How We Got Here: “Family Policing Systems” in The United States

What is formally called the ‘Child Welfare System’, is also known as the ‘family policing system‘. Designed and created with the aim to ‘save’ poor children by removing them from their communities and families to instill in them the value of hard work, these so-called  ‘dangerous classes’ of children were to be “disciplined into workers to prevent a revolt against capital”.

The system was built to discipline working class people to accept personal responsibility as the solution to poverty, to convince society that poor parents were neglectful and unfit. Deemed necessary, intervening by removal of children, this was seen as ‘saving’ them from their families and communities. At its inception, the child welfare system utilized family separation as its primary intervention, blaming parents for their poverty. This worked to obscure the need to dismantle the social structures responsible for poverty.

woman in black and gold long sleeve shirt

To date, it is working still as intended. If you or I were to approach the average white person on the street, and ask their opinion about poverty, the answer would reflect that sentiment- blaming the adults for their poverty. The immediate response, when children are mentioned, would echo the same ‘blaming’ attitude that the system’s designers cultivated.

I referenced the average ‘white’ person for a reason. The system initially targeted poor white immigrant children and families. This was because black and indigenous people were not fully incorporated into government systems of support. Yet, as government institutions began to integrate, and child welfare policy became more formalized, the family policing system disproportionately separated Black children from their families based on Eurocentric and White supremacist ideas of parenting
and family structure.

Today, more than half of all Black children in the United States are investigated by child welfare authorities, and Black and Native children are forcibly separated from their parents and placed in foster care at rates significantly higher than those of White children. Stratified across race, class, gender, disability, and citizenship, the family policing system systematically targets communities for surveillance and punishment in the name of saving and protecting children. When was the first or last case that has been told of where children were actually protected, after removal and once in the foster care system? What stories do you hear? Has anyone spoken to the children and/or the parents themselves to obtain their view, from personal experience? Are the children protected, and are the caregivers being supported and connected to resources that enable them to parent and provide for their children, in ways that are valued?

man holiday vacation love

For far too many, it feels like ‘punishment and blame’ that they receive from the system’s processes and the children are completely uprooted and traumatized. Where is the knowledge and awareness of developmental theory that informs us that when children are abruptly separated from family, they often will internalize ‘blame’? They believe that they’ve done something bad or wrong that got them taken away. They may even believe that their parent[s] doesn’t love them and this may be the reason that they are ‘sent away’. Does every child and family that is touched by the system receive ongoing supportive services, such as counseling and targeted individualized therapeutic interventions? After placement, this is critical to wellness of child and family from whom they are separated.Even if kinship care is recommended, the entire family needs to receive some mental health services.

Our nation’s history of anti-Blackness, White supremacy, colonialism,
and racial capitalism shape the modern family policing system because reforms intended to strengthen the system are often proposed as the solution to what the field has long called racial disproportionality and disparities. Indeed, data show that Black, Indigenous and, in many jurisdictions, Latinx children enter foster care at rates significantly higher than their proportion of the general population and experience racial disparities at multiple decision points within the system. But reforms that focus solely on racial disproportionality and disparities obscure how the system functions and absolves us from the larger societal changes required. The family policing system was built to separate children from their families, and as such, reforms cannot fix a system that is functioning as intended.

The logical vision for the future of the family policing system must be one of abolition. The racist origins of family separation and the racist intent upon which the family policing system is built are so deeply rooted in its policies and structures, they cannot simply be revised or modified. Critics argue that abolitionists ignore the safety and well-being of children. Conversely, focus is placed on the elements of care and child, family and community wellness that the system neglects. There is focus on transforming material conditions and disrupting the social order that causes families to experience harm and hardship. When abuse and harm do occur, we must strive to build and support solutions that are non-punitive in nature and center accountability, safety, and healing.

We must strive for abolition because we understand that the biggest threats to child safety and well-being are anti-Blackness, economic exploitation produced by racial capitalism, the continuing cultural genocide produced by colonialism, gender oppression sustained through patriarchy, the able-ism entrenched by the current system, and White supremacist norms of good parenting, family, and safety—norms that maintain power in the hands of oppressive systems.

Abolition seeks solutions for issues for which the state has no solutions, because the current system maintains and upholds ideologies and constructs that ensure harm will continue. We must build a society where children, families, and communities self-determine what well-being and safety mean for them and are supported with the resources to do so because they are no longer oppressed by a system that destroys
their ties to families and communities.

Keep your eyes open for an upcoming post containing some innovative strategies that can truly transform the child welfare system, and thus change life experiences for children and families who are or would likely be involved and policed by this system. The task is not to reinvent the ‘wheel’; the task is to re-imagine these systems in ways that are mindful of that which does not work for all children and families equitably. Preserving families requires a holistic approach to responding to reports and allegations of maltreatment. When we examine and assess family well-being, the process must factor external forces that influence parenting and total wellness. Systems must be held accountable for the roles they play in the lives of children and families.

The child welfare system is predicated on the subjugation, surveillance, control, and punishment of mostly poor Black and Native children and families. The system and its supporters portray family policing as a legitimate, supportive helping system—one that protects the safety and well-being of children through necessary state-sanctioned interventions. But the history and reality of the system’s impact on the lives of children, families, and communities underscores the ways in which the system functions to maintain anti-Blackness, White supremacy, racial capitalism, and colonialism. We can collectively do better.

—- How We endUP

This is how we got here. Next: Where Do We Go From Here? Any Suggestions? Please share!


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