What Will It Take for The Child Welfare System to Become Anti-Racist?

Two years ago, I wrote a column about the history and lingering trauma from government sanctioned family separation. The impact of family separation is felt by Black families in a disproportionate way; Black children are consistently over-represented in our foster care system. Approximately one year ago, I wrote an article about the undeniable impact of systemic racism on how our system views Black and Brown families.

It is a stark reality that our country, for years, has created and upheld laws which inflict trauma onto the most vulnerable. All too often, families of color are the most vulnerable, and in particular, Black families.

This past month has been riddled with another harsh reality about racial injustice in this country – the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and most recently, George Floyd.

The country is sitting with the collective pain from each of these deaths, all committed by current or former law enforcement officers. Though, the movement is much larger than a myopic view of those particular officers. Racism is not simply a matter of personal prejudice and hate, it is a multifaceted problem that is prevalent within and across systems. This movement is calling for system wide accountability of law enforcement officers, as well as, a complete restructuring of how police systems are funded.

George Floyd’s murder has catapulted this country, and even other parts of the world, into an uprising. Just as the death of Trayvon Martin sparked an entire movement, George Floyd’s death has garnered support from people and entities that have largely been silent over the last decade. Although this is not a new phenomenon, it seems the egregious nature of George Floyd’s treatment by police, caught on tape, could not be ignored. It seems that the killing of George Floyd has set in motion a path toward real change.

The pressing question for me now is: What will it take for child welfare to embrace real change and become an anti-racist system? We should not wait on the occurrence of an egregious case which cripples a family and shocks the world, because the footage of that will likely not be captured on a phone.

It’s becoming more and more important that if organizations desire to impact the disparate outcomes for black families, they need to dig deeper than the relative comfort of “not being racist.” Dr. Ibram Kendi poignantly explains that the problem with simply being “not racist” is a problem of neutrality. He states that the opposite of racism isn’t “Not racist,” it’s anti-racist. Due to the history of the dehumanizing treatment of Black families, and other families of color, our systems are riddled with structural racism, which creates advantages for the privileged and keeps a proverbial “knee” on the subjugated. This has resulted in the policies and laws of our land being either racist or anti-racist. Racist policies thwart racial justice and anti-racist policies promote equitable outcomes.

If we desire for our child welfare system to move from neutrality into real and sustained change toward equity, the policies and organizational practices within it must be anti-racist, anti-oppressive and anti-colonial. Being an anti-racist organization also requires a visceral interrogation of privilege and power, and a collective commitment to share that power.

Also, I think it’s time to face the reality that our current system may be beyond reform. The Center for the Study of Social Policy agrees that the only way to have an anti-racist child welfare system is to move away from reform, and move towards creating a new system. It will also require re-thinking the policies that govern our work.

The Family First Prevention Services Act became law in 2018, and this is arguably the largest change in child welfare funding structures since 1980. Generally, it seeks to curtail foster care and group care so children can remain safely with their families while engaging in effective preventive services.

This policy is landmark and garnered much support, and it is an important start toward the goals I just described, but it’s important that we understand the limitations. Family First states that it will provide prevention services forparents whose children have been found to be at “imminent risk” of entering foster care; in other words, either abuse or neglect have likely already been substantiated.

Those services, hopefully, will mitigate the risk of family separation. But it is secondary prevention, and it is important to note that racial disproportionality resides at multiple decision-making points in child welfare. Black families are most likely to be reported for abuse, more likely to have a traditional investigation, and are more likely to be removed from their families and placed in state custody. Family First doesn’t specifically implement any anti-racist nor anti-oppressive institutional change aimed at addressing this.

If it had, it would surely create a national and intentional endeavor toward racial equity in our system. The disparate outcomes for Black families, (as well as Native Americans families and, in some states, Hispanic families) are worthy of scrutiny and reform. Yet, our system has not taken comprehensive strides toward building an anti-racist framework for engaging families.

We all must advocate for our state’s Family First implementation planning to ensure that the operational policies are anti-racist and promote equity. If not, we will miss an opportunity to build a system which strongly condemns the dehumanization of vulnerable and systemically powerless families.

Jessica Pryce is the director of the Florida Institute for Child Welfare.

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