Sunday, June 7, 2020

Child welfare responds to racism in the usual way: Unctuous hypocrisy and pious posturing

Statements of solidarity ring hollow when they come from groups that prop up a racist system. Or, as one lawyer for children put it:

 The first to call it out may have been Angela Burton of the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services who tweeted:

At about the same time Vivek Sankaran, director of the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Law Clinic and Child Advocacy Appellate Clinic tweeted:

On Saturday, Robert Latham, Associate Director of the University of Miami School of Law Children and Youth Law Clinic wrote:  
 “The child welfare system has nothing to say about anti-Black state violence because the child removal system engages in it daily.”

            As America is forced once again to confront racism, America’s child welfare establishment has responded with an outpouring of pious posturing and unctuous hypocrisy.  Go to the website or check the Twitter feed for almost any mainstream “child advocacy” organization and you’ll find a press release with boilerplate like “stands in solidarity…” “we have felt anger, hurt, fear, despair, … “Our nation must confront this crisis head on …”

Sins of the past

            To understand why the rhetoric is so empty, it’s worth reviewing some fundamentals:

            ● Foster care was racist from its inception.  The system as we know it today has its roots in the racism of Charles Loring Brace – a white, Protestant minister, and raving bigot, who hated and feared New York City’s impoverished immigrants, deemed them genetically inferior, and forcibly removed more than 120,000 children from the city to the South and Midwest on so-called “orphan trains.”  Many of the children were not orphans – they were, however, poor and of ethnic groups deemed inferior.  To accomplish this mass exercise in racism Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society, which still exists and still defends the orphan trains.

● From the 19th Century through the 1960s, American child welfare agencies tried to effectively eradicate Native American culture and, indeed, Indian tribes, through the expedient of taking away children. First, they were warehoused in hideous orphanages, where the mantra was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Later, there was a campaign of mass adoptions. Melissa Harris Perry called the orphanages an “explicit cultural extermination mission.” The Lakota People’s Law Project is calling for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  It wasn’t until 2001 that child welfare’s most famous trade association, the Child Welfare League of America, apologized.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1900

            ● But the apology means next to nothing, because CWLA and other trade associations, such as the one with the Orwellian name Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, continue to oppose real child welfare reform. Such reform must begin with changing federal law to allow all of the billions of federal dollars now used to hold overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately nonwhite kids in foster care to be spent on better, safer alternatives. (And no, the overhyped Family First Act does not do that.)  

            Both these associations have issued the standard pious press releases in recent days.  Both also include in their membership many private foster care agencies that are paid for each day they hold children in foster care – so of course they will support no real reform.

            ● In fact, instead of real finance reform, the same organizations that condemn abuses by police are using COVID-19 as an excuse to urge Congress to pour vast sums of emergency aid money into a racist system that polices almost exclusively impoverished communities of color, and does those communities enormous harm. $500 million of that aid would be targeted largely toward the policing part of the system – child abuse investigations.

           So ask yourself: If an organization put out a statement of “solidarity” with #BlackLivesMatter while also urging Congress to spend hundreds of millions to give the police more tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets – would you believe that organization?

And make no mistake, child protective services is, in everything but name, a police force. In fact, CPS investigators have more power than police.  Their approach can best be called “knock and strip.” Effectively, they can enter homes and stripsearch children without a warrant. Say no, and they can come back with the police and even break down the door. Even when the entry is less drastic, the terror of the investigation is something a child may never forget.  More than half of Black children will endure such terror during their childhoods.  That’s best case. Worst case: the CPS caseworker takes away the children on-the-spot without so much as asking a judge first. (For a detailed discussion of the parallels between stop-and-frisk and CPS investigations see this City University of New York Law Review article by Michelle Burrell, former managing attorney of the Family Defense Team at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem.)

There is no argument on behalf of this vast power to knock-and-strip that can’t also be made for stop-and-frisk. So why do so many of my fellow liberals think only one of those things is racist?

● Child welfare has its own “caucus of denial” dedicated to convincing the world that child welfare is the one and only field in America that is magically exempt from racism. (Just for the record, here’s a summary of the research that shows otherwise.) 

In what other field can a self-proclaimed liberal “scholar” call for the mass forced relocation of poor families from “terrible” neighborhoods – on penalty of losing their children to foster care if they don’t, blithely declare that “a relatively high percentage of adults who live in the worst neighborhoods are marginal to begin with…” go on to say it was wrong to close schools due to COVID-19 – because the risk of child abuse by those same “marginal” parents supposedly is greater than the risk of the disease – and still get himself a visiting professorship at Harvard?

            ● Then there’s the group that calls itself “Every Child Matters.” They tweeted “You may want to shield your kids from racial injustices in the world, but it’s important to support them in processing painful events & learning about social justice.”

            Nice thought.  But how does ECM propose to protect children from the racial injustice perpetrated by its own founder and past president, Michael Petit, when he told a Congressional committee that the states that do the best job preventing child abuse are the ones with “smaller, whiter populations.”  

            Petit has an ugly track record of misusing data to promote hype and hysteria. And he was instrumental in getting congress to create the so-called Commission on Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities, where he treated one of the Commission’s two African-American members, Judge Patricia Martin with appalling condescension.  Judge Martin wrote a stinging dissent from the commission’s report.

