A starter reading list on how child welfare policies harm Black people, families, and communities

The child welfare system has nothing to say about anti-Black state violence because the child removal system engages in it daily. Do the reading, and then let’s get to defunding the removal system, redirecting billions in resources directly to communities experiencing problems, and stripping child welfare decisions from bureaucrats and locating them properly back with families.

All quotes are from the books and articles they fall under. Feel free to suggest other readings in the comments. [Edit: As I get offline suggestions, I will add new things.]

Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy E. Roberts (2002):

The new politics of child welfare threatens to intensify state supervision of Black children. In the past several years, federal and state policy have shifted away from preserving families toward “freeing” children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights. Welfare reform, by throwing many families deeper into poverty, heightens the risk that some children will be removed from struggling families and placed in foster care. Black families, who are disproportionately poor, have been hit the hardest by this retraction of public assistance for needy children. And tougher treatment of juvenile offenders, imposed most harshly on African American youth, is increasing the numbers incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. These political trends are shattering the bonds between poor Black children and their parents.

Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers by Dorothy E. Roberts (2012):

Foster care is more than a precursor to prison (for children), and prison is more than a precursor to foster care for children (of the incarcerated). The simultaneous buildup and operation of the prison and foster care systems rely on the punishment of black mothers, who suffer greatly from the systems’ intersection. This Article analyzes how both systems work together to punish black mothers in the service of preserving U.S. race, gender, and class inequality in a neoliberal age. The intersection of prison and foster care is only one example of many forms of overpolicing that overlap and converge in the lives of poor women of color. I investigate this particular systemic intersection to help elucidate how state mechanisms of surveillance and punishment work to penalize the most marginalized women in our society while blaming them for their own disadvantaged positions. This systemic intersection naturalizes social inequality and obscures the need for social change.

Toward the Abolition of the Foster System by Erin Miles Cloud (2019) [added 6/11/2020]

However, unlike the criminal legal system, the foster system is often excused from rigorous critique, in part because it is framed as helpful, supportive, and well-intentioned rather than punitive and retributive. Yet it is incumbent on society to interrogate all systems that disproportionately impact Black people, even those that supposedly protect us. As long-time activist Joyce McMillan says, “Do people really think that somehow the child welfare system targets Black people but targets them in a good way?” If we can agree that implicit bias and racism are at least part of why our society is more likely to shoot a Black person, call the police on Black people, or profile a Black body, why do we believe that there are more noble reasons for the disproportionate reporting of Black mothers and removal of Black children? The reality is that both the criminal legal and the foster systems are rooted in deeply violent historical narratives about Black bodies that do more to promote punishment than safety.

It is especially important to critique the foster system when the individuals it claims to help explicitly characterize it as harm. In my nine years of representing parents, I have almost never heard my clients use words like “support,” “assistance,” or “rehabilitation” to describe their experiences with the foster system. Mothers and activists like Dinah Ortiz-Adames consistently denounce it. Within my own family, I have experienced it break down rather than build up bonds. Even the children who are supposed to be served by this system decry its effectiveness.

Issue 1: Anti-Black Racism, Bio-Power, and Governmentality: Deconstructing the Suffering of Black Families Involved with Child Welfare by Doret Philips & Gordon Pon (2018):

In this article, we focus on how anti-Black racism and white supremacy are embodied or manifested in tangible or visible forms in the child welfare system. Given the often heart-wrenching narratives of suffering experienced by Black children and families involved with child welfare services, we ask the following two guiding questions: 1) how are colonialism, anti-Black racism and white supremacy embodied by the child welfare system? And, 2) how can the extreme suffering experienced by many Black families involved with the child welfare system be understood? This schema of embodiment is necessary to deconstruct how anti-Black racism, colonialism, and white supremacy are manifested in the day-to-day policies and practices of child welfare.

