Martin Guggenheim, who spent decades building the family defense movement to better protect parents accused of abuse or neglect, is retiring this fall as head of the New York University School of Law’s influential Family Defense Clinic.
Youth Services Insider doubts very highly that we have heard the last of Guggenheim, who is unlikely to box up his law books and leave his work entirely in the rearview mirror. But in perhaps his last major keynote address as a member of the NYU faculty, he delivered a fiery speech arguing that the field widely referred to as child welfare is undeserving of that name.
YSI was able to get its hands on a copy of his remarks for readers, which is presented here with minor edits:
I want to demonstrate that the field called “child welfare” in the United States is not really about child well-being at all but is, instead, a scheme used by politicians and other public officials to allow the United States or any particular state within the United States to divert attention from the multiple ways state, local and the national governments in the United States inflicts violence, pain and suffering on countless children every day.
There is no country in the world comparable in wealth to the United States that does such an abysmal job protecting children from the multifaceted harms associated with poverty and racial disparities. In dozens of ways, children, especially Black, brown and Native American children are exposed to extremely dangerous conditions that commonly have one of two characteristics: they are imposed on children directly by state actors or the harmful conditions are both foreseeable and known to state actors who fail completely to prevent children from being harmed. Finally, all of these conditions are preventable. But government fails to take the steps to prevent them.
Let me give some examples. In Detroit when the local water company was forced to raise rates too high for their customers, 300,000 customers had their supply cut off, resulting in a significant increase in waterborne disease and gastronomical ailments vastly disproportionately affecting Black families and children.
In Flint, the city sought to lower its water costs by switching its water source from piped in water to the Flint River which was high in toxic waste, resulting in lead and copper leaching from pipes throughout the city.
As a result of the United States’ history of banks refusing to give mortgages to Black and brown home buyers in communities they wanted to keep mostly white, hundreds of thousands of Black and brown people living in Michigan live in cities that were taken over by unelected emergency managers who poisoned children. They did this in a variety of ways including, for example, using toxic incinerators to belch hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the predominantly Black neighborhood of Detroit.
In New York City and Newark, local officials doctored the test results of the lead levels in their water systems to hide the fact that their public schools poison children every day they attend school.
Throughout the northeast in the United States, families living in low-income communities continue to reside in buildings with lead paint on the walls which children frequently ingest, causing lifelong health problems. They also commonly live in apartment dwellings with significant mold from leaking pipes, including public housing complexes maintained by the local government.
In addition, as a consequence of what is called environmental racism, Black and brown children living in poverty are forced to live in communities characterized by unsafe air and other conditions that cause a shockingly disproportionate amount of asthma in children, leading to lifelong health problems and significantly reduced life expectancy. The lack of suitable food options in these communities directly correlates to the unhealthy obesity rates of Black children. Consider this: Black children under 5 die from asthma at a rate 8 times greater than their white counterparts.
So what should we say about public officials who proclaim their commitment to child well-being when it comes to protecting children from their birth relatives but who themselves are child abusers on a massive scale? Should we believe their claimed commitment to child well-being? Or should we better understand their need to proclaim such a commitment to hide their daily practices of harming children?
And let’s be clear: The harm they inflict routinely isn’t the result of carelessness or negligence. It’s deliberate, purposeful, entirely foreseeable. This makes local government the opposite of an entity that deserves to have the monopoly on so-called child welfare. It’s closer to the stuff of futuristic, dystopian literature in which the evilest power on Earth is the very one that sells itself as the safest and most trustworthy.
This isn’t the business of worrying about how to prevent unforeseen harms or how to mitigate risk in unmanageable circumstances. These are harms that could be eliminated permanently. We know how to do it. Remove lead paint from buildings. Remove mold. Allow only clean water for consumption. Remove toxic waste sites from residential areas.
These are the issues that a true child welfare agency would address. And when it does, I will acknowledge it by that name. But no commissioner of the officially named “child welfare” agency in any city or state in the country has within their portfolio a single one of these matters. Instead, the portfolio is exclusively limited to harms that may be caused to children by their parents. And when we expand the idea from “parents” to “family,” it is the harms that allegedly are inflicted on children by their families – and only by their families. Indeed, when a neighbor harms a child, it is exclusively a police matter. When a state official harms a child, by doctoring the records of lead levels in public housing or the water system, it is in no one’s portfolio and least of all the commissioner of the so-called “child welfare” system.
That’s why this system does not deserve the name “child welfare.” It should be renamed the “family regulation” system because that’s what it is. It regulates intra-familial behavior; nothing more. We do an injustice to the communities currently harmed by government actions of commission and omission that dramatically endanger children by continuing to permit the system to usurp the term child welfare.
To use an example from my own experience: I have represented parents whose children were removed from their homes because of rodent infestation or dangerous mold levels by the same city that maintains public housing with higher levels of rodent infestation and mold. But when New York runs the facility, there’s a special rule at play: journalists are forbidden from gaining access to the dwellings; pictures are forbidden from being taken. And neither the Family Court judge who removed my client’s children from their custody nor the so-called child welfare administrator into whose custody they were placed has any power to prevent New York City from maintaining the identical dangerous conditions or to protect children from suffering when living in them.
So what’s troubling about this system? Beyond everything I’ve said already, its true purpose is propaganda. There simply is no reason to believe state officials — whether they’re legislators, mayors, governors, or child welfare administrators — when they proclaim their commitment to child well-being but refuse to take even minimal steps to eliminate dangerous conditions that continue every day to afflict children and ruin their lives.
