The Landscape for Latino Children

Caitlin Johnson
July 6, 1999

Children are included in more than half of the 8.2 million Hispanic households, according to 1997 Census Bureau data. We can't talk about America's children without understanding their lives. We asked three spirited child advocates about the most pressing issues facing Hispanic children and families.

  • Robert Ortega, is an associate professor at the University of Michigan's School of Social Work, who researches Latino population issues focuses on mental health and child welfare, including abuse and neglect and the child welfare response.
  • Elba Montalbo is the executive director and founder of the Committee for Hispanic Children, a training, advocacy and community building organization that provides services to help Latino families nurture their children to be productive citizens.
  • Layla Suleiman is the federal monitor for the Burgos Consent Decree, a mandate requiring the Illinois Department of Children and Families to offer all services in Spanish to Spanish-speaking children and families, and provide placement options in Spanish-speaking families. She is also a state and federal policy and research consultant on issues relating to Latino children and families.

Q. Let's talk briefly about some of the contributions Latino families make to this country and the economy.

Robert Ortega: I want to say that having this discussion of Latinos in the U.S. during the 4th of July is very relevant. The first prisoners taken in the war in Kosovo, two of them were Latino. That's not surprising. Latinos take great pride in the U.S. and in their patriotism. Families often display their pictures of children's military pictures more prominently than their high school graduation photos. You see the pictures of the child in uniform on the walls for everyone to see.

Culturally, Latinos bring a true meaning of family. When we talk about services to Latinos, that it's very important to include family because family is important. Latinos have the highest marriage rate of any population in the U.S. The majority are married-couple families.

Layla Suleiman: In Chicago, the Mexican business sector, the commercial strip generates the second highest sales-tax revenue for the city, second only to the Magnificent Mile. So we definitely buy a lot! And most importantly, not only do we contribute to local and national economy—which all the companies have become aware of and have targeting marketing for Latinos—we also contribute to our nation of origin economy. So we contribute to our economy in the whole hemisphere.

Q. Very broadly, what are the biggest issues facing Hispanic children and families in the U.S.?

Ortega: The largest issues really are in terms of health care: receiving adequate health care, having opportunities to make sure immunizations are up-to-date, having regular checkups, and dental services.

And education is highly problematic. The dropout rate for the Latino population is still growing, while for African-Americans and white Caucasians, we've seen a steady decline.

Also mental health and help-seeking. If you were to look at risk factors that confront Latinos, you'd expect the request for mental health services to be higher because of the conditions, but the data doesn't support that.

Suleiman: Another issue is that Latina girls have the highest rate of pregnancy. This is one of the things we struggle with, because so many of the data are presented in a black and white fashion. When you look at averages, you see teen pregnancy down for nation. But that's not true for Latina girls. One thing we struggle with is to get accurate stats on our kids and families, no matter what area.

Elba Montalbo: Teen pregnancy is also a health issue, because if they're getting pregnant, they're having unprotected sex, which leaves them unprotected and at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

Suleiman: Juvenile justice is also a key area, especially in terms of the number of people going in. The high dropout rate often feeds into juvenile justice issues. There's also a security and safety issue for families and communities.

Another issue to highlight is a culture and language issue for children and families. What does it mean to grow up bicultural and bilingual? The conflict that occurs when children acculturate faster than their parents, I think that's very important.

Q. What is being done to address these needs?

Ortega: When we talk about needs, we're basing it on the lack of numbers because the situations are not studied very well. National trends simply don't have the data for Latinos. There are some states that do not require collecting information on ethnicity, only race. Florida is a good example: the surveys categorize white, black, Asian or Native American. When they ask you to identify your race, you are not given the choice Hispanic or Latino. Some states—Pennsylvania for example—don't allow you to ask about race.

Suleiman: Latinos can be of any race, and many of us are of mixed races. So categorizing us by race doesn't always make sense. For some it does, some feel they're white, black, Native American; but many of us feel that we are mixed. And we're comfortable with that mix. So while we may be clear that we're Latinos, our race may not be as clear. It's a sticky issue, the way that the U.S. counts people in the census and allocates money based on those counts.

In terms of Latino family life? there's not a lot of national data. We've worked hard to get Latino data on child welfare, that has been a continuing struggle. We know from our experience in being in community and working with it, which issues just keep coming up. But when it comes to national statistics we don't always have those, whether it's welfare or other issues. I can't even tell you at this time how many Latino children are up for adoption.

Q. What about immigration?

Ortega: The myth is that most Latinos are immigrants, and it's not true. Only about one-third are immigrants, and the vast majority are here legally.