What Can the Child Welfare System Learn in the Wake of the Floyd Decision?: A Comparison of Stop-And-Frisk Policing and Child Welfare Investigations by Michelle Burrell (2019):

The child welfare system needs a public image shift. The image of parents who have been subjected to government intrusion needs to be shifted, from a public mindset that those who are receiving intervention from child protective officials need or deserve it, to a healthy criticism and interrogation of the intrusion and family separation based on allegations that have not been proven true. Recently, the prospect of removing children from their parents at the border was met with much public backlash, and mental health professionals across the country insisted that the harm being caused by such separation was inhumane and could have longterm irreparable effects. This is also true for children removed from their parents residing in the United States. The same irreparable harm applies to children separated in communities across the country.

Racial Bias in American Foster Care: The National Debate by Tanya A. Cooper (2013):

In disproportionately high numbers, Native American and African American children find themselves in the American foster care system. Empirical data establish that these children are removed from their families at greater rates than other races and stay in foster care longer, where they are often abused, neglected, and then severed from their families forever. For the past few decades, a vigorous debate has raged regarding whether these children are actually at greater risk for maltreatment if left at home or are just targets of discrimination in a hegemonic institution. Although the research previously showed no racial differences in child maltreatment rates, the latest Congressional study has found that African American and Native American children are at greater risk for child maltreatment than children of other races. Despite the caution with which researchers have interpreted the data and implicated future policies, scholars are asking whether, as a society, we are protecting or destroying children from these historically disempowered races. Foster care laws offer little practical guidance because the overarching legal standards are too vague or not consistently applied.

Systems thinking, however, provides one useful framework for uncovering points in the foster care system where unintended bias manifests and potential leverage points to exert pressure and effect change. A systems thinking approach also reveals that the foster care system’s primary motivation is simply perpetuating itself; accordingly, to achieve meaningful reform, public policy makers in the U.S. must closely examine this billion-dollar, publicly-funded bureaucracy and the racial disparities it routinely fosters.

African American perspectives on racial disparities in child removals by Effrosyni D. Kokaliari, Ann W. Roy, and Joyce Taylor (2019):

African American children are overrepresented in foster care at twice to three times the rate of white children. Scholars argue that racism and oppression underlie disproportionality (Križ & Skivenes, 2011).

This study explored disproportionality as seen through the eyes of African American parents in the child welfare system. The aim was to understand why African American families are over-represented in child custody statistics and to improve family and parenting support for African American communities.

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 by Jessica Schmidt et al. (2015):

While it has been well documented that racial and ethnic disparities exist for children of color in child welfare, the accuracy of the race and ethnicity information collected by agencies has not been examined, nor has the concordance of this information with youth self-report. This article addresses a major gap in the literature by examining: 1) the racial and ethnic self-identification of youth in foster care, and the rate of agreement with child welfare and school categorizations; 2) the level of concordance between different agencies (school and child welfare); and 3) the stability of racial and ethnic self-identification among youth in foster care over time. Results reveal that almost 1 in 5 youth change their racial identification over a one-year period, high rates of discordance exist between the youth self-report of Native American, Hispanic and multiracial youth and how agencies categorize them, and a greater tendency for the child welfare system to classify a youth as White, as compared to school and youth themselves. Information from the study could be used to guide agencies towards a more youth-centered and flexible approach in regards to identifying, reporting and affirming youth’s evolving racial and ethnic identity.

African American disproportionality and disparity in child welfare: Toward a comprehensive conceptual framework by Reiko Boyd (2013)

Colorblind Must Not Mean Blind to the Realities Facing Black Children by Zanita Fenton (2006):

The interaction of state agencies and administrative bodies, especially those of the justice system (including police, prosecutors, and judges) with communities of color is a major factor that contributes to a dynamic that is central to understanding the pervasiveness of institutional racism. People of color have a general distrust of the justice system that is well founded in history. This foundation includes both legal and extra-legal persecution of Black males, an entire era of extrajudicial lynching, the more recent documentation of racial profiling, and police brutality against people of color. The disproportionate numbers of Black children in foster care easily leads one to believe there are biases operating in this system as well. Thus, there is a real reticence in inviting state involvement of any kind into the private and family lives of people within the Black community.

