Economic and Social Vulnerability of Latino Children and Families by Subgroup: Implications for Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Approximately 40% of all Latinos are under the age of 20, and close to one-third of all Latino children live in poverty. The Latino population varies considerably, however, a factor that is frequently obscured by data collection methods that either view Latinos collectively or fail to differentiate Latinos at all from within racial groups. This articles describes the social, economic, and family structure variables that place specific Latino subgroups at risk, synthesizes available data on Latino children in the child welfare system, and discusses a direction for research and practice in developing ethnicspecific child welfare policy for vulnerable Latino groups. The authors conclude that services to strengthen families have to promote economic as well as social integration within society and have to consider the unique characteristics of each Latino community.

Latino* children remain "invisible and unaccounted for" in the child welfare system, yet they represent the largest growing and most vulnerable group in the United States [Ortega et al.1996:15]. Approximately 40% of all Latinos are under 20 years of age. As a group, Latinos bear a disproportionate burden of persistent poverty and low educational attainment, with many children and their families vulnerable or at risk due to both economic and social inequality [President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans 1996; Garcia 1993; Miranda 1991; Duany & Pitman 1990]. Until relatively recently, Latinos were frequently viewed collectively, a tendency that masks the differences and the particular vulnerability of certain groups compared with the relative well-being of other segments of the population. Vulnerability is viewed here as a function of economic status and how institutional arrangements work against families' efforts to participate fully in society and enhance their life options. The emphasis here is on social and economic disadvantage and does not signify "cultural disadvantage," which has too often been the resulting interpretation. Latino families are marginalized as a result of social, economic, and educational disadvantages that have restricted their active role in the policy-making processes that influence their lives and the lives of their children [Ortega et al. 1996; Shartrand 1996; Enchautegui 1995].

Latino families have not often benefited from existing social service programs; from local, state, or federal initiatives; or from private funding sources. Historically, adequate data on Latinos at all levels has not been collected, thus limiting the mobilization of resources to respond to their needs [U.S. Surgeon General's National Hispanic/Latino Health Initiative 1993; Zambrana 1995]. Lack of information has hindered the ability to identify and confront the heterogeneity within the Latino population, and the fundamental human service and child welfare needs within each Latino subgroup [Courtney et al. 1996]. Furthermore, social science literature has tended to describe Latinos from a culturaldeficit perspective. Only recently has this perspective shifted to one of separating cultural or ethnic attributes from the socioeconomic conditions of Latino communities. A tendency remains, however, to ignore the socioeconomic context of many Latino families, posing the risk of turning the perspective full circle"poverty of culture" rather than "poverty itself" becoming yet again the definitive lens through which Latinos are viewed [Martinez 1994; Family Resource Coalition Report 1994-95].

Vulnerable Latino children and families have in common high levels of poverty; limited resources, such as education, employment opportunities, and work-related benefits (health insurance, pension plans, paid sick days); and a number of obstacles to overcome in order to access social service organizations. These factors potentially place a large number of Latinos at risk for entering the child welfare system. Yet limited information is available on Latino children in the child welfare system. …