November 21, 2019

Supporting Cultural Identity for Children in Foster Care

By Ariella Hope Stafanson

This article was adapted from the presentation “Foster Youth’s Cultural Identity: An Overlooked Piece of Foster Youth Success” by Ariella Hope Stafanson, Lily Colby and Crys O’Grady, at the ABA Center on Children and the Law’s National Conference on Parent Representation, April 2019 in Tyson’s Corner, VA. Read other articles in the Conference Collection. The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association. 

Strong cultural identity contributes to mental health resilience, higher levels of social well-being, and improved coping skills, among other benefits. Foster youth face and deal with trauma, changing home environments, and lower levels of social well-being than the general population. Often, due to this disruption, former foster youth have lower cultural identity strength than those who did not experience foster care. Child welfare practitioners must examine how they can best support strong cultural identity in foster youth.

With only four states providing a right to culture in their foster youth bill of rights, there is much to be done by child welfare practitioners to support this important area of personal development and overall well-being. Support can range from working with a foster parent, having certain foods in the house, holding the county or state accountable to the prudent parent standard established by the Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, and raising cultural identity during court and case planning.

Case Example

 To highlight the importance and impact of cultural identity on a youth let’s use an example:

At 10 years old, a young girl is removed from her home due to neglect. Her home and her neighborhood were culturally similar, speaking a second language was normal for her, and the food she ate was familiar to her culture and not Americanized. In her home, there was always non-American music playing in the background, and she was raised in line with cultural practices - informing how she viewed those older than her, showed affection, and greeted people. At 10 years old, she is removed and placed in a new neighborhood due to a shortage of foster homes. This young girl moves several times, and, in each of these new homes, there is no music playing that she knows, her diet changes, her ways of interacting with others are no longer considered normal. When she walks home, the neighborhood cultural norms are different -- even the scents are different. What do you think the impact will be if years go by and there is no effort to help her keep her cultural identity? Will her second language be lost? Will she eat the dishes she grew up with? How will it impact her happiness and self-perception if things that used to be so fundamental completely disappear?

The Issue

According to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), of the 437,465 children in foster care in the United States on September 30, 2016 the following came from diverse cultural backgrounds:

  • 44% identified as white,
  • 23% identified as black,
  • 21% identified as Hispanic,
  • 9% identified as multiracial, and
  • 2% had unknown ethnicities.[1]

In turn, these children had diverse cultural identities.

Cultural identity is a significant part of who children are and plays a key role in youths’ lives. By identifying with a culture, which is often tied with an ethnic identity,[2] a child acquires that group’s core values and adopts their sociocultural practices and rituals. This identification helps shape the way a child positions him or herself in society, interacts with others, and thinks.[3]  Several studies show that having a strong, positive cultural identity leads to:

  • Greater self-esteem
  • Higher education levels
  • Better psychological adjustment
  • Improved coping abilities
  • Decreased levels of loneliness and depression[4]

At the same time, having a strong cultural identity contributes to high levels of social well-being.[5]

Cultural identity forms during primary socialization, a stage in life during which a child learns how to view the world through the child’s immediate family and close friends. This view becomes ingrained in the child’s identity.[6] Primary socialization takes place until the child reaches school age, at which point the child’s worldview is embedded and internalized into the child’s sense of self as an individual, unique person. This identity is then strengthened through everyday interactions, daily social and cultural practices, and reinforcement by immediate family and friends. Examples of these distinctive family practices include:

  • Food
  • Holidays and Age Milestones
  • Music and Dancing
  • Clothing – including ways of dressing for special occasions
  • Language – speaking or hearing ones’ language

What happens to this identity when a child is ripped away from his immediate family and friends and placed in a new environment – a common experience for foster youth?

Cultural Identity and Foster Youth

A 2015 study[7] showed 20% of foster youth changed their ethnic identity when asked how they identified over a five-year period, which is twice as high as non-foster youth. Additionally, ethnic identity is most often mismatched between how youth self identify, how the county identifies them, and how the school has classified them. The study notes the problem of having weak cultural identity and underscores the need to increase fundamental support for youth to maintain a strong identity, for “ethnic identity is essential for promoting youth well-being and success.”[8] The mismatch of ethnic identity between the youth and the bureaucracy that guides them leads to missed resources, or missed opportunities to educate foster parents on how best to support the youth.

Strong cultural identity is tied to lower rates of depression, anxiety, isolation, and other mental health challenges. Over 60% of children in foster care have psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety.[9] While there are many contributing factors to mental health, strong cultural identity helps the child deal with adverse experiences and transitions and can reduce depression and anxiety.

