Now Is the Time for Abolition

The child welfare system causes harm to Black children and we have known this for decades

Black children are over-surveilled, over-policed and over-removed by the child welfare system. Once involved in this system, the trauma and harm that results from foster care causes irreparable damage to Black children, and serve as a source of their ongoing and continued oppression.

As a field, we have known this for decades. And now it is time to abolish these systems in favor of something that is inherently anti-racist and truly prioritizes support, not dissolution, of families.

Our respective organizations have formed upEND, a collaborative movement aimed at protecting Black children and reimagining how we serve and support families. The upEND movement works to create a society in which the forcible separation of children from their parents is no longer an acceptable intervention for families in need.

Black children have been overrepresented in the child welfare system for more than 50 years, yet despite decades of efforts to address this, they remain overrepresented in foster care at a rate nearly double their proportion in the general child population. In certain states, Black children are placed in foster care at rates more than three times their proportion of the population. This phenomenon, referred to as racial disproportionality, results from racial inequities that exist at every decision point along the child welfare pathway, from the point of initial referral to decisions on entries into and exits from foster care. At each of these decision points, Black children experience inequitable outcomes that result in their greater likelihood of entering foster care and greater likelihood of staying in foster care when compared to their White counterparts.

Racial disproportionality represents a significant societal problem because of the harm it causes Black children. Over the years, we have gathered an abundance of research to show that the forced separation of children from their parents results in significant and lifelong trauma, regardless of how long the separation lasts. This is true when parents are incarcerated, and in recent years this has become very apparent as we’ve witnessed the pain and anguish that result when children are separated from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. This same pain and anguish occur when children are forcibly separated from their parents by child protection authorities.

But even beyond the trauma of separation, the pain associated with placement in foster care continues as children are sent to strangers’ homes with little explanation, and often continue to be moved multiple times, with little to no information on when or if they will be returned home. As a result, studies have shown that children who enter foster care are at risk for a host of negative experiences as adults including homelessness, criminal justice involvement, low educational attainment, unemployment, economic hardship, substance abuse, and significant mental health disorders.

University of Houston and the Center for the Study of Social Policy have launched the upEND movement to “create a society in which the forcible separation of children from their families is no longer an acceptable intervention.” Image: Twitter

While the potential for these adverse outcomes exists for all children who enter foster care, the risk of experiencing these outcomes is heightened for Black children. Due to the anti-Black racism and entrenched inequality that pervade our society, Black children in America are already at increased risk of experiencing poor outcomes including criminal justice involvement, economic hardship, poor health, low educational attainment, mental health challenges and violent death. For Black children who experience the trauma of forced separation from their parents and placement in foster care, the result is a condition of compound disadvantage that makes it more likely these outcomes will be realized.

Over the last several decades, efforts have been made to address the harm that disproportionality causes. However, these efforts have largely stalled due to an ongoing debate over the causes of disproportionality. At issue is whether disproportionality is the result of racial biases in child welfare systems or “disproportionate need” among Black families due to poverty and related risks.

This debate has elicited strong feelings, as those who have argued for “disproportionate need,” led almost exclusively by White researchers, have largely discounted the role of racism or racial bias in child welfare systems and have strongly advocated against strategies to address disproportionality that involve cultural competency or other forms of anti-bias training. These powerful voices have led many child welfare systems to believe the causes of disproportionality occur largely outside their systems, and as a result, little or no action is needed to address it.

This debate is a distraction that only serves to perpetuate harm to Black children. Not only has this debate hindered efforts to address disproportionality, it has distracted from the real problem that creates and maintains disproportionality – racism, both within child welfare and in society at large. Within the child welfare system, decades of research have documented the influence of racial biases on decision-making. This results both from biases among the child welfare workforce, as well as decades of policies that have held White families and White parenting as the standard against which other families are judged.

Outside the child welfare system, poverty and disproportionate need do exist among Black families and contribute to disproportionality. And this is then compounded by the over-surveillance and over-reporting of Black families to child welfare systems, which begins their involvement in a system governed by policies and practices that maintain inequality.

So what should be done to address the persistent harm to Black children that results from the racial inequities that exist in child welfare systems? Although multiple strategies to address disproportionality have been tried, and some progress has been made, it is clear these strategies are not at all sufficient. Racial disproportionality persists, and the harm that results to Black children and families continues. Thus, we need to shift our attention from efforts to reduce racial inequities once they exist, to efforts that examine and remedy the policies and practices of the system that create them.

In the child welfare system, this means policies and practices that support the forcible and involuntary separation of children from their parents. The elimination of racial inequities, and the harm they cause Black children, will only be achieved when the forcible separation of children from their parents is no longer viewed as an acceptable solution for families in need.

The harm that results from this intervention, and the families that are destroyed as a result, will only end through the abolition of the child welfare system as we know it and a fundamental reimagining of the meaning of child welfare – a reimagining that is fundamentally anti-racist.

This is a long-term strategy that will not happen immediately. However, this needs to be established as the goal, and we all need to engage in the conversations that will bring about the actions needed to move toward that goal.

This is not a new idea. Many advocates, from parents who have lost their children to the system, to legal professionals, to grassroots organizers, have called for the abolition of the child welfare system. Now is the time to join with this radical energy to imagine an anti-racist society, and how an anti-racist society supports the welfare of children.


Alan Dettlaff is dean of the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Kristen Weber is director of equity, inclusion, and justice for the Center for the Study of Social Policy. To learn more about upEND, follow them on Twitter @upendmovement.

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