(stock photo courtesy of Fotolia)

Each year during Black History Month we reflect on the contributions African Americans are making to our great country.  It’s become customary this month be used to galvanize African Americans around the issues disproportionately impacting our community.

African-Americans have always been a strong and resilient people – so I have no doubt that despite the numerous challenges facing our community today, we can also take on another that is more than deserving of our time during this month of reflection and mobilization.

The disproportionate number of African American’s in foster care must remain in our conscience during Black History Month, and the many more months to come until these disparities are eradicated.

Studies show children of color enter foster care at disproportional rates than their share of the general population.  The Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care once summarized the state of African American children in the system as facing “the gravest disparities.” In 2011, black children made up 14 percent of all children but accounted for 27 percent of foster children.

Almost a decade ago, the disparity was even greater with only 15 percent of the child population being black, yet African-Americans made up 38 percent of the foster care population.

Once in foster care African-American children remain in the system on average far longer than Caucasian children, lagging behind in key indicators such as maintaining children in their homes, number of placements with adoptive parents and reunifications with their biological families.  These disproportionalities have been described as a “chronic crisis” and it’s hard to come to any other conclusion knowing what is waiting for foster youth who do not get the proper support that all children need.

Foster youth without proper support are at a higher risk for unemployment, poor educational outcomes, health issues, early parenthood, long-term dependency on public assistance, increased incarceration rates and homelessness.

Whether it’s reflecting on the life of Malcom X or celebrating the achievement of recent Superbowl Champion Michael Oher, the promise of African American foster youth is on full display this month as both of these leaders overcame challenges from living in the foster care system. Now is the moment to galvanize the nation’s attention around the need for transformative change within the foster care system.

During President Obama’s Inauguration last month we invited former foster youth to share their stories with key lawmakers and advocate for changes in the foster care system.  Just like the youth who led the way with peaceful sit ins during the 60’s, these youth quietly and persuasively made the case for transformative change.

A national dialogue is needed to develop policies so that children spend less time in foster homes and young adults who have grown up in foster care have more support in making the transition to independent living.

Ultimately comprehensive federal finance reform is needed in the foster care system.  Child welfare agencies should be allowed more flexibility in using federal funding to support innovation so that the very best practices can be brought to bear in assisting foster youth with the numerous challenges they can face.  Taking this approach allows child welfare agencies to do more with what they have, instead of relying solely on additional funding that may be hard to come by in these tough fiscal times.

Outside of federal finance reform we can also continue to explore legislative fixes such as the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which was promoted by the House Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and signed into law by President Obama last month.

The legislation grants child welfare agencies and caregivers access to foster youth educational records so that when foster youth move throughout the system their school enrollment is not delayed.  Before this legislation, foster youth not only faced enrollment delays, but were also forced to repeat coursework over and over again because without their educational records it was difficult to determine what grades they should be placed in.  This resulted in several foster youth dropping out of school altogether.

So as we reflect this month let us also take a moment to acknowledge the challenges of all foster youth, but particularly African American foster youth.  We’ve seen from our nation’s history that transformative change can occur in the face of insurmountable odds.  It’s time to again come together and raise our voices for foster youth across the nation in need of our love and support.

Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) serves as Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, a group of 68 bipartisan members of the House of Representatives working to provide a forum to discuss the challenges facing all foster youth and develop policy recommendations for improving child welfare outcomes.