It didn’t take George Floyd’s killing at the hands of the police for me to recognize that I have been complicit in state-executed violence against black families. But it did take his murder and the protests that have roiled the nation since to compel me to articulate it, which is shameful.
For years, I intellectualized the racist ferocity with which child protective services targets and then tears black children from their mothers and fathers. I strung together data into a simplified worldview wherein racial disproportionality within the child protection system was mostly about the institutional racism that has left black people at such a stark economic disadvantage in this country.
This denied what many black people told me and what the studies and analyses made plain: that child protection is far from immune to racism, but often an instrument of it.
The U.S. is guilty of conducting more domestic family separations than any other nation. More than a quarter-million children are taken from their parents and forced into foster care each year. Of the 437,000 children the federal government reported being in formal foster care in 2018, nearly a quarter – 99,000 – were black. The percentage of black children in the system is almost double the percentage of black people in America.
While I was conscious that this disproportionality, so prevalent across all of America’s systems of coercion, was a result of institutional racism, I tried to find rational explanations – and socioeconomic status was the most readily discernible.
In 2010, the federal government issued the fourth wave of the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, which measures child maltreatment in the U.S. Unlike previous iterations, which saw no significant difference in abuse rates between black and white children, NIS-4 found “Black children experiencing maltreatment at higher rates than White children in several categories.”
When the authors compared poor white children with poor black children they found that “the race difference was small or nonexistent.” Poverty was the explanation for disproportionate maltreatment rates.
In 2011, two researchers at the University of California, Berkeley – Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Barbara Needell – would put a finer point on the powerful role of poverty in determining rates of child maltreatment. The pair conducted an analysis of the first five years of life for all the 500,000-plus babies born in California in 2002. By age 5, 14% of all children had been referred to child protective services as possible victims of abuse or neglect. For black children that worrisome number stood at 30%, and only 13% for white children.
But more telling still were findings on socioeconomic status. Nearly two-thirds of all the babies who were covered by Medi-Cal (the researchers’ proxy for low socioeconomic status) at birth would be referred to CPS. For babies born to poor mothers, the authors found that white children were “slightly more likely” than black children to be suspected victims of abuse. “Yet among non-poor (non Medi-Cal) mothers, both Black and Native American children are significantly more likely than their non-poor White counterparts to have CPS contact,” they wrote. In essence, child protection surveillance is highly attenuated to all poor people, but also all black and Native American families regardless of socioeconomic status.
And subsequent research further reinforced what many black and white academics and advocates have been saying for decades: that the coercive power of the state, manifest in child protective services, is actively seeking out and then destroying black families.
A seminal 2017 study of national data found that 53% of all black children will be investigated as potential victims of child abuse by age 18, 16 percentage points higher than the rate for all children combined. That one out of every two black children in this country will experience the terror of having a child abuse investigator in his or her home – vested with the power to rip that child away from everything he or she knows and loves – is the mark of a racist system.
Short of this most recent example of extrajudicial police killing, wrongly taking a child from his or her family is the greatest offense the government can make. But like police brutality, it is an outrage that occurs with rigid, unending precision every day.
I took all of this in. Intellectualized it. I found ways to maneuver around that outrage. And even upon its recognition, I did not feel the urgency to say what I am saying now. I am sorry for this.
Undoubtedly racial disproportionality in America’s child protection systems is a function of both poverty and racial bias. But just because poverty is imminently more quantifiable doesn’t mean it is more potent. And just because eliminating racism is an imminently more complex a challenge than alleviating poverty doesn’t mean it can be abandoned.
I used to think that a new war on poverty would de-disproportionalize child protection. Yes. But that is the easy part. The hard part is disproportionately focusing our attention on dismantling racism in the system and in ourselves. Only when we do both will we have a chance at righting generations of wrongs against America’s black families.
Daniel Heimpel can be reached at [email protected].