Recently, the nation witnessed the destruction that follows a breakdown in collaboration between child welfare and policing. Within minutes of the guilty verdict of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, Ma’Khia Bryant, a child in foster care, was shot and killed by a police officer.
While some questions have been answered, others still, justifiably (urgently), abound: Why did the officer see a Black teenage girl in rainbow Crocs as such a threat that he shot her repeatedly with no attempt at de-escalation? And where were the resources to keep Ma’Khia and her sister safely with relatives to avoid the wrenching separation from their family?
After Ma’Khia’s death, her sister was sent to live with a relative. Now, Ma’Khia’s mother, grandmother and aunt are in mourning instead of celebrating that Ma’Khia and her sister were coming home soon from foster care.
As we focus on police and criminal justice reform, we must also intensely scrutinize the child welfare system’s racist practices for families like Ma’Khia’s. Child welfare and law enforcement too frequently work hand in hand, devastating the lives of kids in state care.
Child welfare, like police, has a race problem
Historically, the child welfare system has over-surveilled, over-separated, over-reported and over-investigated Black, Latinx and Native American families, while also failing to protect their children after placing them in foster care or putting them up for adoption.
Each year, there are about 4 million reports nationwide to child protection services. Fewer than 17% of these children receive any services – in or out of the home – after they are reported, screened, investigated and recorded. Native American children have the highest rate of involvement: more than 15 per 1,000; Black children have the second highest rate at 14 per thousand.
At the core of the child welfare infrastructure is the devaluing of poor and “other” children and their families. The modern system evolved from a history of “child savers” focused on immigrant children in major cities. From 1854 to the 1930s, approximately 200,000 children were taken and put on orphan trains to new homes. With oversight virtually nonexistent, some were helped but many were abused and tried to run back to their families.
African American children were ripped from their families during slavery. Both Black parents and children were expected to work for white families while continuing to deal with the grief, loss, trauma and violence of rape, brutal abuse and family destruction when they were bought, sold or killed by white masters. Native families also experienced unspeakable violence and loss having their children taken, killed or put into “reform” schools to indoctrinate them into white American culture, with many children never returning home.
The degradation, dissolution and violence against Black families remain an ever-present tactic in white America. In Louisiana in 1960, about 23,000 children were removed from the welfare rolls after public assistance agencies deemed their homes “unsuitable,” meaning that the mother had a child out of wedlock or was living with a man who was not her husband. An overwhelming number of the families affected were Black.
In response, children in “unsuitable” homes could be removed and placed in foster care with partial federal funding that would have otherwise supported the family on welfare. Due to the economic consequences of racism, Black families experience a disproportionate level of poverty. Worse, with limited exceptions, preventive and in-home services funds are capped, but funding for removal and placement of poor children is unlimited.
Shift focus, spend money on community
Spending for foster care, like incarceration, is a result of our racist failure to meet the needs of families and communities. To attack the racism at the core of our society, we must start with child welfare. In the exceptional case where removal is required, we must prioritize connecting children to extended family and put our resources into supporting those connections. Families need affordable housing, jobs with livable wages and accessible child care.
Increased funding and a reallocation of more flexible dollars for counties to access necessary resources for families is crucial and has been piloted with bipartisan support. A study funded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that flexible funding that was not restricted for foster care placements allowed county agencies throughout Ohio to provide resources immediately, sometimes from other county agencies, to support family needs. This reduced placements and time in foster care. It’s clear, we must invest in children and their families.
As the fight for racial justice and equity for Black and brown people continues, we must start with child welfare. We must demand that our elected officials stop failing children like Ma’Khia and their families whom they are charged to serve but instead work with them to reallocate resources to strengthen families and nurture children.