Child Welfare and a Just Future: From a Moment to a Movement

Last updated: 08-22-2020

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Child Welfare and a Just Future: From a Moment to a Movement

The current Black Lives Matter uprisings have the nation activated. Many white people are now realizing police brutality and how it disproportionately impacts Black people. As of June 10, five of the 10 books on the New York Times nonfiction best-selling list were books on racial and social justice, signaling that people are beginning to engage with what Black people have been trying to survive since forever — racism.

When Black people are killed by police, people march and protest, and typically the national narrative is a call for more police trainings on racial bias and de-escalation. What is unique about this moment is that folks are actually discussing more drastic action, including police abolition. Let’s keep in mind that police and prison abolition is nothing new, scholars such as Angela Davis have been writing about this for years. As more individuals begin to engage in the project of prison abolition we must also seek to dismantle other forms of state sanctioned violence against families.

Similar to policing and prisons, Black families have also been disproportionately impacted by the child welfare system for decades. Black children are overrepresented in every aspect of child welfare. Black children are more likely to be removed from their home after a child abuse referral is received, they are less likely to be reunified with their birth family after removal from the home, and they are most likely to have longer stays in foster care in comparison to children of other races.

In other words, in the eyes of the child welfare system, the well-being of Black families does not matter.

Child welfare has always hidden behind the veil of “child safety.” Roberts says it’s more accurately represented as the “family regulation system.” The media attention around child welfare focuses on cases of child death and egregious incidents of physical abuse, however, the majority of maltreatment referrals fall under the category of neglect — meaning families are losing their children because of poverty. Simply put, the state is punishing families for being poor.

Child welfare advocates must interrogate the ways in which child protective services have colluded with the state to surveil and criminalize Black families, specifically Black mothers. Dorothy Roberts writes about how Black mothers are being criminalized because they are poor. The child welfare system, foster parents, social workers, judges and lawyers must reckon with how they participate in this system of policing Black families.

As doctoral students, we see that much of the research and scholarship around foster youth has treated the community as monolithic. We know that foster youth have a range of experiences and identities (e.g. race, gender, sexual orientation) that intersect. Most of the time when we see the hashtags of murdered Black people, they typically reference cisgender straight men — the violent deaths of Black girls and women, and Black trans people rarely, if ever, get recognized.

If we want racism to end, we must also interrogate the ways in which sexism and homophobia exist in our institutions and how we still uphold heteronormative culture. We believe change needs to happen across all institutions. Though the recommendations listed below are not an exhaustive list or a panacea, they represent important next steps:

Similar to the work of prison and police abolitionists we must begin to think about a world in which the child welfare system, as we know it, does not exist. Over the past few decades we have tried many ways to transform the child welfare system: changing risk assessment tools, hiring more social workers of color, recruiting more Black foster parents and enacting policy changes. Yet Black families and children continue to be disproportionately overrepresented and tracked into the foster care industrial complex.

Dismantling systems of oppression and structures such as child welfare would give us the ability to redirect supports and funding directly to the communities most at risk. We must have an intersectional approach and fund programs and services that address poverty, health disparities, homelessness, substance use, incarceration, policing and other issues plaguing our communities instead of continuing to separate children and families.

In this moment we must possess the same courage to imagine a future that we have yet to see.

Brianna M. Harvey is a doctoral student at UCLA in the school of Education, Urban Schooling Division where her research explores the intersections of race and the foster youth identity on the K-12 educational trajectories of youth impacted by the child welfare system. Kenyon Lee Whitman is a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Riverside where he researches the racialized college-going experiences of foster youth.


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