“Upstream City” by FPP Director Nora McCarthy ran as a column in The Imprint from 2022-2023.
When Tahitia Foggie recognized in therapy that she had hurt family members with her actions, she reached out to each child to ask forgiveness.
“I wanted them to know: ‘There was nothing wrong with you. The problem was with me,’” she wrote in Rise magazine in 2015.
“After I did that,” she wrote, “I wanted the same healing for myself from the foster care system, where I spent my entire childhood and where I experienced tremendous abuse.” Foggie wrote to the CEO of the agency where she was a ward from 1976 to 1993, to his secretary and to the commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). No one acknowledged her emails.
Increasingly, child welfare leadership in New York City and nationwide have begun to reckon with the harm of past policies and the current system’s brutal impacts, particularly on Black and Native American families. However, the city’s leadership and its child welfare agency, ACS, have never publicly apologized or offered any form of restitution or repair.
In the last two years, parents and youth impacted by family policing in New York City have demanded that acknowledgement and begun to lay out a vision of what it would mean for the child welfare system to make amends, provide reparations and contribute to repair. In this last Upstream City column, I want to echo their calls. “Upstream” is a politically neutral word, but I’ve tried to argue for something closer to reparative investment. That involves truth-telling, addressing injustice and systemic trauma, and shifting not only resources but control to survivors.
Nationwide, a growing movement has led a number of states and institutions to begin to explore or offer limited reparations for slavery and racist policies. In addition to individual restitution, reparations frameworks emphasize a comprehensive accounting and acknowledgement of harm, investment in institutions led by and accountable to Black communities, and an end to policies and practices that perpetuate anti-Black racism.
Most visibly, a California commission has proposed billions in reparations while institutions including Georgetown University and Virginia Theological Seminary have offered millions in community investment dollars and direct cash to descendants of the enslaved. In June, New York State followed California’s lead in passing legislation that, if signed by the governor, would create a commission to examine the impacts of slavery and discrimination. If enacted, large-scale recompense to Black families would likely have direct effects on child welfare involvement by reducing poverty and the racial wealth gap.
Survivor justice movements also offer frameworks for institutional accountability. Survivors of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, for example, made a number of demands to address injustice and trauma that could equally apply to child welfare: a public confession of responsibility; “observable actions” to show the church was serious about making “fair and just amends;” ethical settlement of civil lawsuits; a halt to lobbying against legislative actions that would increase accountability; and an endowment of funds for survivor healing that would operate under survivor leadership.
Similarly, organizers in Chicago developed what Georgetown Law professor Allegra McLeod described as a “broad and deep democratic process to contemplate how to make amends” in response to police torture. Beyond criminal and civil court processes, a community-led movement led to deeper forms of redress for the racist abuse: a torture memorial, school curriculum, millions in direct payments and an array of support services for survivors of police trauma.
For institutions like child welfare, the first responsibility is acknowledgement. As trauma expert Judith Herman has said, “Recognizing the survivor’s claim to justice must be the moral community’s first act of solidarity.”
After that, what’s most important is that parents and youth impacted by the system determine for themselves what accountability and repair will look like. As Shamara Kelly, co-founder of the parent organizing group Black Families Love and Unite (B.L.U.) put it in a webinar on reparations in August, “My purpose is making sure that survivors are implementing all the work that impacts them.”
These frameworks are embedded in the demands that New York City parents have made. In a 2022 report by the Narrowing the Front Door Workgroup, the first recommendation was to “acknowledge that the family regulation system (“child welfare” system) has harmed, continues to harm the health, safety, and wellbeing of Black children, families, and communities.”
Parents at Rise wrote in a 2021 report: “The City should begin the process of providing reparations to individuals, families and communities impacted by ACS — both reparations directly related to the harm of ACS involvement and broader reparations to impacted neighborhoods in the form of community-directed investment to accelerate the economic stability of families.”
Both imagine an agency and city leadership prepared to “commit to a path of healing that truth-telling processes and restorative practices teach us is possible.” Rise sought “a genuine truth and reparations process” in which ACS would participate “fully and with depth, avoiding a process that is mere political performance.” The Narrowing the Front Door Working Group called for a city-funded, community-led Accountability Council to “identify corrective action steps and future initiatives to end the harms of the current system, redress past harms and prevent future harm.”
These visions of repair would require that city officials agree to accountable processes with survivors and stay committed to working through the inevitable challenges. More typically, these kinds of concessions must be wrested from systems. Last year, when the Canadian government agreed to pay $31.5 billion to compensate impacted First Nations families and reform its child welfare system, it was not a reparations agreement that emerged from its 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission but a court settlement reached after years of broken agreements.
In 2018, The New York Times wrote a mea culpa for its role in the “moral panic that cast mothers with crack addictions as irretrievably depraved and the worst enemies of their children.” Suzanne Sellers, a mother impacted by child welfare and longtime advocate who was featured in the piece, wrote in a letter to the paper: “I want to thank TheNew York Times for its apology for how it demonized mothers like me…The apology is welcomed, and it gives me hope.”
Specifically, Sellers wrote that she hoped “weak science, poorly informed crusaders and racist attitudes” would no longer continue to shape public policy, and that legislation “with roots in crack hysteria” — namely the Adoption and Safe Families Act passed in 1997 — would be repealed.
So far, there have been tentative steps to acknowledge harm. In a funding notice released this summer, the federal Children’s Bureau acknowledged systemic harm in unusually stark terms, writing that the system “is responsible for many structural barriers and racial biases” and describing system-involved families as “often embarking on a seemingly continuous journey of surveillance, interruption, removal, and for many, eventual break down, leading to lasting adverse outcomes impacting generations.”
Former ACS Commissioner David Hansell acknowledged child welfare’s “sorry history” of racial disparity and, in 2020, commissioned but did not release an internal report in which some of its own workforce described the agency as “a predatory system that specifically targets Black and brown parents.” The current administration has set some new policy and practice goals to reduce child welfare involvement. Still, the agency has stopped short of an apology or acknowledgment of ACS’ role. Reparative state legislation to protect parents’ rights, preserve family bonds and invest in impacted communities has stalled.
New York City’s leadership can take an important step toward true healing by confronting the system’s legacy of harm, whether the callous informal mantra of “when in doubt, pull them out” in the 1990s or the use of families’ benefits to help pay for their separation. A “broad and deep democratic process” to make amends won’t just benefit those impacted by the system. All of us working in child welfare or involved in advocacy have amends to make and can benefit from a process of apology and repair determined by those impacted.
Some years ago, Tahitia Foggie did get an apology — from officials in Texas, where she’d dealt with the system as a parent. “Having someone in the child welfare system acknowledge that what happened to me was real has helped me feel less responsible for my own suffering,” Foggie wrote. But she is still waiting for someone from ACS and the private agency responsible for her care in childhood to apologize for all she suffered. “That would make the biggest difference to me.”
Read the Series:
- What Does it Mean to Invest “Upstream”?
- Policies That Scaffold Family Life
- How Neighborhood Conditions Drive Child Welfare Involvement
- Intentional Investment in the Social Fabric of Neighborhoods Can Lift Families
- Narrowing Mandated Reporting Laws that Fuel Hyper-Surveillance
- Expand Healing at the Community Level to Protect Families
- Developing Restorative Pathways to Safety
- To Change Conditions for Families, Shift Power Out of Systems
- Toward a Pro-Community Process of Government Funding
- Child Welfare Systems Should Be Allies, Not Leaders, in Transformative Change
- A Citywide Framework to Hold Upstream Efforts Accountable
- To Move Forward, Apologize and Repair