When a young pregnant mom informed her prenatal care providers that she had smoked marijuana to relieve stress, nausea and poor appetite, they didn’t seem concerned. But after the birth of her son a few years ago in a Bronx hospital, a test of the baby’s urine came back positive for cannabis, and the hospital quickly called child welfare authorities.
They presented her with an ultimatum: Enter a residential drug treatment program with your two children, or lose them to foster care.
An account of this New York mother’s experience – included in the recently released report “How The Foster System Has Become Ground Zero for The U.S. Drug War” – describes how she opted for residential treatment. The woman, identified minimally as “Ms. CS” to protect her identity, was unable, “in her heart of hearts,” to be separated from her infant.
But the cost was still significant.
She had to sign over her public benefits and soon found herself scrubbing facility floors as part of her treatment program. Child Protective Services continued to supervise Ms. CS after she left treatment before her case was eventually closed – without ever being reviewed by a judge. Two years of entanglement with the city’s child welfare agency derailed her career and school plans, Ms. CS told authors of the 174-page report by the Movement for Family Power, the Drug Policy Alliance and New York University’s Family Defense Clinic.
“They don’t ask ‘what can I do for you?’” she said. “Instead, they tell you what you should do.”
The study, released last month, includes Ms. CS’s story along with other women’s anguished accounts of being penalized shortly after giving birth. The authors describe government interventions in families as too often “unjustified and not authorized by existing law,” calling such actions an extension of the nation’s failed drug war. They also claim 4 in 5 child neglect or abuse cases include parental drug use as a factor, but often with little corroboration of an addiction.
“This is one of the greatest injustices of our time, and one of the most overlooked,” said Lisa Sangoi, a recent Soros Justice Fellow and former staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, who co-founded the Movement for Family Power in 2018.
The child welfare system, contrary to public perception, has vast and unparalleled government powers, her group’s report concludes, with “wide latitude to surveil and control families,” and remove children — particularly those from low-income Black, Latino and American Indian communities. Yet it receives far too little critical analysis when compared to the “criminal legal system, immigration system, or anti-terrorism enforcement.”
Before launching the Movement for Family Power, Sangoi and co-founder Erin Miles Cloud both represented low-income parents in child welfare cases, Miles Cloud as a supervising attorney with Bronx Defenders involved in more than 1,000 parents’ cases for roughly a decade.
They describe their mission as working “to end the Foster System’s policing and punishment of families and to create a world where the dignity and integrity of all families is valued and supported.” The group’s work involves supporting and connecting like-minded advocates, litigators and system-affected parents, and steering philanthropic funding toward community-based efforts to heal families and keep them together.
“There is a deep, deep stigma around whether or not you are a good parent,” Miles Cloud said. “We need a concerted effort to decrease that isolation, to support people resisting that narrative.”
Although their research on drug-related investigations of new mothers began well before police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests against racial injustice and calls to defund the police, the pair is seeking to seize this historic moment of change and unrest in the nation to broaden the public’s awareness of foster care – a system they think needs abolishing, not simply reforming.
More than 1,700 people across the country tuned in to a June 23 webinar discussing the findings from the “Ground Zero” report.
Some scholars and advocates have long called for an overhaul of the broad discretion child welfare agencies have to separate families who are disproportionately Black, Latino and American Indian. Now, inspired by months of protests against racism and police brutality, those once-isolated voices appear to be coalescing, and calling for fast-paced change.
“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),” Dorothy Roberts, the influential author and professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in a June op-ed for The Imprint.
“Giving child welfare authorities more money and power will result in even more state surveillance and control of Black communities,” Roberts stated. “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.”
There have been similar calls in at least one recent public demonstration, albeit tiny in participant numbers when contrasted with the millions of people who have rallied in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks. On June 20, a parent-led protest of roughly 100 people marched up lower Manhattan to protest racism in the child welfare system, chanting: “No justice, no peace! ACS is the police!” The group crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on their way to the city’s temporary intake dorm for children who have just entered foster care.
In response to a request for comment on the recent protest and the Movement for Family Power’s report, Samuel Chafee, a spokesperson with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, said the city agency is “aggressively implementing” a racial equity action plan. Chafee also highlighted the agency’s redesigned prevention programs to help “address racial disparities in service access,” and called for mandated child abuse and neglect reporters – such as teachers or nurses – to receive implicit bias training.
“It’s true that there are racial disparities in child welfare, not just in New York but across the country, and the Administration for Children’s Services is acknowledging and addressing them,” Chafee stated in an email. He recommended better training for mandated reporters, so that their accounts “are objective and result in help for children when truly needed.”
Nationally, the Movement for Family Power isn’t the only organization impatient with incremental reform efforts. On June 22, the University of Houston and the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., announced the launch of a campaign called #upEND, which seeks to end “forcible separation of children from their families.”