Instead, these officials need this so-called child welfare system to allow them to avoid this fundamental truth about American society: it is not child-centered; it is not committed to child well-being; it does not mind that known conditions that significantly harm children every day and that could be permanently eliminated are permitted to continue to exist.
And what should we say about the medical profession; the public health profession; the social work professions; the legal profession; the academy, which is overpopulated with experts and practitioners in the so-called child welfare field who entirely ignore the multiple ways government harms children? Can these officials be allowed to be called child welfare experts? Or people devoted to child welfare?
This is the challenge I put to the Kempe Center, which played an unfortunate and outsized role in building the current so-called child welfare system: Shift your focus from the harms inflicted on children by their birth relatives to the harms inflicted on children by government. Pay exquisite attention to those sets of problems for the next 20 years.
I’ve said a mouthful. I’ve condemned the United States as a world-outlying country in refusing to take steps to ensure that children born into poverty have the equal opportunity to grow into healthy, successful adults. I’ve further condemned it for deliberately inflicting grave harm on children, including knowingly poisoning them with toxic substances.
But there is more. Over the past generation, those who run the family regulation system in the United States have turned it into something even worse than what I’ve hinted at this far. Another name for the system we have in the United states that deserves some support is “the family destruction system” because another, even more pernicious truth about American practices in this field is that it is the world’s leader in destroying families through the device embedded in federal law in 1997 of terminating all rights to their children that parents have when children remain in foster care for 15 months. No country is as cruel or as ruthless as the United States, which destroys between 60,000 and 80,000 families each year — and more than 1 million families in this century alone.
I simply could not be more critical of the country, its policies or its practices. But I am talking to an audience full of well-meaning people who have chosen to devote their careers to child well-being. Please be clear, before I go any further, that I do not mean to criticize you or your values, beliefs or choices.
Instead, I mean to give you pause to understand that you’ve been gamed. That you’ve been tricked into believing that devoting your time and effort to the so-called child welfare system is the best use of your efforts to advance child well-being. I am suggesting the opposite. You’ve been conned into believing that precisely so that you don’t turn your attention to the really dangerous conditions children growing up in the United States are at risk of, but which government officials would rather you not notice or take any action to address. For if you were to do that, your new target of child abusers would become government itself or, as is necessarily the case, the politicians or government agents themselves.
Instead, they have tricked you into believing that the most dangerous condition facing American children is child abuse inflicted on them by their birth relatives. That is a canard. But a sly, devious one which has caused grave harm to American families living in poverty in the United States over the past two generations. It needs to end, and my hope today is to persuade you to stop bolstering the so-called child welfare system and set your attention on the significantly greater harms children suffer at the hands of government itself.
Maybe, someday in the future, once we have eliminated state practices that directly inflict harm on children, we can turn to other ways children deserve the attention of well-meaning professionals such as yourselves. But that day is not now and I am urging you to stop being a pawn in a fraudulent scheme being played by the government.
I will stop here with one final observation: The field of family regulation is the most important civil rights field nobody knows. It is not the most important field of civil rights, but there are few more important. It destroys tens of thousands of families each year, and it celebrates this destruction in a manner that would be the equivalent of holding each year a celebratory National Execution of Prisoners Month. Only in the field of family regulation they call it National Adoption Month, ignoring and hiding that the children being adopted have been stolen from their loving, if politically powerless, families.
Think what it means to be a parent living in poverty in the United States. Not only do you have to endure an unacceptable standard of living compared with all other wealthy nations, a shockingly high infant mortality death rate, world-outlying healthy lives differential between people living in poverty and the rest of the community.
All of that would be bad enough. All of that is more than enough to create a movement for justice. But they also have to endure a system that devastates and terrorizes poor communities and, especially, poor communities of color relentlessly: the creation of the mandatory (and permissive) child abuse reporting system. It’s call to everyone is, echoing 9/11 levels of terror: If you see something, say something.
As we now appreciate how subordination is the result of stop-and-frisk and the power of the police to pull over any driver at any time of the day or night, leading us to talk about in a free society “driving while Black,” we have for the past 50 years created a society that terrorizes communities for “parenting while Black.” Is there a difference between the two?
Both mean we live in a society in which simply going about one’s business without fear is impossible. Both represent tyranny approaching its worst form. But one — driving while Black — makes headlines out of which a movement has formed. We don’t yet know where this movement will lead; but we are, at least, buoyed to see it.
But in the other field where state officials relentlessly terrorize communities there is no outrage; there is no movement; there is practically nothing. I’m here to tell you that family regulation has nothing at all to do with child welfare, it is entirely about the subordination of poor communities and, particularly, poor communities of color.
Imagine for a moment that we could achieve the goal of convincing all Americans to take responsibility for all children living in the United States. In such a world, two consequences would be readily apparent. First, we would find ways to make substantial improvements to the quality of life of poor minority children and to ameliorate most of the currently unacceptable conditions they experience. The children would receive better health care and live in cleaner, safer and healthier communities and homes. They and their families would be treated with dignity and respect by the myriad adults with whom they interact on a daily basis.
This change alone would obviate the need for taking these children out of their own communities and having them adopted into “better” ones. Second, and even more crucially, once Americans started loving other people’s children as their own, they would find repugnant and abhorrent a systematic strategy of taking children from their families, permanently banishing their birth relatives from their lives, and sending them to live with strangers.
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