Note: The following is an excerpt from the first edition of Family Integrity & Justice Quarterly, an academic journal on family well-being.
I titled this essay Stop Blaming the “Uncooperative Mother,” because it has become a racial trope used by well-intentioned people who work with families throughout our nation’s child welfare system. Over nearly 30 years of working in and around the child welfare system, I have heard variations on this theme: the angry mother; the hostile mother; the disrespectful mother; the antagonistic mother; the aggressive mother; the argumentative mother; and many other negative labels that drive how systems engage.
Within the child welfare context, there is a power dynamic between agencies and families. Throughout all the “voluntary” engagement as caseworkers assist families who have come to their attention due to allegations of abuse and neglect, there is always the lingering threat that the government may take the family’s children and place them into foster care. Thus, full cooperation, deference, and respect are the subjective land mines that parents must navigate, and often young and inexperienced caseworkers get to control.
Rarely is the caseworker’s approach to engagement even considered as a factor in conflict-riddled relationships between caseworkers and birth parents. Tripping any of these land mines and upsetting the caseworker, the Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), the judge, or even the court-appointed lawyer assigned to represent the parents, can lead to permanently severing their relationship with their children.
Stereotypes about Black women have persisted and made their way into popular culture, mass media, and the explicit and implicit bias of individuals and systems throughout slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement to the present day. In child welfare, the dehumanizing and degrading views of Black women have resulted in disproportionately adverse outcomes for Black children ensnared by America’s foster care system.
The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was one in a series of laws signed by then-President Bill Clinton that many now believe perpetuated a direct attack on Black families and communities. Included in ASFA are financial incentives to states to increase the number of adoptions from foster care. These incentives and the name of the Act itself sent a clear message that adoption and not reunifying children with their parents or relatives was the permanency option of choice.
The stated intention of ASFA was that children were lingering in foster care for too long and needed to move to permanency more quickly. The Act set forth strict timeframes in which cases must move through the court system. Permanency hearings are required by the 12th month in foster care. For those children who remain in care for 15 of the past 22 months, the child welfare agency must file a petition to terminate parental rights (TPR) unless the caseworker can present a compelling reason that termination is not in the best interest of the child.
It is important to note that the selected time frames were arbitrary and did not consider the slow chug of the criminal justice system. Congress also did not consider discriminatory housing policies and practices, limited employment opportunities (especially for those with criminal records), nor the science regarding drug abuse recovery. Child development, brain science, nor the life-long trauma associated with adoption did not permeate legislative discussions.
When first introduced, the bill required filing a TPR if the child was in care for 18 of the past 24 months. After some debate, legislators shortened it to 12 of the past 18 months. Finally, they split the difference and landed on 15 of the past 22 months.
I was appointed to the juvenile court bench the same year ASFA became law, and I became part of a process that systematically set Black families up to fail. As a Black female juvenile court judge, I did not leave my corporate law firm job to destroy Black families. Nor was it the intention of the compassionate and dedicated people that continue to work in and around the child welfare system. Many judicial and staff training workshops about dependency cases emphasized rapid timeframes, processes, and adoption. In fact, I remember one recommendation from a judicial workshop to hand parents a photocopied giant clock, with dates for hearings to further emphasize the daunting 15 months to complete case plans or face TPR. Other workshops described TPRs as equivalent to the civil death penalty.
Yet, by 1999 merely two years after the passage of ASFA, there were 46,000 adoptions from foster care, an increase of 28 percent from the previous year. The majority of these children (51 percent) were Black. The culture shift away from an emphasis on family preservation and/or reunification to a focus on the health and safety of children and acceleration of permanency was enshrined into state statutes, case practice models, and court processes.
For nearly every indicator in the child welfare system, Black children experience disproportionately bad outcomes: more referrals to child protective services for investigation, more terminated from their families, and more age out of care with no positive permanency. Any for-profit business that produced similar results would be closed. Over the decades that child welfare data has been disaggregated by race, the storyline has not changed.
So, we should ask ourselves, why in the face of such daunting evidence have we not declared that “it is contrary to the welfare” of Black children to remain in the care of America’s foster care system?
Suppose we understand the history of systemic racism and the impact on the laws, policies, and practices that guide government and nonprofits. In that case, we must acknowledge the adverse effects on Black parents and create strategies to eliminate racism and bias from decision-making. In varying degrees, child welfare staff, service providers, and caregivers across the country have grasped the concept of trauma and trauma-informed practice for younger children. However, older youth, birth parents, and relatives fall victim to racist stereotypes and policy-driven barriers. Their trauma is penalized through the foster care and TPR process. As a nation, we must begin to value Black families.
Systemic racism is challenging to unpack without individual reflection and understanding of the history of race in America. Older versions of diversity training and the curriculum within agencies and schools of social work must be updated to specifically include the history of racism in the child welfare system and the correlation to present-day negative outcomes for Black families. In addition, there is a need for more research to fully understand racial trauma and how it manifests itself in the lack of trust in and resentment of systems such as child welfare.
These challenges did not happen overnight. Thus, it will take deliberate and prioritized focus, attention, and resources to create a system free of bias and discriminatory practices and policies. Those of us working in and around child welfare must develop skills and courage to talk about race, recognize and disrupt bias, and use data and evidence to change hearts and minds. We can transform the child welfare system if we stop blaming the “uncooperative parent” and begin examining ourselves.