Each month, FPP Co-Founder Dr. Tricia Stephens summarizes and comments on selected child welfare articles, exploring the history of contemporary child welfare policies and practices and the research that shapes the current child welfare terrain.
In the event that you were under the impression that the reach of the current family policing system is limited in scope and utilized under the most egregious circumstances, research like that reported on by Christopher Wildeman and Jane Waldfogel should dispel those beliefs. In their 2014 article Somebody’s children or nobody’s children? How the sociological perspective could enliven research on foster care, they called on the field of sociology to bring its lens to research on foster care and laid out data to show the massive scope of child welfare.
Though I read statistics all the time about how pervasive the family policing system is, research that is national and longitudinal in nature casts an entirely new light on the depth and breadth of family regulation enacted by this system over time.
At first glance, the risk of out-of-home/foster care placement may seem relatively small at 1% of the total U.S. child population, a consideration for Wildeman and Waldfogel regarding why this area of sociological inquiry has received relatively little attention. However, as many who are familiar with the day-to-day practices in child protective services and Family Courts are aware, the number of foster care placements in Native and African American communities are between 11 and 15% of children between birth and age eighteen. Those who practice in communities where Latinx families living below the poverty line dominate will argue that the families they work with are struggling within these systems at similar rates of burden, even if these numbers are neutralized at the national demographic level.
Research such as this may help to explain the feeling many of us have had over the years of screaming into the abyss regarding the injustice we see every day. As tens of thousands of primarily Black and Brown mothers and their children have become system-entrenched, the rest of society has moved along obliviously as though this was happening to “somebody else’s child”, their attention harnessed only under the most heartbreaking and lethal of circumstances. Not surprisingly, this societal level avoidance of reckoning with child welfare policies that jump started the status quo has meant that in some communities in New York City from which I write this commentary, more than half the children in certain pre-k through high schools live in homes where their parents have been investigated for maltreatment. I need only ride the number 6 train from Brooklyn Bridge uptown and watch the hue of the passengers’ skin tone deepen in shade to predict increasing rates of investigation through removal of children.
Research matters, but epistemology can be dangerous if used to buttress existing tropes and narratives. Critical analyses of powerful factors like racism, classism and policies that support inequity are essential components of sound child welfare research. Wildeman and Waldfogel suggest pathways to expand the research lens to ask the questions that allow for a more fulsome discussion of current vehicles of intergenerational inequality inherited by many who have traversed the current child welfare system.
Race, Foster Care and the Politics of Abandonment in New York City
David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’ 1997 article titled Race, Foster Care, and the Politics of Abandonment in New York City, provides historical context for our city’s current child welfare (CW) milieu. The authors trace the evolution of CW policies starting in the early 1900s when Black children were legally excluded from the vast majority of resources and institutions meant to assist families in New York City, a problem that was exacerbated when large numbers of African-American families moved to the city in the late 1930s.
As the city moved to desegregate, Rosner and Markowitz document the lengths to which existing agencies went to adhere to segregationist beliefs, some choosing to close their doors rather than extend services to Black children. The “sorting of Black children” once they entered systems built to serve white children meant that Black children were classified as “mentally ill, delinquent or even criminal”, with the resulting service provision resulting in neglect or outright punishment instead of assistance.
Written over 25 years ago, and recounting policies penned over a century past, the authors explicate what many CW affected families and practitioners see today. They document the guiding principles of racially separate and unequal treatment on which our current system is built, reflecting Du Bois’ cautionary statement that systems within our country are not broken, they are working exactly as intended. Any effort at changing the current system must take a critical look at its origins and the beliefs woven into its fabric that find a way to express themselves no matter the policies penned.
Race defines every aspect of American life, this is a reality every Black mother knows – it is the whisper in her ear at the moment she learns she is carrying new life. It is the reason Black parents celebrate and pause simultaneously when they learn a new child is on their way. For many Black parents and children who have interfaced with the CW system in 2022, Rozner and Markowitz’s words could have been written yesterday, the resonance is so strong.
Incremental change in the system, without a full reckoning of harm steeped in racial trauma, is frankly useless and meaningless to those who have had to now endure generations of CW system involvement without any meaningful support and change.