Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

Racial Harm: Dorothy Roberts Explains How Racism Works in the Child Welfare System. (Child Welfare)

Magazine article Colorlines Magazine

Racial Harm: Dorothy Roberts Explains How Racism Works in the Child Welfare System. (Child Welfare)

Article excerpt

It is often said that American child welfare policy operates like a pendulum. It swings between two main objectives: keeping troubled families together on one end, and protecting children from parental harm on the other. In recent years the pendulum of child welfare philosophy has swung decisively away from preserving families. State child protection officials responded to fatal child abuse cases, like that of Elisa Izquierdo in 1995, by escalating removal of at-risk children from their homes. And in 1997, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act that encourages state agencies to "free" children in foster care for adoption by terminating their parents' rights. The emphasis on adoption to cure the ills of the foster care system mirrors the 1996 welfare reform law's emphasis on private remedies for poverty, such as marriage and low-wage jobs. The overlap of these two laws marks the first time in U.S. history that the federal government requires states to protect children from maltreatment without requiring states to provide economic support to their families.

A recent class action lawsuit brought by battered women in New York City, Nicholson v. Scoppetta, highlights the injustice of child welfare practice that relies on child removal. In a March 11, 2002 opinion, federal district judge Jack B. Weinstein ruled that New York City's child welfare department violated the constitutional rights of battered mothers by routinely and unnecessarily placing their children in foster care. Judge Weinstein attributed the city's child removal policy in cases of domestic violence to deeper flaws in a system that is unfairly stacked against poor families. Poor mothers threatened with losing their children lack adequate legal representation, in part because the state pays their court-appointed lawyers so poorly. In addition, bureaucratic inefficiency and caution lead caseworkers to rake what they perceive to be the path of least resistance. Instead of devising ways to keep battered mothers and their children safely united, agencies find it easier to snatch children from their home s. Most important, child protection agents fail to consider the trauma caused to children by needlessly separating them from their mothers. After all, a child killed by parents often makes frontpage news and can ruin the careers of judges and administrators. The emotional damage to thousands of children wrongfully relegated to foster care usually goes unnoticed.

Traumatic Assistance

But this list of flaws overlooks another critical dimension of the child welfare system reflected in the state's excessive intervention in families. By placing children in a forced state custody" under these conditions, Judge Weinstein wrote, the city's child removal policy constituted "a form of slavery." Judge Weinstein's reference to slavery is especially apt, given the child welfare system's staggering racial disparity. Black children make up nearly half of the national foster care population, although they represent less than one-fifth of the nation's children. Latino and Native American children are also in the system in disproportionate numbers. The system's racial imbalance is most apparent in big cities where there are sizeable minority and foster care populations. In Chicago, for example, 95 percent of children in foster care are black. Out of 42,000 children in New York City's foster care system at the end of 1997, only 1,300 were white. Black children in New York were 10 times as likely as white children to be in state protective custody. Spend a day in the courts that decide child maltreatment cases in these cities and you very well may see only black or Latino parents and children. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

State agencies are far more likely to place black children who come to their attention in foster care instead of offering their families less traumatic assistance. …

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