The Child Welfare System Is Failing Children, Separating Black and Brown Familie…

The Child Welfare System Is Failing Children, Separating Black and Brown Familie…

This piece was published in coordination with Zealous, an organization working to amplify the perspective of public defenders.

Why am I here?

How long will I be here?

Who are these people?

When can I go home?

Over the last six and a half years, I have represented over 400 children in Queens County Family Court in New York, where children are removed from their parents for various reasons. The saddest part of my job is having to answer these questions, which are rooted in confusion, fear, and grief. Most children with whom I work love their parents, regardless of circumstance, and want reunification.

Of the more than 25,000 children involved in a potential child protection investigation in New York City last year, the vast majority were African American or Latinx. A closer look at the city’s data shows that more than a third of those children’s parents had an active family court case, most of whom, again, were Black or Latinx. Eventually, more than 2,300 Black children and 1,800 Latinx children were removed from their homes at the initial court proceeding and/or placed in foster care after those proceedings.

These numbers, although startling, are not surprising. It is no secret that Black and brown families disproportionately encounter the criminal legal and child welfare systems. Since our nation’s founding, there has always been a legitimized threat against families of color, particularly Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families. Historically, systemic racism, poverty, and direct government policies have undermined our households, our upbringings, and our traditions, and these forces are still at the forefront of these issues — particularly in family court.

The child welfare system, a system that was supposedly created to “protect” families, is defective. Today, many cases in family court that allege certain types of abuse and neglect are actually byproducts of poverty and community disinvestment that cause tremendous amounts of family displacement. I have seen children removed because of complaints of “dirty homes,” or because they were home alone while a parent went to work or had to run an errand, or because they missed one too many days of school. These are all situations in which additional support and investment could have helped families to preserve their households. Instead, they had to face an unforgiving system.

In 2017, I represented two siblings who were removed from their home and barred from returning unless their mother got better housing. The case lasted for years, even though the mother was regretful of the excessive corporal punishment that led to the initial removal, actively engaged in mandated programming, and was eagerly searching for a better job to afford New York City rent. Desperate to secure proper housing for her children, she spent four years on a waiting list for affordable housing. The children I represented very much wanted to return home, but unfortunately, poverty and lack of housing prevailed over their interests for too long.

This situation is far from the exception, and it is often the case that parents are not given adequate resources or time to remedy their issues. Under federal law, parents must demonstrate through various state-mandated services — including mental health, drug counseling, and domestic violence prevention — that they have clear insight into their own behaviors to avoid termination of their parental rights within 15 months. But for many parents, poverty makes it so much harder to participate in these mandated services, and people can struggle to balance the demands of multiple jobs and keep a roof over their heads while meeting requirements set by the state. I have seen parents fired from their jobs because they had to prioritize mandated programming.

Encounters with the child welfare system are obviously compounded by any preexisting exposure to the criminal legal system. New York’s Office of Children and Family Services estimates that more than 105,000 children have a parent serving time in prison or jail in this state alone. Nationally, two in five children are exposed to the criminal legal system through a parent or caregiver. While it is difficult to determine exactly how many of those children are in foster care, we know it’s a huge number.

As I’ve seen with the families I work with, it is particularly challenging for parents who are serving sentences of more than a year to meet the demands of the child welfare system, as they are still required to engage in programming that might not even be available to them at their facility. The law places many parents in a catch-22: as a direct consequence of their incarceration — often in inhumane conditions and without basic necessities — they are unable to access the services they need as parents. Yet, if they don’t engage with these services, they cannot prevent their children from being released for adoption.

And the stigmatization of incarcerated parents isn’t limited to prison or jail walls. One of my very first cases as an attorney dealt with a young person whose father had served time on charges unrelated to his parenting. When the father was released, the foster care agency overseeing my client requested that the father be banned from visitation simply because he was formerly incarcerated. Although I was able to reunite father and son after zealous advocacy, they should never have been put in this position in the first place.

Reunification in families of color is extremely important, particularly for children, because it promotes stability, growth and identity. Reunification allows families to keep their traditions and familial ties. Moreover, we know that there is significant trauma associated with being displaced from one’s family that children face. By reunifying, we lessen a family’s trauma and are able to start the healing process.

But even in the instances when families are reunified, court inefficiencies can often cause cases to drag on for months or even years. In my experience, it takes at least eight months, on average, for children to be returned to their parents. However, I’ve also seen many cases take years before a child is returned home. When children are away from their parents this long there is trauma associated with the displacement; children lose their bond with parents and can develop psychological issues related to displacement. Furthermore, parents can lose hope and feel defeated in getting their children back. No matter the time frame, families are often traumatized and broken by the time reunification occurs.

It is important that we push for better ways to reunite families whenever possible. Reunification should be the main priority for government agencies when it comes to each and every family. So, what does that look like? And what steps can be taken to assure a family’s survival through the criminal and family court processes?

First, we must continue to advocate for better laws and policies that will reduce disparities in arrest and incarceration rates among communities of color and keep more parents home with their children. That is a never-ending fight and must be at the forefront of any change we want to see.

Second, we need to support parents who are incarcerated by connecting families with and increasing access to community-based organizations that specialize in this work, as well as fostering more opportunities for family visitation in prisons and jails.

Third, government agencies should take proper measures to ensure cases are not unnecessarily filed in family court by evaluating other ways to help families through services that do not involve court intervention or to make sure the allegations are actually valid. Courts are not exempt from this same accountability. Judges should be encouraged against expediting certain cases when parents are actively trying to remedy their lives to have children returned.

In 2021, New York City has called for new programs and initiatives that they believe will further remedy these disparities. But it is one thing to state what changes will be made and another to see what kind of change actually happens. While it is too soon to evaluate the impacts of these changes, all of us — advocates, public defenders, community and family members — need to keep system actors accountable for their disruption of families and take responsibility to ensure that necessary help is provided to families. Families, regardless of circumstance, deserve to be kept together.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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