However Kindly Intentioned: Structural Racism and Volunteer CASA Programs by Amy Mulzer & Tara Urs (2016):

Although CASA programs are a relatively new development, emerging as an experiment of one judge in Seattle in the 1980s they are part of the larger historical story of child welfare. The demographic make-up of CASA programs—mostly middle-class white women over the age of 30—easily recalls the women who, after the Civil War, played the primary role in establishing the modern child welfare system. The ability of white women to speak for the best interests of poor children of color, to advocate for their removal from their families, and to receive deference and praise from legal systems, comes to our modern legal system with
deep roots. Understanding the role of race, gender, and power in forming the structure of the child welfare system explains in part why our legal system so comfortably tolerates a volunteer advocate whose role, in any other context, would not survive even a halfhearted due process challenge. And a full picture of the racist underpinnings of the modern child welfare system helps develop a fuller view of CASA programs.


5 responses to “A starter reading list on how child welfare policies harm Black people, families, and communities”

  1. I was a journalist for 19 years. It’s really irritating when a lawyer writes a better “lede” than anything I could have come up with. The first sentence of this post is perfect.

    I have one additional suggestion for the reading list: “Digitizing the Carcereal State,” https://harvardlawreview.org/2019/04/digitizing-the-carceral-state/ Dorothy Roberts’ review of Virginia Eubanks’ book “Automating Inequality.” Roberts expands on Eubanks’ critique to examine the racial bias in various uses of algorithms, including the latest fad in child welfare: predictive analytics.

  2. Eliminating Racism in Our Justice System
    June 2, 2020

    Dear Leaders and Colleagues,
    The time has come that we cannot just simply start our workday in the courtrooms without addressing our national crisis. We must join together to eliminate racism in our justice system.

    I am asking you to join this call for action. Spread the word and demand action from your supervisors, leaders, colleagues, staff, and yourselves!
    To use the collective wisdom, experience, and power of legal and other professionals involved in the child welfare systems, as a proud member and Assistant Regional Counsel, I demand that our leaders, elected and appointed officials, with the support of their staff, jointly form and fund standing committees on the issue of “Eliminating Racism in the Justice System”: one committee in each judicial division comprising of at least one judge, one magistrate, seven practicing attorneys, and experts from the fields of psychology, social work, anti-racism initiatives, parents, and more. Additionally, one larger committee for each judicial circuit, and one umbrella committee for the entire state. Within these committees we will continuously work over the next years, as part of our regular work schedule, on ways to reduce and eliminate racism in our justice system, specifically within our own courtrooms and circuit, in both criminal and civil arenas. These committees should comprise at least 20% of our staff/employees.

    In a first step we shall form internal committees to openly and honestly discuss how racism affects the families in our cases, how racism affects our daily work, and how our own biases and prejudices negatively affect the outcomes of our cases and the lives of the families. To be able to effectively undertake this step, we shall invite racism experts into the committee to help us learn, discover, and overcome racism within our own organizations and courthouses. We shall collect, analyze, and discuss data from questions such as the following examples: Are Black families disproportionately affected by removals and dependency petitions? If so, how and why? Are Black parents disproportionately separated from their children for longer periods of time compared to White parents, i.e. is the time between removal and reunification longer? Do cases after reunification remain open longer for Black/White parents until termination of supervision is ordered? If so, how and why? Would DCF/OAG request a court order with the option for reunification at the early stage of the arraignment hearing for a White parent in a case in which a criminal no contact order between parent and child is still in effect, psychological and substance abuse evaluations have been requested but not yet performed? Would DCF/OAG request the same option for reunification at such early stage for a Black parent in that situation? Would a Volunteer Guardian ad Litem support such a request for a Black parent? For a White parent? Are cases with White/Black parents more likely to go to trial, or to be contested by motions? Are the plea deals offered comparatively the same for Black and White defendants? Are we all, judges and attorneys, investigators and law enforcement officers, case managers and service providers, mediators and volunteers, willing to participate in, and fund, expansive, regular, and repeating anti-racism and anti-bias workshops, classes about the history and current impact of structural racism, and other educational tools, to ensure that we can all more easily recognize and oppose prejudice in the courtrooms, in psychological evaluations, in JRSSR reports, in Guardian ad Litem reports, in petitions, in affidavits, in legal arguments, and in interactions with families?

