Keynote Address: upENDing the Child Welfare System: The Road to Abolition
October 29, 2020
October 29, 2020
The following is the keynote address given by Lisa Sangoi, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Movement for Family Power, at upENDing the Child Welfare System: The Road to Abolition. Her address can be seen in its entirety here. Learn more about the convening and access additional resources here.
Good afternoon everybody, it’s an honor to be in conversation with you all today and to share this virtual space with you. I regret that we are not all gathered in person as was initially intended, and also I give thanks that despite the tsunami of events and developments around us, we are able to come together virtually, to engage in the ever humbling and ever fulfilling effort of joint learning and community building.
I’m Lisa Sangoi and I use she and her pronouns. I am zooming in from Washington, DC, land of the Anacostans. For folks who can’t see me, I am a South Asian woman with glasses, wearing a black kurta with white trim and big gold hoop earrings. I am a co-founder and co-director of Movement for Family Power. Our mission is to end the foster system’s policing and punishment of families and to create a world where the dignity and integrity of all families is valued and supported. We are but one small part of a much larger and constantly growing movement to divest from and eventually abolish the foster system. We are but one small part of a much larger and constantly growing movement that seeks to reimagine and reclaim how we as a community help ensure family and community safety and well-being.
My guess is, if you’re attending this conference, you are seeing that this family regulation system is racist, classist, ableist, misogynist. And that tinkering around the edges isn’t really going to change that. That we need more visionary change, such as divesting from the family regulation system and investment in family supports. Maybe you even think we need something more transformational.
With all my heart and soul, I agree with the families who have been impacted by this system and with the activists, researchers, and others calling for reinvestment of money the state is spending on the foster system into housing, child care, transportation, food, health care, and so on. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t need one million studies. People must have their basic needs met to live. And our country, more than any other country with a comparable per capita income, does the very worst job of providing for its people.
But we, especially those of us with privilege, need to be accountable to more than just systems change. We need to be accountable to freedom. A free and just future won’t be realized in the meetings of technocrats and policy wonks and researchers trying to figure out how best to structure home visiting programs or maximize federal Medicaid funds for families “at risk.” It won’t happen if we think “divestment” is just reallocating funds between systems. The policing of motherhood, families, Blackness, land, and marginalized bodies is baked into the DNA of this country. Shifting resources between powerful hands will not get us free.
I do not wish to diminish the work many people are doing to keep families at home together. Quite the opposite, I give enormous gratitude to this work. This is important work. Rigorous work. It’s work that makes life more liveable immediately for folks in need. But it is not the entirety of the work that liberation and abolition demand.
I will say it again, the policing of marginalized people is baked into the DNA of this country.
What does that mean for folks doing the invaluable work within systems to make them less harmful? It means, simultaneously and intentionally, making space for the people who will do the liberation work. Knowing the difference between your work and freedom work. For example, the Black Panther Party free breakfast programs for children was rooted in a radical vision of liberation and self determination. It is entirely different from the free breakfast programs that the federal government operates now, though they were inspired by the Black Panther Party. These free breakfast programs in schools across the US where tens of millions of children receive life saving nutrition are invaluable. And also they are fundamentally different. Not grounded in a liberation ideology.
People working within systems must not co-opt the analysis, work, and vision of those seeking to entirely transform the world. Rather, people doing the work to make life more liveable must simultaneously make space for freedom work and share resources with freedom work without diluting its power. We must politicize ourselves so that even if we are doing systems work, we know our north star is freedom work. This is our duty, and it will hopefully be our survival.
I am humbled to tell you that I do not have all the answers. Of course I cannot explain how various efforts for change or reform or abolition of the foster system operate in relation to each other, and of course I cannot with certainty chart a path forward. That’s for us to figure out together.
And all of us are fortunate to live in the midst of legendary freedom fighters who are leading the way by being examples of the work. Let us not forget, we are the humble recipients of a history of enormous freedom struggle. We’ve been taught some things about supporting the fight for liberation.
We’ve been taught that we must broaden and sharpen our analysis. This is the project of joint learning and value alignment: to ensure that work that makes life more liveable leads to liberation.
