On Jan. 13, federal authorities carried out the execution of Lisa Montgomery, who was convicted in 2007 of killing Bobbie Jo Stinnett. Stinnett was pregnant, but her baby survived the brutal attack. An intense campaign was waged to prevent Lisa from being executed, including filing a clemency petition with the President of the United States.
The petition detailed how Lisa was “born with brain damage” resulting from her mother drinking alcohol “throughout her pregnancy.” It revealed that Lisa’s first words were “Don’t spank me it hurts” and that Lisa avoided crying, while her mouth was duct taped shut, because crying made it more difficult to breathe. Lisa and her siblings witnessed their mother “beating” the family dog. Lisa would also endure years of sexual assaults and being trafficked, by her parents, to “faceless men.” Lisa’s older sister also was sexually assaulted, but by the age of eight this sister was “rescued” by social services.
Montgomery’s tragic trajectory crystallized for me the concern I have over a national campaign, known as the upEND Movement, which seeks to abolish the child welfare system. The upEND Movement is spot on in how it communicates zero tolerance of racism, yet it is troubling in how it draws arbitrary lines in the sand about abused children.
The movement arises as states are finally navigating toward forward-thinking and prevention-focused policy and practice reforms, spurred in part by enactment of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act. I share the outrage fueling the upEND movement. It isn’t hard to identify some of the fundamental flaws in America’s approach to child welfare. Most alarming is the way in which implicit and explicit bias has resulted in a disproportionate number of Black and Native children being reported to the child welfare system and separated from their families and communities, often due to the artifacts of poverty, as opposed to abuse.
It’s not upEND’s alarm or call-to-action about systemic racism that troubles me or fails to resonate. Instead it is how the movement’s framing fails to acknowledge the complexity of childhood trauma, most notably physical and sexual abuse. In its written materials, UpEND acknowledges, “there are extreme cases of abuse and neglect.” UpEND leaders also stipulate that “the safety and protection of children” always rest with families and separating a child from their family is “rooted in racism.”
It seems fair to ask, at what point would the upEND Movement say a child, with lived experiences like Lisa, warrant intervention and possible separation from the environment in which they are being abused? When the child is regularly spanked or their mouth duct taped? When the child witnesses a pet killed out of anger? Or would a child’s abuse and neglect only rise to “extreme” if the child is sexually trafficked? There are added questions about what entity or person upEND envisions as the proper option for providing intervention for children if the child welfare system were abolished?
There is growing understanding and accountability about how traumatic it is for a child to be removed from home. Still, we’ve become a society that artificially measures child safety and well-being, along with child welfare systems’ success or failure, linked largely to foster care numbers rising or falling.
Keeping kids safe at home should be the priority, but the relentless directives and measuring sticks linked to viewing placement as the worse possible outcome, even when a child has been abused, has its own effect. Few will speak of or tolerate questions being raised about how we reconcile avoiding the trauma of removal with the equally traumatizing reality of a child left in a home where they are devalued and abused.
The upEND movement could and should change the trajectory for countless children and families ensnared in a system adrift with racial and economic injustices. Such a movement, however, must not ignore children like Lisa, nor should it embrace language suggesting it is OK for children to experience a degree of abuse, up and until it reaches some yet-to-be-defined threshold of “extreme abuse.”
Each of us must urgently commit to rooting out racism and inequities in child welfare, but in correcting that injustice, we cannot be complicit in advancing an agenda that diminishes the right of every child to live and grow up free from abuse.