What we do see with kids is the tendency for them to be invisible and unaccounted for. We know that when immigrant families arrive, if you think about how when the country was formed, people arrived on Ellis Island and had no place to go. Often, that's what kids face today. They're pretty much trying to figure this world out on their own. Many live in conditions of poverty and go without health and dental care and assistance that might otherwise make it livable here.

We worry about this because the question is, are they living in safe and stable environments? And we just don't have enough information to say with any degree of certainty that they are.

Suleiman: One of the biggest undercuts in terms of the census are the migrant workers and the illegal undocumented residents. These are pockets of invisible people, people that are vitally or intricately involved in how we get food to our table, but are invisible to us and get substandard wages, health care, housing, education. It's really a terrible situation.

And if we move to urban areas, we have families that have been left behind with industrial changes. They are not faring well either, they're also in substandard housing and not a lot of access to public housing. They are reticent to use public assistance. They distrust the system, particularly if they are undocumented.

Q. What are some resources and solution-based programs that are helping improve the status of Hispanic kids and families in the U.S.?

Suleiman: Child care is a big issue for everyone, but for Latinos, it's important culturally because Latinos are wary of center-based care. To leave your kid in center at 3 months old is counterintuitive as a cultural practice. So places that have developed successful child care strategies are those that are both center-based and home-based. Developing a network of home-based day care providers is a wonderful way of addressing child care quality and need in Latino communities, and it builds capacity because the providers tied into a center can get additional resources and training or technical assistance. Chicago has done it, with Erie Health agency.

In terms of health, there's a great program called Promotoras de Salud, or Health Promoters. Basically you train a group of women on preventative health care and education and they go out into community and talk with people wherever they can about diabetes and immunizations, heart disease, even STDs. It's people in the community doing it, teaching each other. Everybody wins in that scenario, because, as we know from social marketing, you're more likely to hear a message if it comes from someone that looks like you. For information, you can contact Gustavo Sanchez at Chicago's Our Lady of Fatima Church at 773-521-8826.

Ortega: There is a publication of the Harvard Family Research Project, Services that Work for Children and Families: Supporting Latino Families, Lessons from Exemplary Projects. They have good information.

Montalbo: The Committee for Hispanic Children has, among other things, a bilingual child care resources and referral program, and we work with kids in the schools in our dropout prevention program. We also do cultural awareness training to help professionals work effectively with Latino families.

Q. What other changes or strategies would you recommend?

Ortega: When you have legislative decisions being made that affect Latinos, but have a lack of numbers to understand the needs of Latinos, the decisions have the potential to have an opposite effect than intended. If there are language barriers, et cetera—families cannot interface with system that doesn't accommodate their needs. I think the assumption is that services are there and families are not responding. But that's not always the case. We have to be careful not to promote legislation that is blind to Latinos.

Suleiman: One of the things that blows my mind is that companies have a great need for bilingual workers that they have to import them from Latin America—because in this country, with so many Latinos, we cannot produce bilingual professionals at the level of demand in the corporate sector. As you know, bilingual education has been under attack, but that's counter to what the labor market requires in a global market. Really, every child in the United States should speak a second language. We know from developmental psychology that bilingual kids who are proficient in both languages do better in cognitive tasks than do monolingual. So there's also scientific evidence that being a proficient bilingual gives you advantages. But we're trying to disinvest in bilingual education, when we should be investing.

In Chicago we've had to build a lot of schools to accommodate kids, and we've been lucky that we're able to avoid overcrowding but that's not true in other districts. Overall I would say that federal dollars are not getting into the Latino community at the rate of need. Do we have the statistics to substantiate that statement? No because money is not tracked that way. HHS can't tell us how much money goes into Latino community. That should be their goal.

Q. What are some policies—either state or national—to pay attention to, that do or will affect Latino kids?

Suleiman: Juvenile justice policy is going to affect Latino kids. Building in more punishment and not building in more support is just counter to what we see in the community. Youth, whatever their race or ethnicity, want to belong somewhere, want to be doing something that makes them feel a sense of accomplishment, want to feel important, and too often that is the gangs, which give you all of those things and also give you resources.

Montalbo: I think that one of the most important issues is inter-ethnic adoption placements, especially after the 1994 Multi-Ethnic Placement Act and Clinton's changes in 1996. We need to watch to see if it has implications for Latino kids. And see that there is enough effort being taken to recruit Latino families; do you have a large enough pool to select from? Although you're not supposed to use ethnic matching, you need to have equally adequate Latino families too.

Locally, I am very much involved in child care because high-quality affordable child care is still very much an issue for the Latino community, as it is for everyone else. We're looking to see the surplus that the states and the federal government have goes back into investing in children—all children—and child care.



Caitlin Johnson is staff writer at Connect for Kids.