We’ve been taught that to broaden and sharpen our analysis, we must study history.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the family regulation system is what follows in a country with a legacy of slavery, where Black wombs and babies were monetized, where white sense of moral rectitude, righteousness, and resilience were dependent on the existence of the enslaved person.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the family regulation system is an outgrowth of a country that is obsessed with its white, anglo-saxon, Protestant roots. A country that has tried to violently assimilate or, when encountering resistance to assimilation, extinguish, people and cultures they view in opposition to their construct of morality.
Let’s look a little deeper into that history.
The very first effort in this nation to create a family regulation system was undertaken in the mid-1800’s by a white Protestant man who considered himself a progressive. I will not say his name. He was terrified by the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants he saw coming to America in droves. You must remember, at the time, Irish and Italian Catholic people were not racialized as white. He felt that decent middle class society needed to intervene and prevent these genetically inferior parents from passing on their ways to their children. So he created a foster agency known as the Children’s Aid Society, which spearheaded an effort to ship off hundreds of thousands of Irish and Italian Catholic children to Protestant farms where they would serve as indentured and enslaved labor. The Children’s Aid Society stole these children from their parents, families, and communities. This foster agency is still in existence to this day, still doing the same dirty work.
It is not an exaggeration that the foster system played an instrumental role in the social and cultural genocide on indigenous families. By the 1970’s, up to two-thirds of Indigenous children had been forcibly removed from their parents home. Two-thirds.
It is not an exaggeration that this is the very system that consecrated heteronormative notions of who gets to be a family. That disregards any organization of people outside of the legal definition of “nuclear family” and relegates these care networks as “less than,” illegitimate, or unrecognizable.
The foster system is, at its very roots, rotten.
It’s critical that we broaden and sharpen our analysis. We must question the origins and the intents of the systems that surround us to ensure our work truly leads to liberation.
We must interrogate the larger political, social, and economic context within which injustices occur.
The foster system plays an instrumental role in maintaining an economic, political, and social order that justifies massive racial and wealth inequality. This system constantly hides and normalizes enormous injustices and power imbalances. Let’s take a peek at the broader political and social context.
Do you ever wonder why U.S. courts are only worried about delivering “justice” when it allows them to punish a marginalized person?
Take for example, a South Asian father and his wife who stood with their head hanging before the family court judge. The judge, gazing down at the family providing his concept of wisdom, uttering,
“We don’t hit each other here in America, that’s not how it’s done here. We talk.
Domestic violence is bad for the family.
It’s gonna harm your kids.
You’re harming each other.”
The judge then uses his power to demand that the protesting wife stay away from her husband until he has completed his domestic violence classes and threatens to remove the children from her if she doesn’t.
The father looks to the judge and asks,
Where should he live now that he has been kicked out of his house?
How will his wife and kids eat?
How will they get their bills paid?
How will they be supported?
The judge who sends commands large enough to rupture families, who is vested with the authority of the state, answers the father, it is not his concern.
This courtroom was concerned with only one kind of harm: the harm this father inflicted on his family.
That this father was outraged with his life in the United States, working literally every day for seven years, yet still barely able to provide for his family, feeling emasculated and humiliated by the situation he found himself in the United States—this was of no concern to this system. The judge, the court, the system, the country, pretend as though they have no relationship to this structural violence and certainly will never take accountability for it.
The family had no forum for justice or healing for the economic violence they experienced in America. No forum for justice or healing for the centuries of violence at the hands of colonialism and economic exploitation, from which of course this country and perhaps even this judge specifically had benefited.
The only harm that would be the subject of extensive state action, was the harm that could be blamed on the mother and father.
We must broaden our thinking about these issues and expand the scope of our understanding.
Do you ever wonder why the only time the United States courts seem to take action to protect Black and Brown children living in poverty from chemicals is when those chemicals are controlled substances taken by their mothers?
