Accusations of racism in the U.S. child welfare system reached the United Nations this month, with American officials pressed on why so many Black families are torn apart by foster care.
During a public hearing Friday in Geneva, Switzerland, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination confronted officials with the Biden administration.
Speaking in French, Ibrahima Guissé, a sociologist at the University of Geneva and one of 18 independent experts elected to the committee, singled out three federal laws for review, suggesting they perpetuate racism against Black children and families: The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, and 1997’s Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Jessica Swafford Marcella, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, declined to directly address those laws in her brief response.
She acknowledged that “structural racism denigrates equity and equality,” and cited a 30-page, spring 2021 bulletin on addressing racial disproportionality. She also highlighted her agency’s law enforcement arm enforcing federal non-discrimination laws in the child welfare system, and the Biden administration’s proposed $10 billion budget investment in child welfare.
“We know, and it has been discussed today, that racial disparities occur at nearly every decision-making point along the child welfare continuum,” she said, adding that Black, Hispanic and American Indian and Alaskan Native children and families experience overrepresentation in investigations and foster care placements.
The exchange followed a July report by two New York-based organizations — Children’s Rights, a leading legal advocacy group, and the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute — that urged the UN committee to examine the American child welfare system.
“Institutional racism in the child welfare system, and the resulting harm to Black children and families, needs urgent action on the part of the United States,” stated the report submitted to the UNs’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The report noted that the UN committee had explored similar issues in the United States before — including family separation perpetrated against Native Americans for centuries, and more recently, the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the border.
Report authors noted international treaty violations with regard to “the disparate rates at which families of color are surveilled, reported, harassed, investigated, and torn apart — and the disparate harms felt by Black children and families experiencing these outcomes.”
The report included four suggested questions for delegates to ask US officials. It also included five policy recommendations for the United States to come closer to complying with the 1963 Treaty that created the United Nations racial discrimination committee.
The Children’s Rights report called for “a series of Congressional Hearings with comprehensive public testimony to evaluate the harm of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act on Black families,” and the repeal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, among other items.
More than 25 other advocates and civil rights organizations endorsed the report to the UN committee, including the National Association of Council for Children, the National Center for Youth Law, the University of Baltimore School of Law, the Bronx Defenders, the National Juvenile Justice Network, and influential University of Pennsylvania law and sociology professor Dorothy Roberts.
The leader and founder of another endorsing organization, the New York-based JMacForFamilies, joined a Children’s Rights representative in Geneva last week and spoke passionately at one gathering with advocates and UN delegates.
“The United States ripped my newborn child from my arms and completely destroyed our relationship, breaking the natural bonds of a newborn and her mother,” said Joyce McMillan. “They refused to allow me to see her for long periods of time, creating massive amounts of trauma and everlasting harm that is still prevalent in the lack of our relationship today, 23 years later.”
“This is the experience of thousands of Black families everyday in America,” she added.
Shereen White, director of advocacy and policy at Children’s Rights, also drew from personal experience in her remarks.
“I am the daughter of a Black man who was separated from his mother and most of his siblings by the U.S. child welfare system, before he was school-age, and who aged out of the system at 18 without adequate supports,” she said. “I have experienced the intergenerational trauma that stems from Black families being torn apart by the child welfare system.”