Dear President Biden and Vice President Harris,
During the campaign, I saw your signs touting the phrase, “Our best days still lie ahead.”
But what do “best days” look like for our children and families?
As CEO of a nationally recognized kinship care service agency, a Black mother and a former child of the foster care system, I can say issues of racism remain problematic in child welfare services. I’ve dealt with the system and poured through the research on the overrepresentation of Black families in child welfare services — a system embedded with a racist ideology. Providing children in Black families and others the best care depends on how a responsive, 21st century child welfare system navigates racism, sexism and classism.
Getting to the “best days” of child welfare in 2021 requires nothing less than dismantling the old system, centering Black families at the heart of kinship care policy, and having a transformative discussion on what we need to know so we can move forward from a race equity lens.
Frankly, there has been a long-standing assault on Black families. Since the birth of the United States, Black families caught in America’s child welfare system have experienced poorer outcomes than whites: They receive more limited services, are reported to authorities more often, are more likely to have case reports substantiated, spend longer periods in the care of others, are less likely to be adopted, are less likely to be reunited with their parents, and have more difficulty legitimizing adoptions.
These dire consequences of being Black spring from a racist ideology rooted in the origins of the system — an ideology that the New York Times’ “1619 Project” fully illuminates. For Black families and their children, this racist practice of family separation was initiated in 1619, consecrated in 1776, and reinforced by the U.S. Constitution signed in 1787.
The year 1619 marks the moment the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia. Slave auctions became the site of many a Black woman screaming as her baby or child was ripped from her arms. As one former slave shared, “Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … Ma, Pa, sister or brother … taken without warning…People was always dying from a broken heart.”
Nearly 200 years later, in 1787, the separation of Black families became the crucible that helped unify the 13 original American colonies to create the United States as it is today. Per Constitutional Convention delegate James Madison’s notes, delegates from the northern states, desperate to create a nation, secured provisions that allowed the slave trade — and separation of Black families — to continue for another 20 years. And even though no new slaves were permitted to be imported to the United States, signing the provision into Constitutional law safeguarded the practice of Black family separation in building bipartisan agreement on the profitability of slavery in the land of the “free.”
The American child welfare system that emerged through slavery in the 19th century ignored Black families, whose welfare was at the discretion of white slave owners. Amid the cruel separations that went on across America, Black families tried to maintain the family unit. They practiced a form of community parenting through kinship, based in African traditions of social responsibility for children — a sort of informal child welfare network to protect themselves against white assaults on their family lives.
The child protection movement during the Progressive Era reforms (1890s-1920s) led to the withdrawal of children from the workforce and shifted parental obligations to the development and well-being of their children. There was no similar evolution when considering how the Black community felt the same obligations and concerns for the well-being of its children. Therefore, since slavery, Black families have been at the mercy of a largely white, racist system that essentially continues the practice of racially unjust family separations.
To better assist America’s Black families in 2021, the following should be considered:
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must fund a study on the interpretation of federal legislation and state policy. Such a study would yield a report not on what states are doing, but why. The question that must be answered is, in modern child welfare, does the guise of white middle-class morality remain the compass?
- Require each state plan for child welfare services to describe levels of family empowerment and touchpoints of community engagement.
- Require each state plan for child welfare services to document specific efforts to address racial justice. Are they operating from a lens of cultural congruence and relevancy? Does data support equity efforts?
- Dismantle the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994, amended by the Interethnic Placement Act (IEPA) of 1996, which fuels the flames of racism in the system. Under this policy, when foster families are found, more children are transracially placed than placed in homes where they have greater racial congruence. However, research shows children experience greater well-being and more positive outcomes when they remain connected to their racial heritages.
- Use the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 as a template for acknowledging the over-surveillance of Black families in the child welfare system; placing Black children in racially and culturally consistent homes by prioritizing kinship care; and involving a child’s family and community in service planning.It is important to note that better oversight is needed to ensure the efficacy of such policies. According to Executive Director Sarah Kastelic, the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, “ICWA is the only federal child welfare law that doesn’t require specific data elements to be collected and for which there is no periodic review.”
Child welfare is about protecting children, as well as their moral right to be with their own families. However, the structure of the child welfare system continues to protect and reproduce the thoughts and ideology of those who created the system.
In 2021, the emphasis can no longer be on protecting the system. Our best days must become better days for our children.