    In a second step, we shall bring those issues to greater committees inviting public defenders, state attorneys, attorney generals, guardians ad litem, judges, parents, mediators, more racism experts, and others, to learn more about our own biases and interactions with each other, and to openly discuss, and implement, changes in legislation, procedure, and, last but not least, local customs and practices, that would reduce and eliminate racism within our justice system.

    In a third step … t.b.d.

    The Racismvirus pandemic is larger than the Coronavirus pandemic and requires collective action that is larger than the one currently organized against the Coronavirus, especially considering that the fight against racism globally has been continuing for centuries. The current Coronavirus crisis shows that it requires joint, drastic, and focused measures to win the battle. I demand that every committee member be assigned to dedicate one entire workday each workweek to the committee work of Eliminating Racism in the Justice System until the nation is satisfied that racism in the justice system has been entirely eliminated.

    I am excited and proud to be working with so many dear colleagues and leaders who agree with me as to the importance of honoring our own responsibility in doing the right thing, doing our part, together, all of us

    Martin Niemoller said:
    First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist,
    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,
    When they came for me, there was no-one left to speak out against injustice.

    Let us do better than that. Let us show that we have learned from history. Let us stand together, old, young, White, Black, women and men, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., pp., to oppose this Virus called Racism, a virus that is lurking within all of us to some degree, and while not everyone is showing clear symptoms, and not everyone is clearly affected by it, we are all exposed to this virus called racism, and we are all responsible to stop this virus called racism from spreading. But to stop it from spreading we shall not just wear masks. We shall use our expertise. Doctors and nurses and many others in the medical field actively fight against the Coronavirus. The medical community does not rely on a few medical experts to solve the pandemic. A very large number of participants in the medical field joins the effort of fighting the Coronavirus. Similarly, all of us in the legal field, especially those of us representing, prosecuting, and/or judging many poor and Black families, need to actively fight the Racismvirus pandemic. We cannot leave this up to a few anti-racism experts. We are all responsible to contain this Racismvirus, we are all responsible to eradicate this Racismvirus. Let’s do this together, with conviction, and with dedication of our resources, experiences, legal skills, and brainpower. We can win this fight. We can eliminate racism in the justice system. Yes, we can! We can make America great again. Together.

    As-salamu alaykum
    Afrasan Adams

  3. I would like to humbly add another item to the list, this piece about child maltreatment registries by Erica Meiners and myself. https://genderpolicyreport.umn.edu/ending-the-state-central-register/ What many in the field (myself included) don’t realize is that in many states allegations of child maltreatment are tracked by placing parents accused of abuse on a register *even if the allegation was never indicated.* In New York, parents accused of abuse remain on the registry until 10 years after their youngest child turns 18. This register can be accessed by potential employers and jeopardize one’s access to employment down the road. This is a clear example of surveillance and punishment by the family regulation system.

  4. Carmen Elena Avatar
    Carmen Elena

    Thank you for these resources! I love your characterization of the foster care system as a removal system, I could not agree more. Here is one more resource to add: Toward the Abolition of the Foster System http://sfonline.barnard.edu/unraveling-criminalizing-webs-building-police-free-futures/toward-the-abolition-of-the-foster-system/ I am PhD candidate and conducting research on the interconnections between these systems of removal. They have a long sordid history that traces back to the slave auction block and the removal and disappearance of Indigenous children. I am just getting started with research, and am interested in exploring how the foster care system began. Do you have resources/recommendations you can share in regards to that?

    1. Robert Latham Avatar
      Robert Latham

      Thank you for this suggestion! With the caveat that I’m a lawyer and not a historian, I like Raising Government Children by Catherine Rymph.

      I also like Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steve Mintz (at UT Austin).

      I haven’t gotten to it yet, but Jessie Ramey at Chatham’s book is on my reading list: Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages.

      I’d love to hear other recommendations!

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