Meanwhile our government does little more than shrug at the environmental degradation caused by multinational corporations. These multinational corporations purposefully operate in low-income and Black and Brown communities, and purposefully take safety shortcuts when they know that the harm will land on low-income Black and Brown folks. The BP oil spill on the gulf coast in 2010 disproportionately affected Black families and Vietnamese immigrant families. It will have far more a profound effect on the well-being of those communities than any parent’s drug use. Can you imagine if the energy and resources of the 30 billion dollar a year family regulation system were focused on combating environmental degradation and its effect on children and families instead of substance use by Black and Brown mothers?
Our freedom destination demands that whatever work we do, we ask these questions. Study these histories. Together. Or that we get out of the way of people who are doing this important work. We cannot uproot, dismantle, reimagine, and reclaim unless we do so.
We must study the body of theory, work, and practice called abolition. Abolition is liberation work. It is work that honors the new future we all deserve. I’m going to share with you now a few things I’ve learned about abolition.
Abolition calls on us to acknowledge structural harm, harm that is otherwise normalized and invisibilized. For example, this country normalizes homelessness. This country puts up a smokescreen, blaming people who don’t have homes for not having homes—saying it’s a result of their mental health or substance use status. And this country actively hides one of the very real, much more influential causes of homelessness—centuries of white folks and white governments redlining and draining of wealth from Black communities. Abolition calls on us to no longer accept the invisibility of structural harm.
Abolition calls on us to dismantle institutions that were designed to perpetuate structural harm, not just reform them. The foster system is case in point.
Equally important to the practice of abolition as dismantling is building. Abolition calls on us to build safe, thriving, and happy communities. It is as much a project of imagining or building or reclaiming as it is dismantling. Do you feel that it is hard to imagine a world without prisons and police and the foster system and the punitive welfare state? Look no further than the work people are doing today to build this world. Mutual aid networks that have no work requirements or family caps. Restorative and transformative justice programs that do not rely on cages to not just effectively address harm but also heal harm. These are leading us to the world that abolition imagines.
Abolition calls on us to contextualize interpersonal harm within structural harm. Thinking back to the example of the father who physically harmed his family. This harm cannot be understood, healed or prevented unless we also acknowledge the structural framework within which it occurs. And abolition calls on us to approach the person who did the harm and the person who was harmed with equal measure compassion. This is radical love for our people.
Abolition calls on us to transform the way we address interpersonal harm. It asks us what does true accountability and healing look like? Because we know the systems we have built to address harm, to heal harm, to interrupt cycles of harm, are not working. We know, for a fact, that the foster system has not reduced the rare cases of serious harm of children by their parents. That the criminal legal system has not actually reduced interpersonal harm. Here I give gratitude to the work of Bay Area Transformative Justice, Building Accountable Communities, Ahimsa Collective, just to name a few, who are showing us the way. They are doing the enormously difficult and courageous work of addressing harm in our communities outside of legal systems. And they are doing it effectively. I encourage you to learn more about their work.
These are just some of the things I’ve learned about abolition. Abolition can help us understand whether we are working to make life more liveable or liberated, and if the former, how to make intentional space for liberation.
How do we practice abolition and liberation work, and/or how do we be good allies to those doing liberation work? There are so many examples, but here I’m going to quote Mariame Kaba, a legendary activist and organizer. She says that when she is outraged about an injustice, she asks herself four simple questions.
So let’s do some liberation work. Let’s figure this out together. As we should always do.
First, what resources exist so I can better educate myself?
Much of the published literature on the family regulation system engages in an enormous amount of pathologizing. If you are reading literature that is making racist or classist or misogynist or ableist findings, which is how I’d describe much of the social science literature on the foster system, it is probably the wrong literature to read. Let us not allow that dominant literature drown out the enormous body of freedom literature that is out there.
The Shriver Center put out a great syllabus on the injustices of the family regulation system. Elizabeth Brico, a leading expert on harm reduction and the family regulation system, a mother who herself had her family torn apart by Broward County’s family regulation system, has written prolifically about the injustices of the foster system. Dorothy Roberts has written prolifically. Khiara Bridges has written prolifically. I’m going to sheepishly shout out a Movement for Family Power 150 page report that interrogates how the family regulation system has become ground zero for the war on drugs, and the related work we are doing in New York state to challenge the womb to foster system pipeline. Law4BlackLives, an organization dedicated to cultivating radical politics within Black organizers, lawyers, and legal workers has a wealth of resources on their website. The Ayni Institute, an institute for radical social justice movement building, also makes a library of resources available on their website. Learning is freedom work, let’s learn together.