Alan Dettlaff, dean of the university’s Graduate School of Social Work, said the campaign planning pre–dated the recent nationwide protests – but it is now a well-timed culmination of years of work to correct the stubbornly high numbers of children of color in foster care.
According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, Black children and American Indian youth in particular are significantly overrepresented in foster care in many states. But local governments’ efforts to address those skews have made little progress over the past decade, due in part to a heated debate about whether disproportionality is a result of racism in the child welfare system, or rates of poverty, Dettlaff said. As a result, he added, parents’ voices and qualitative studies describing explicit racism parents encountered in the system are discounted.
“When people of color tell us about their experiences of racism, we need to believe them and do something about it,” said Dettlaff, who previously worked as a child abuse and neglect investigator in Texas. His thinking has also been shaped by his own experience separating hundreds of families: “Never once did one of the children I removed tell me later, ‘Thank you so much for removing me from my horrible abusive parent.’ When you would go back to see those children, all they wanted to know is when they would get to go home.”
He and many parent advocates say family separation in the foster care system should be viewed with the same skepticism as many in the public view the breakup of families by immigration officials.
“Family just aren’t believed,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, a campaign manager for North Carolina’s American Civil Liberties Union and a formerly incarcerated mother who has faced CPS investigations. “If you say your child was burned because you were braiding your daughter’s hair with synthetic hair – which requires dipping the braids in scalding hot water – if you are a white social worker who has never had braided synthetic hair, you may believe the mom is making that story up.”
Still, the #upEND Campaign, the Movement for Family Power and other allied groups face a status quo that doesn’t weigh as heavily the nation’s history of racism and injustice in evaluations of an individual child’s safety.
“Well intentioned, race-conscious policies are focused on the cultural bias against Black families, more than looking at the safety and well-being of a child,” said Cassie Statuto Bevan, a child welfare fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Research & Practice. “That tension can’t be resolved solely by pointing at the cultural history and oppression of Black families, as despicable as it has been. Black children have the same needs as white children, and those needs don’t change with the times.”
Statuto Bevan, a former congressional staffer who worked on child welfare policy in the 1980s and 1990s, helped author some of the federal laws that social justice advocates speaking out today say have been a major part of the problem, including one that imposed tighter limits on the time children can spend in foster care, and, in the eyes of critics, prioritized adoption over reunification.
Statuto Bevan said she doesn’t want to see the recent advocacy rhetoric discourage frontline investigators from removing children from unfit families. “Does the foster care system suffer from systemic racism? Answer: Yes,” she said. “Does this mean that as a nation we should end laws and regulations making our children’s safety the paramount concern of social policies? Answer: No.”
Sangoi emailed a response to that argument: “I’m speechless.”
She acknowledged her and Miles Cloud’s organization’s efforts are still small compared to movements against mass incarceration or deportations.
“The movement to lessen the harm and eventually abolish the foster system is in its very, very early stages,” Sangoi said.
In the meantime, her group has built relationships outside child welfare. Family Power’s financial supporters include prominent philanthropies such as George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Open Philanthropy Project, backed by tech entrepreneur and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.
Their collaborators also include more mature social activism groups fighting for reproductive justice, humane criminal and immigration systems, and harm reduction – a focus of the Drug Policy Alliance that contributed to the “Ground Zero” report.
“As people are questioning police, it’s important for them to be aware of the role child welfare plays as a policing institution,” said Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy, advocacy and campaigns at the Alliance.
Speaking out about inequities in the child welfare system, however, can be uniquely challenging, she added: “Even the most radical people that have led our movement around drug policy have at times shied away from the topic of drug use and pregnancy, or parenting.”
Other groups have also adopted the call, including the Movement for Black Lives, whose policy platform, “End the War On Black Women,” includes demands Sangoi and Miles Cloud helped write: “Eliminate the foster system’s power to permanently and irreversibly destroy Black families through termination of parental rights.”
A pillar of the Movement for Family Power’s work is elevating and centering voices of parents who have been scrutinized by child welfare authorities, but that comes with its own set of challenges. It’s still rare, for example, for parents accused of child abuse or neglect to be guaranteed a lawyer in more than a dozen states, let alone be encouraged to advocate publicly for policy change.
That’s why the June report Movement for Family Power co-authored includes six parents’ narratives, including Ms. CS in the Bronx. Two parents also spoke on the group’s June 23 webinar, describing harrowing journeys losing their children due to abuse and neglect allegations.
Dinah Ortiz-Adames was among them. She described losing her newborn to the child welfare system before she entered prison two decades ago, and facing CPS pressure tactics after being discharged. The New York City mother is now a consultant and advocate for parents.
“The parents that are going through investigations or supervision now, with kids under 18,” she said, “they are deathly afraid to open their mouth.”
Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]