The role that strong cultural identity plays in mental health, self-esteem, and over all well-being cannot be ignored. To explore this issue, a statewide survey[10] in California asked questions of youth who had experienced foster care (n=40) in California and those who had no foster care experience (n=39). Participants were asked about demographics, social well-being, and cultural identity strength. Children who identified as having foster care system involvement were asked about their experiences with culture in the foster home

The statistical similarity of the two groups, former foster youth, and non-former foster youth, allows comparison. The ethnic makeup of former foster youth who responded was 21% white, 12% Hispanic, 8% multiracial, 9% black, 9% Asian, 3% Native American/Native Hawaiian. This captured a wide range of experiences from diverse backgrounds. For example:

  • Former foster youth have statistically significant weaker cultural identity strength than non-former foster youth. On the Usborne scale, a scale used in the study to measure cultural identity strength, former foster youth averaged a score 4.5 points lower than non-former foster youth.
  • Of those former foster youth who noted a specific aspect of their culture as important, the following percentages of youth were able to access that aspect throughout their time in foster care:

Aspect of a youth’s culture noted as important

Not able to access at all

Not able to access as much as wanted


Not able to access nearly as much as wanted


Able to access almost as much as I wanted


Able to access as much as they wanted to

Eat their culture’s food n=20









Speak or hear their culture’s language n=13









Attend or participate in cultural holidays or age milestone events n=26









Exposed to or allowed to wear cultural dress n=10







Experience cultural dancing and music n=23









  • When foster youth had access to aspects of their culture they noted as important “as much or almost as much” as they wanted to, they had stronger cultural identity strength than those who did not have similar access

These research findings show that former foster youth need more support to strengthen their cultural identity to be on par with those who have not experienced the foster care system. In sum, we are failing foster youth when it comes to cultural identity.

Where the Law Stands

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.[11]

Just four states in the United States legally provide the right to cultural heritage activities for youth in foster care via youth rights explicitly:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Hawaii
  • Pennsylvania

Illinois law states[12] that it is the foster parent’s responsibility to support foster youth’s activities to continue a relationship with cultural heritage. This places the onus on the foster parent instead of establishing a foster youth’s inherent right, that if necessary can be advocated for by the affected youth or a concerned adult, such as a social worker or attorney. Missouri law[13] similarly says foster parents shall provide care respectful of a youth’s cultural identity.

Additionally, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014[14] and the Enhanced Resource Guidelines produced by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges encourage cultural identity connection. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening of Families Act of 2014 is legally binding federal legislation that requires states to develop prudent parent standards for caregivers serving foster youth. The prudent parent standard centers around creating an environment of normalcy that the youth would experience had they not been in foster care. This legislation explicitly requires that cultural practices, foods, connections, and other activities that support a youth’s cultural identity be supported.

The Enhanced Resource Guidelines, while not legally binding, provide in-depth guidance regarding expectations child welfare practitioners should meet to adequately serve youth. The Guidelines state throughout that judges, attorneys, court-appointed special advocates (CASAs), and guardians ad litem (GALs) must know about many domains outside the law, including the cultural backgrounds of the youth they are serving. Further, the Guidelines state that, when supporting family engagement, creating trauma-responsive environments, or engaging in protective, adjudication, disposition, or permanency hearings, these actors must understand and consider the culture of the youth and family. While these Guidelines are not legally binding, they highlight the expectation that culture be a core part of legal considerations - and every action taken in child welfare hearings and in the minds of those working on behalf of the youth.

In most of the United States, the cultural identity needs of foster youth are not clearly legally protected. These needs are only protected through legislation stating that cultural identity should be supported. Without more tangible legal backing that mandates consistent implementation across counties and states, the efforts of foster youth, social workers, foster parents, and children’s lawyers to advocate for best practices and assure foster youth legal access to cultural identity, along with the necessary resources and support, continue to be hampered.

Most striking is the widespread lack of an inherent right to cultural identity preservation within the United States. All states have a foster youth bill of rights or statutes explaining the expectations of what foster youth are entitled to in terms of treatment, education, family access, and other important matters. However, in 44 of 50 states, foster youth lack an inherent right, or even guideline recommendation to foster parents, that supports their access to their cultural practices, customs, and identities.[15]

Currently, for non-Indian foster youth in the United States, cultural identity is addressed by federal legislation, recommended guidelines, and an explicit right in only four states. However, consistent implementation remains a significant barrier to realizing this goal. Through the Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, it is federally required for states to create or adopt a prudent parent guideline that includes supporting the cultural involvement of the foster youth in care. Yet, the legislation leaves responsibility for implementation up to the state legislature, county guidelines, and the training of foster parents. There are also highly recommended guidelines, the NCJFCJ Enhanced Resource Guidelines, which call for sensitivity to foster youths’ culture by child welfare legal practitioners and systems. Yet, again, there is no mechanism to effectively implement this guideline. Until these rights are more explicit and widely implemented, however, attorneys can draw upon them to advocate in court for the youth’s rights to be protected.

