Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation

The uprisings taking place across the nation and the world have brought unprecedented attention to abolition as a political vision and organizing strategy. More Americans are recognizing that police killings of black people are so pervasive that they can no longer be considered aberrations. Rather, police violence stems from the very function of policing to enforce an unjust racial order.

Policing, therefore, cannot be fixed by more failed reforms; it must be abolished. The most prominent demand emerging from the protests is to defund the police and reallocate the money to provide health care, education, jobs with living wages, and affordable housing.

I am inspired by calls to defund the police. But I am concerned by recommendations to transfer money, resources and authority from the police to health and human services agencies that handle child protective services (CPS). These proposals ignore how the misnamed “child welfare” system, like the misnamed “criminal justice” system, is designed to regulate and punish black and other marginalized people. It could be more accurately referred to as the “family regulation system.”

Giving child welfare authorities more money and power will result in even more state surveillance and control of black communities. Rather than divesting one oppressive system to invest in another, we should work toward abolishing all carceral institutions and creating radically different ways of meeting families’ needs. I hope by explaining why including CPS in defund police proposals is antithetical to abolition, I can contribute to the ongoing collective evaluation of strategies to achieve transformational change.

Defunding police is part of a broader struggle to abolish the prison industrial complex, including jails, prisons, detention centers and other carceral practices, while building a radically different society that has no need for them. From its origins in slave patrols, policing has served as a violent arm of the racial capitalist state by protecting the interests of white elites and controlling black and other marginalized communities through everyday physical intimidation and arrests. As abolitionist organizer Mariame Kaba recently stated, “The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.” In moving toward abolition, then, it is critical to support reforms only if they reduce — and do not increase — police funding, tools and power.

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Dorothy Roberts, professor of law, sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Roberts

Abolitionists must also ask, however, whether the recommended reallocation of money and authority will reduce and not increase other parts of the state’s punishment regime. Will the redirection move us toward or away from the more equal and humane society we envision? These critical questions have been inadequately considered when commentators recommend investing more money and authority in the family regulation system. Proposals circulating in the media have included shifting money from police departments to child welfare agencies and increasing involvement by child protective workers in struggling families’ problems. Social workers have been promoted as an all-purpose substitute for police officers.

These recommendations reflect a more general failure to understand CPS as an integral part of the U.S. carceral regime. Regulating and destroying black, brown and indigenous families in the name of child protection has been essential to the “ongoing white supremacist nation building project” as much as prisons and police. Like the prison industrial complex, the foster industrial complex is a multi-billion-dollar government apparatus that regulates millions of marginalized people through intrusive investigations, monitoring and forcible removal of children from their homes to be placed in foster care, group homes and “therapeutic” detention facilities.

The vast majority of child welfare investigations and removals involve allegations of neglect related to poverty, and black families are targeted the most for state disruption. Just as police don’t make communities safe, CPS affirmatively harms children and their families while failing to address the structural causes for their hardships. Residents of black neighborhoods live in fear of state agents entering their homes, interrogating them, and taking their children as much as they fear police harassing them in the streets.

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a book about anti-black racism in the family regulation system — Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Since then, “racial disproportionality” has become a buzzword in child welfare research and policymaking. Despite numerous reforms, the system has not changed its punitive ideology or racist impact. The foster industrial complex can’t be fixed; it must be abolished.

Prison abolitionists should support defunding the family regulation system and be careful not to enrich it more with funds divested from the police. Calls to divert money wholesale to federal and state health and human services departments, without exempting CPS and foster care, will further empower these engines of community surveillance and control.

Linking 911 to the Child Abuse Hotline will increase disruptive child maltreatment allegations and investigations, most of which are unsubstantiated and produce absolutely no help to families. Even well-meaning recommendations to deploy social workers to conduct “wellness checks” in homes will likely result in increased mandated reports, expanding the state’s monitoring and disruption of families.

There is a small but growing movement to radically transform or abolish the family regulation system, ignited by black mothers who have been separated from their children and joined by former foster youth, social justice activists, legal services providers, nonprofit organizations, and scholars. Our goal is not only to dismantle the current system, but also to imagine and create better ways of caring for children, meeting families’ needs, and preventing domestic violence. Like demands to defund police, foster care abolition includes diverting the billions of dollars spent on separating children from their families to cash assistance, health care, housing and other material supports provided directly and non-coercively to parents and other family caregivers and care networks.

Ultimately, these abolitionist movements envision the same society — one that has no need for punitive institutions like prisons, police and foster care to ensure community well-being and safety. Without attention to the foster industrial complex, however, reform proposals might help to strengthen it — thereby expanding the carceral state rather than shrinking it.

A more expansive understanding of abolition is essential to collectively building a new society that supports rather than destroys families and communities.

Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Africana Studies, Law & Sociology and the Raymond Pace & Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at University of Pennsylvania.

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