The COVID-19 pandemic and police killings of George Floyd and other Black men and women have starkly revealed society’s race and class-based inequality and brought unprecedented attention to the excesses of the carceral state. One arm of punitive state regulation, however, has gone largely undiscussed: the “child welfare” system, which I call here, adapting Professor Dorothy Roberts’ words (and her appeal for abolition), the family regulation and policing system.
This family regulation and policing system is a coercive state apparatus that controls and punishes poor and Black and Brown families. Last year, state child welfare agencies investigated over three million families—disproportionately families of color. Family Courts around the country deemed almost 700,000 children to be neglected or abused; separated 430,000 children from their parents, placing them in foster care, often with strangers; and permanently terminated tens of thousands of parents’ rights, making many of their children—71,000 in 2018 alone—“legal orphans.” The vast majority of these cases did not concern physical or sexual abuse, but common parental behaviors, such as using marijuana or other substances; leaving children unsupervised; or missing therapy appointments due to train delays. I saw these types of cases all the time when I represented children in the system, and as a parent myself now, I am confident no parent can survive this scrutiny. For most parents, however, this ordinary behavior goes unnoticed, while for those marginalized by race and class, it is deemed “neglect,” leading to family separation and other consequences that in no way protect children. Low-income mothers of color are most impacted, forming a female analog to the police and incarceration of men of color.