            ● And let’s not forget the so-called “Alliance for Children’s Rights,” which specializes in dredging up ugly stereotypes about poor people, demeaning the lived experiences of foster youth, and denying that needless removal of children to foster care is a problem.  Yep, they’ve got one of those unctuous statements, too – and their using it for fundraising!

            ● Most of these groups also supported the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act.  It was passed in 1997, one year after the welfare “reform” law, and its target was the same – poor women and children – especially poor women and children of color. Both laws carried the same racist subtext.  ASFA led to a surge in needless removal of children, a mad rush to needlessly termination of parental rights which helped create a generation of legal orphans with no ties to their own families and no adoptive homes either.

Sins of the present

            But it’s not just child welfare’s sins of the past that reveal the field’s hypocrisy. Even as they tell us how they really, truly oppose racism, all over the country, government child protective services agencies and the usual assortment of private groups are spreading fear, smear and stereotype about poor families of color.

They’re telling reporters that as soon as overwhelmingly middle-class mostly white, professional “eyes” no longer are fixed upon impoverished children of color – because COVID-19 has closed the schools – their parents will unleash a “pandemic of child abuse” upon them. And yes, they’ve repeatedly used that, or similar terms.  I have yet to see even one child welfare agency, or journalist condemn the California district attorney who said: “For the most vulnerable people in our community ‘shelter-in-place’ is the same as putting them in a cage with a violent gorilla.”

            Of course, given the increased stress of both COVID-19 and its major side effect – poverty – a very small number of parents will succumb to the pressure and lash out at their children.  But isn’t it obvious that the notion that Black people will unleash abuse in pandemic proportions as soon as white eyes are averted is, uh, racist?  In the few cases where the pressure is too much, the solution is to provide concrete help to ameliorate poverty, not ratchet up the same child welfare surveillance state model that has failed for more than half a century – and actually makes children less safe.

            And, of course, public and private child welfare agencies have been routinely cutting off all in-person visits between foster children and their parents, even though a blanket prohibition is not necessary to curb COVID-19.  A more likely reason: To placate white, middle-class foster parents.

         Among the worst offenders when it comes to this fearmongering are assorted chapters of Court-Appointed Special Advocates.  CASA is a failed program that a landmark law review article brands “an exercise of white supremacy.”

         For those unfamiliar with the program: A CASA is almost always white and almost always middle-class. They have no serious training in law or social work or anything else one might need to march into the homes of poor people of color and pronounce judgment upon them. But that’s what they do – by authority handed to them by juvenile courts.

           Judges take the assessments of these mostly white middle-class amateurs very seriously.  (And let’s not forget that CASA chapter that held a fundraiser that featured a blackface act.) UPDATE: As if all that were not sickening enough, now the National CASA Association is invoking George Floyd's six-year-old daughter to promote itself - and to promote rushing poor Black foster children into adoption.

But fear not, the National CASA Association has proclaimed that CASA, too, is ready to fight for racial justice – to the last press release!

            If CASA were really serious about racial justice it would recognize that racism is baked into the CASA model. It would limit its role to two areas where it can be genuinely helpful, and that some chapters do now: mentoring foster youth and family finding to seek out extended family for young people in foster care or at risk of placement with strangers.

An anti-racist agenda for child welfare

            As for all those other organizations, if they really want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, here’s what they can do for families, especially families of color:

            ● Stop issuing press releases about solidarity and show some solidarity.

            ● Take this time to pause and do some serious soul searching about who you really are and what you really stand for.

            Then come back with an anti-racist agenda for child welfare.  NCCPR will be glad to get you started. Here's a summary, details below:

● Demand real child welfare finance reform – at a minimum, make all foster care money available for better alternatives, better yet, require that the money be transferred from foster care to prevention and family preservation. 

● Demand an end to per-diem reimbursement of private child welfare agencies – paying them for each day they hold a child in foster care.

● Demand an end to federal funding of child protective services investigations.

● Demand full funding for high-quality family defense.

● Demand that states repeal mandatory reporting laws, which have backfired, increasing the danger to children.

● Demand that Congress repeal two odious laws that enshrine all the worst aspects of the American approach to “child protection”: ASFA and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.

Robert Latham, whom I quoted at the top of this post, also has an agenda, which he summarized at the start of  a blog post he calls “A starter reading list on how child welfare policies harm Black people, families, and communities”

He writes:

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.

            But the child welfare establishment isn’t very good at self-reflection. 

CWLA’s statement calls for rooting out “…vestiges of racism …” But the racism in child welfare isn’t vestigial; it’s part of the system’s DNA.  And if you look closely at CWLA’s statement you’ll find they can’t resist a subtle dig at families, and a reminder of the horror stories that the child welfare system exploited to build the current system. Can you spot it? Hint: It’s in the second paragraph.

            But when it comes to lack of self-reflection, or self-knowledge, CWLA isn’t even the worst offender. Guess who else has one of those pious proclamations up on its website.  Hint, in their statement they say that other people’s racism is “compromising our own success” and their services are “acts of justice…”  Who would be that clueless?  The Children’s Aid Society.