Book Review: Why and How to Abolish the Child Welfare System - Early Learning Nation

Book Review: Why and How to Abolish the Child Welfare System

Confronting the Racist Legacy of the American Child Welfare System: The Case for Abolition
Alan J. Dettlaff, editor
Oxford University Press 177 pp.

The medical community was outspoken during the previous presidency when thousands of family separations occurred at the U.S. border due to the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy. A petition signed by 7,700 mental health professionals and 142 organizations stated, “To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain and trauma.”

Alan J. Dettlaff

Still, the child welfare system annually separates over 200,000 children from their families nationwide. Scholar, activist and author Alan J. Dettlaff calls this “a disconnect in the public consciousness,” as there is far less outcry about the pattern of state-sponsored separation in the form of removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care.

The history of racism in the United States and its ongoing impacts on children and families experiencing state-sponsored displacement are on full display in this collection edited by Dettlaff. Featuring contributions by Victoria Copeland, Maya Pendleton, Jesse M. Hartley, Reiko Boyd and Kristen Weber, Confronting the Racist Legacy of the American Child Welfare System traces family separations in the United States back from the era of slavery and maintains that today’s child welfare system is the deliberate outcome, primarily to the detriment of Black children and families.

“The child welfare system is largely a system that responds to families living in poverty,” Dettlaff writes. “If the system were intended to assist families living in poverty, it would provide support in the form of direct financial assistance and other material resources to aid families in meeting their children’s needs.” The impacts of family separations are so untenable that the practice and system that sustains it must be abolished, not reformed.

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The contributors cite research showing that forcibly separating children from their parents results in significant and lifelong trauma, regardless of how long the separation lasts and why it occurred. While the body of research specific to the experience of family separation by the child welfare system is small compared to that of parental incarceration and immigration enforcement, these studies consistently document children’s feelings of loss, fear, anger, helplessness, shock and confusion.

Boyd cites a Washington Post report describing the physiological responses of children experiencing separation: “Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites—the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and—especially in young children— wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.”

All children in foster care are at significant risk of adverse outcomes as adults. Former foster youth are consistently more likely to experience unemployment or low earnings, less likely to graduate high school, more likely to rely on income assistance programs, more likely to have significant mental health and substance use disorders, and significantly more likely to be incarcerated. In addition to these setbacks, their physical safety is in jeopardy. Multiple studies across decades have shown that rates of physical and sexual abuse among children in foster care are two to four times greater than those in the general population. Children in foster care are also more than three times as likely to attempt suicide than children not in foster care.

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Nearly 70% of children enter foster care due to neglect, broadly defined by states, which usually refers to a failure to provide for basic needs like food, clothing, education and shelter. Less than one-fifth of children taken from their parents have experienced any form of physical or sexual harm. Today, it is estimated that more than half of all Black children in the United States will be the subject of a child welfare investigation by the time they turn 18. Black youth in foster care are significantly more likely to “crossover” into the juvenile legal system.

The authors chronicle several policy decisions and examples of racialized laws that influence these patterns. “The idea of a white, middle-class parenting standard against which all other families are judged has been embedded in modern child welfare policy since the 1960s,” Dettlaff argues in his introduction. “Due to these racist policies and explicit and implicit biases among decision-makers, Black children are significantly more likely to be reported to child protection hotlines than white children and significantly more likely to be the subject of a child welfare investigation than white children.”

Debunking the myth of benevolence that the general public overwhelmingly affords the child welfare system, the book makes a thorough case that it is harmful and provides hope that a better future can and must exist. The abolitionist stance is optimistic by definition. “Abolitionists seek to create a society where all children and families have everything they need to experience safety in their homes and their communities, free of violence and harm and free of the societal conditions that create violence and harm,” write Weber and Pendleton.

Abolition, this book argues, requires constant critique of all forms of oppression, adapts and changes strategies over time and ultimately builds new and better relationships for one another. While it is about dismantling oppressive systems, it is equally about building new structures that sustain freedom.

Confronting the Racist Legacy of the American Child Welfare System forcefully responds to critiques that abolitionist efforts often come with no detailed plan. In addition to direct material support, the contributors envision broader structural changes needed to end poverty and advance the safety and well-being of children, like a housing guarantee, free public transportation and free, accessible and meaningful child care, health care and mental health care.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking of the book’s tangible suggestions involves redirecting the funds allocated to uphold out-of-home placements to families experiencing poverty instead. In 2018, that sum was $33 billion. According to Weber and Pendleton, “Decades of research demonstrate that providing direct material assistance to families significantly reduces both involvement with the family policing system and incidents of child maltreatment.”

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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