Next Steps

There are many steps foster parents, social workers, lawyers, and judges can take to help support foster youth’s cultural identity. These suggestions are not all-encompassing and focus on legal avenues. There are many small and large ways individuals working with a youth can promote cultural identity, from asking about needs to taking time to share a familiar meal. It is encouraged that those working with a youth think and ask about small ways they can reaffirm or help youth explore their cultural identity. In a youth’s daily life, having access to culture is as important as proximity to culture, such as being surrounded by community members from the youth’s culture.

Access and proximity are similar in nature; both involve the youth being engaged with their culture. A simple analogy:

Imagine a youth is a flower. Having access to one’s culture would be ensuring the flower sees and spends time with other flowers, receives soil they are familiar with and other environmental factors they know. Having proximity with ones’ culture would be placing the flower in a garden surrounded by all familiar aspects at once, an all-encompassing interaction with pillars of their culture.

To restate, proximity encompasses more than a concerted effort to have access to culture. Instead, a youth’s culture is around them without needing to actively piecemeal multiple important parts of their culture together. Even when foster youth are not proximate (geographically) to their culture, maintaining access to aspects of that culture by having advocates who connect them to food, music, events, etc. is key to helping youth maintain and strengthen that identity.

Lawyers/Policy Advocates

  • Add “right to culture” in your state’s foster youth bill of rights or as a right by law if it does not exist.
  • Litigate if cultural access is denied as cultural access promotes well-being.
  • Ensure foster parents receive cultural awareness training.
  • Think about cultural identity as a piece of well-being like housing, education, and safety when thinking about unmet needs and systemic change.

Judges and Lawyers

  • Ask foster youth about their cultural identity, or if there are any cultural practices or norms that are important to them.
  • Ask youth about cultural issues many times throughout their time in foster care as answers can change after the trauma of removal has been lessened.
    • Follow up on any previous answers to see if those needs are met.
  • If you are in a state in which foster youth’s access to cultural heritage is codified, use it as a tool to ensure accountability to case plans and evaluations.

Ariella Hope Stafanson is pursuing her JD at University of Michigan Law School. She received her Bachelor of Science from UC Davis, Human Ecology Department. Before enrolling in law school, Ariella was a researcher and structural change advocate in California through California CASA, and a research analyst in a firm.


[1] Child Welfare Information Gateway. Foster care statistics 2017. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, March 2019. <>

[2] Cultural and ethnic identity are used interchangeably in this article.

[3] Smolicz, J. “Core Values and Cultural Identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 4(1), 1981, 75-90,

[4] Anderson, M., & L.O. Linares. “The Role of Cultural Dissimilarity Factors on Child Adjustment Following Foster Placement.” Children and Youth Services Review 34(4), 2012, 597-601.

[5] Usborne, E. & D. Taylor. “The Role of Cultural Identity Clarity for Self-Concept Clarity, Self-Esteem, and Subjective Well-Being.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36(7), 2010, 883-897.

[6] Berger, P. L. & T. Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

[7] Schmidt, J. et al. “Who Am I? Who Do You Think I Am? Stability of Racial/Ethnic Self-Identification among Youth in Foster Care and Concordance with Agency Categorization.” Children and Youth Services Review 56, 2015, 61-67.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McMillen, C. et al. “Psychiatric Symptoms and Substance Use Disorders in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adolescents Involved with Foster Care.” Journal of Adolescent Health 38(4), 2007, 351-358.

[10] The study was conducted by the author, Ariella H. Stafanson, and is available via email at

[11] United Nations. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948. <>

[12] See National Conference of State Legislatures. “Foster Care Bill of Rights” (citing Ill. Rev. Stat. Ch. 20, § 520/1-15) <>

[13] See National Conference of State Legislatures. “Foster Care Bill of Rights” (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 210.566) <>

[14] See Epstein, Heidi Redich and Anne Marie Lancour. “The Reasonable and Prudent Parent Standard.” Child Law Practice Today, October 2016. <>

[15] National Conference of State Legislatures. Foster Care Bill of Rights, May 2, 2019. <>