The Multiethnic Placement Act: Threat to Foster Child Safety and Well-being?

Despite the efforts of public officials to reduce the time children spend in foster care, many children live in foster homes for a substantial portion of their childhoods. In fact, a child placed in a foster home may remain in that home for an extended period, with a significant possibility of remaining there permanently. In light of this situation, the decision to place a child in a particular foster home is extremely important.

The federal Multiethnic Placement Act (“MEPA “) significantly affects foster care placement decisions. This law expressly prohibits public child welfare agencies from delaying or denying a child’s foster care or adoptive placement on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Federal officials have interpreted MEPA as barring public agencies from routinely and systematically considering race when placing children in particular foster homes. In other words, MEPA precludes these agencies from pursuing children’s interests through a policy or practice of matching a child’s race with that of his or her foster parent.

To date, commentators who have examined MEPA have focused their attention on identifying and weighing the benefits and harms of transracial adoption for minority children and communities. As a consequence, they have not addressed the impact of MEPA on foster care placement decisions in any detail.

In contrast, this Article examines foster care placement decisions. More specifically, this Article uses behavioral biology research on kinship cues and social psychology research on in-group favoritism to formulate a hypothesis that has implications for MEPA’s prohibition on the routine consideration of race in making foster care placement decisions. Namely, children placed with non-kin, same-race foster parents are likely to be safer and healthier than children placed with non-kin, different-race foster parents. The Article calls for a test of this hypothesis, explains how such a test may proceed, and discusses possible implications for laws and policies that address race and foster care.