I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg, I know you and many others have so much more to recommend.
Second, who’s already doing the work around this injustice?
No movement for social justice, not the great anti-colonization struggles of the 1940’s and 50’s, or the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and 70’s, the immigration struggles of the 90’s and 2000’s, just to name a few, not one struggle has seen meaningful change without the people and communities most impacted by the injustice leading the fight.
This is not to say the burden of combating injustice lies with oppressed people alone. That is not at all what I am saying. Also to be abundantly clear, this does not translate into just inviting an impacted person to speak on a panel and providing an honorarium.
It is, however, to say that people who are less proximate cannot define the fight, the priorities, the strategies, or the wins. Those less proximate can and should contribute to creating supported space for those who are more proximate to the injustice.
There are a variety of ways that people can be allies. Movements need excel sheets, calendar invites, agendas, cooked food, physical labor, website updating, grant writing, ghost writing, social media support, newsletters, and so on. These are just a few of the ways less proximate folks can show up.
Also fundamental to a movement is its people: activists, artists, academics, journalists, researchers, teachers, and healers. That we are in healthy, loving community with each other. This is the slow and intentional work of relationship and trust building by showing up and showing up right and humble. Of engaging in shared learning and in shared historical study, in building analysis together, sharpening analysis together, aligning our values…together. Of imagining our destination. Of understanding that conflict is natural and generative and that loving conflict resolution grows us. Of understanding that everyone has a different role to play in a movement and no one person’s role, not the researcher or lawyer, is any more important than another’s, for example the healer or artist.
And finally, to address Mariame’s last questions, Do I have the capacity to offer concrete support and How can I be constructive?
This links back to the first question of how do you fit into the movement and then from there figuring out both what is your capacity and how to contribute. Ayni Institute, the social justice movement institute I referenced earlier, has done enormous research and writing on this, and I want to share a high level overview of some of their theories as I understand them.
Each plays a critical role in the ecosystem of movement building and social change. Each person within their role can focus on their work and do their work effectively because someone is carrying the water on the other pieces of the puzzle. Different people in different spaces tend to judge each other, devalue each other’s work. This is something I learned about myself during an Ayni Institute training. People doing policy work might think the healers are woo woo and wasting time. The people building momentum for mass protest may think the policy folks are sell-outs. Yet building a healthy movement ecosystem requires recognition that each one of these roles is critical to the movement’s success. Each contributor needs to be valued and supported. Foundations and philanthropists, if you look at your portfolio and realize you are spending all your money on inside game actors such as policy folks or researchers, maybe it’s time to think about expanding your support to folks doing healing or building alternative institutions—because without the full ecosystem, we won’t get free.
I realize that I have presented a lot of ideas, theories, and examples of practice. It may not be clear how everything neatly relates and fits together. At this point in time, I have far more questions than answers. I am in a space of enormous learning and am excited for us to be in loving community together, to build at the speed of trust, together, and figure some of it out together. We are doing work that will last for generations to come.
As I close out, I leave you with this quote from Andrea James, director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls. It is the largest membership-based organization working to end the incarceration of women and girls, based in Roxbury, Massachusetts. The National Council is unapologetically abolitionist and unapologetically feminst. I leave you with these words because I have found them to be incredibly grounding in terms of orienting myself in my role in the movement. She writes to an audience of thousands of formerly incarcerated women and girls agitating in their communities across the country, “I continue to encourage our Sisterhood to stay on the ground in your local neighborhoods doing the community-building work that can only be led by our people from within our neighborhoods. How we define this work, the narrative that moves it, who it is led by, and the outcomes we need for our communities, is just as important as getting wins that will be hails as created and driven by big non-profits.”
I hope these words reverberate in your head, creating the force field of a moral compass, as they will in mine, for years to come.