Shane Harris
Shane Harris speaks with actor Nick Cannon and supporters at the opening of the People’s Alliance for Justice in 2019. Photo courtesy KOH Photo

A hero is defined in Webster as a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities. The Urban dictionary describes a hero as one who does not recognize such declarations bestowed upon them by others and accomplishes acts which are deemed extraordinary and exceed the call of duty. These acts usually involve the intention or consequence of saving another person’s life or rescuing another from impending harm.

Our social workers are both at the same time. This past week I was saddened to learn of the death of county social worker Ronda Felder, who served the foster care community with compassion and love for our children. Furthermore, the kids she served miss her tremendously because of the connection they developed with her. She died of COVID-19 and it shook everyone in our community. It also drew attention to information the people of San Diego deserve to know — how many in our foster care system have tested positive for COVID-19?

Coronavirus has shaken communities of color and those I call “compacted neighborhoods.” People in these communities are stacked on top of each other, don’t have access to reasonable healthcare, are the last people who were thought about when the county started testing, and have to fight for everything they can get. How do I know? During the pandemic my organization, the People’s Alliance for Justice, led the fight to make detailed COVID-19 data available to the public to track the communities disproportionately impacted by the virus,

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We led the fight with doctors Suzzane Afflalo and Rodney Hood in southeastern San Diego to secure a testing site at the Tubman-Chavez Community Center. This was the last state-run testing site of the six that were set up in San Diego County. We also led the fight to secure data on contact-tracing jobs, after I argued for weeks that communities disproportionately affected by the virus should be represented in the tracing staff. These are just a few milestones we’ve accomplished together, not including the thousands that the People’s Alliance for Justice has fed during the pandemic, or the thousand seniors that my organization provides grocery shopping for.

Now we must turn to another front in the ongoing fight for health equity in the COVID-19 pandemic era. Foster care is an institution we might have forgotten in the midst of all of the other issues. I am a former foster youth, having spend 13 years in the system, so you can depend on me to challenge the very people in county government who we pay with our tax dollars to ensure foster children are well taken care of.

It has always been local government’s responsibility to make sure our children and our social workers are watched over. We know that the county staff is working hard. Unfortunately, some of our county supervisors are more concerned about daily COVID-19 briefings than doing the work of representing all of the communities impacted by the pandemic. They need to understand the urgency of getting into the weeds to get to the bottom of how to better address this crisis so we can beat the virus, don’t lose any more lives, and don’t stall the reopening of our economy any further.

The reason why we need to know how many foster kids, social workers, and foster parents have tested positive for the coronavirus is so that we can see just how much the system is being impacted and use aggregated data to make better decisions based upon what we see in the numbers. San Diego’s foster care system is large, with 2,800 children. And like the pandemic, it disproportionately involves African American and Latino youth. Black children are nearly 20% of San Diego’s foster care system while Latino children represent nearly 46%.

Ronda Felder’s death is a call to action for our system or at least it would be if I was at the county administration building. It’s not just a call to action to share our condolences and sadness, but to bring everybody to the table to chart a path for the foster community, our social workers, our kids and of course the parents who foster them everyday.

They deserve a clear picture of this pandemic, and the only way to do this is by having the data. I am calling on our county’s Child Welfare Services Department, the Health and Human Services Agency, and all five of the supervisors to get this data to the public quickly so that we can prevent the spread among our foster children. This moment will define heroes.

Shane Harris is a nationally prominent activist, the president of the People’s Alliance for Justice, an ordained minister, and an appointed member of the San Diego County Child and Family Strengthening Advisory Board.