in 10 Asian Americans and one in six Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders lives with a disability.
AAPI people active in the disability rights movement have spoken out about the challenges of their dual identities, most notably the marginalization they can be subject to within both the AAPI and disability communities. In a 2014, Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, said she has encountered more discrimination and stereotyping based on her disability rather than on her race, gender or class. Wong lamented the shame and stigma around disability that persists in various AAPI communities, which can manifest in exclusion from social gatherings, low expectations, and superstitions about people who live with disabilities.
“This isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom,” Wong also said. “There have always been Asian Americans with disabilities in the U.S. The challenge is encouraging Asian Americans to become active in the disability community and to embrace their disability identity in addition to their other identities with a sense of pride.”
Conversely, Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, is lately more preoccupied with her safety as a Korean American due to the anti-Asian sentiment that spread across the country over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an interview last month, she described donning a hoodie and sunglasses along with her mask to hide her Asian identity. “It was just like, how do I make sure I don’t get hate-crimed by wearing a mask and being Asian, and how do I make sure I protect myself?” said Ives-Rublee, who was born with brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair.
She also talked of feeling out of place in both the disabled and AAPI communities during her college years. She found herself chiding AAPI groups for holding events in inaccessible spaces and feeling overlooked in disability organizations that weren’t interested in issues like the effects of racism on people with disabilities. “I never really felt like I was seen; I would either have to be promoting one side of myself, or another side of myself,” Ives-Rublee said.
And the “model minority myth” can also complicate the picture for AAPI people living with disabilities, as it puts pressure on them to keep up with their non-disabled peers in ways they simply can’t or don’t want to. The Huffington Post explored this in a 2019 article in which an Indian American woman who applied for disability accommodations at her college was accused by her father of taking “the easy way out.” The student, Mohita Abbaraju, described how her parents provided financial and logistical support for her treatment for depression, anxiety and chronic pain, but still expected her to excel academically, graduate. and get a job at the same pace and with the same rigor as her non-disabled peers.
In the same article, Ives-Rublee noted that immigrants living with disabilities are confronted not just with internalized pressure to cure or treat their disability, but also with the added “model minority” stress of having to prove they’re hardworking and worthy of belonging. Such standards, said Ives-Rublee, are rooted in racist policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended immigration from China for a decade and made Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization.
For more insight into the experiences of AAPI people living with disabilities—including recommendations for disability rights organizations to become more responsive to the needs of AAPI people—check out the Disability Visibility Project’s summary of an informal 2016 survey they did of AAPI people with disabilities.