Why I Focus on Racism, and Anti-Black Racism in Particular, in Child Welfare

By Dr. Tricia Stephens

I am a researcher, an academic and a believer in using data to support deep thinking about social problems. I could provide hundreds of citations from the research literature in child welfare and social sciences that describe how, at every step of the process, from making reports through entry into foster care, reunification and reentry into the child welfare system, Black children fare worse than any other group except Native Americans. This has been documented for decades, and my sense is that each person reading this already knows this to be true. Your anecdotal observations from your time working in child welfare has driven home on a daily basis what the research now makes irrefutable: That wherever Black families are, they become the dominant group in child welfare settings.

The language of disproportionality, the sanitized term used to describe racial differences in child welfare representation, is unacceptable to me. I call disproportionality anti-Black racism. I know that Black parents love their children, I know this to be true in the face of research statistics that list race, specifically being Black, as a risk factor for child maltreatment. I focus on anti-Black racism because it decenters blame and shame from parents who live in Black bodies and refocuses attention on the racist attitudes towards their parenting and their being that must be tackled in order for meaningful systemic change to follow.

As I prepared to write this piece, I reflected on the report, commissioned by ACS and obtained by the Bronx Defenders, which was covered by The New York Times last month. As the Times reported, Black children are 13 times more likely to be placed in foster care than white children in New York City. This number did not surprise me. My awareness of these numbers spans two worlds, my role as an academic and my life as a Black woman.

My why for focusing on Black families barged into my weekend as I sat down to write. I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon speaking with a dear friend. This proud and exceptionally talented Black mother of three had dared to challenge the educators at one of her son’s schools to do better by him in his educational plan. She had persisted and had data. She did not back down from her insistence that they were not providing him with what he needed. After several weeks of going back and forth, my friend was home one day last week and her buzzer rang. Earlier that day she had told the school she was pulling her son out. Within hours an ACS worker was at her door, making an “emergency visit” to check on her son’s safety because she had been described in the call as unhinged and unstable. The worker stated that they needed to see her son to ensure he was well.

I have a physiological response every time I have one of these conversations. My gut wrenches and I have to catch my breath. I could imagine the smiling face of her son who I know very well. I cringed as I imagined what would happen to his gentle soul were he ever to be removed from his family.

This is not the first time I have had a friend call me with a story of an investigation. This is how we get to almost 45% of all Black families being investigated for maltreatment in New York City.

In each of the cases of my friends, they lived and educated their children in spaces that I now refer to as upgraded segregation settings. Again, language and its power to explicate or obfuscate is important to me. I do not accept the term gentrification. I see upgraded segregation in the shiny, high density buildings, occupied by wealthier, often racially privileged groups. These groups are provided with amenities and resources that are not mean for everyone. Black people in these settings are sent implicit and at times explicit messages that they do not belong, and if allowed access they should simply be grateful and not take up space. The schools were quick to take photos of their children to be used in promotional materials touting their diversity and inclusion, yet the school in the scenario described above did not hesitate to utilize a call to the state central registry alleging educational neglect as a tool of social control when this Black mother demanded more for her son.

My friends cannot protect themselves from the scrutiny that is anti-Black racism, they simply have better tools to fight back. They know they can say no to a caseworker demanding entry at their doorstep unannounced, they can hire lawyers and are aware of their rights. In each case the calls alleging maltreatment were unsubstantiated, but the invasion into their families’ lives and the fear that lingers cannot be taken away. Even with the protections of socioeconomic comfort, education and access, these Black mothers fall solidly within the crosshairs of regulation and social control.

I have met many more Black mothers who had the same love for their children, but who were without the protections some of my friends have. Their pain is my pain. We are all members of the same group targeted by racial animus. The outcomes for their children have hinged on advocacy from dedicated parent representation teams, the schedules of Family Courts, supervised visits and for many, living with grinding poverty.

The weathering effect of anti-Black racism is most burdensome for Black families, but affects every single family in this country. Children are being robbed of the security that is family, parents are experiencing insecurity because every Black family knows it may only be a matter of time before their buzzer rings. Any attempts to change the child welfare system without wrestling with the legacy of anti-Black racism in America will be futile – because those changes will be window dressing on a gaping wound. Black families deserve better than this.