Last fall, I wrote about upEND, a new project focused on addressing structural inequities in the country’s child welfare system. The project is a joint effort of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) and the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. “We have committed to working with parents, advocates and others,” CSSP’s Kristen Weber told me, “to reimagine new ways to keep children safe and support families without relying on interventions that are coercive and can result in family separation.”

How We endUPthe project’s first major publication, calls for abolition of the current system, which they call family policing, and for “a fundamental transformation of the ways in which society supports children, families and communities.” The authors build their case on alarming statistics, such as:

I spoke to Alan Dettlaff (Dean & Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work) about the paper and its ramifications.

How did you arrive at the term “family policing”?

The term builds upon the work of many others who used the term “family regulation system.” We believe “family policing system” captures all of the roles this system plays in the lives of families, which include surveillance and punishment, in addition to regulation. The ways the family policing system intervenes and the roles of various workers serve to maintain the control and oppression of Black, Native and Latinx families, which is also consistent with the practice of policing. We are speaking to the experiences of families, not aspirations of the system.

The term “child welfare system” is fundamentally inaccurate. Data consistently show that this intervention does not result in overall improved life outcomes for children and youth. The broader public needs to understand how this system operates, and continuing to use the phrase “child welfare system” masks the harms that families experience and the outcomes for children. As this work continues, we hope others will begin to describe the system in this way.

👉 How We endUP: A Future Without Family Policing, October 26-27. Register now.

The history of family policing parallels that of incarceration, border protection and more. Our country is undergoing a new round of debates about how history is framed and interpreted. What opportunities and obstacles does this environment present?

The history of family separation is long, horrific and racist. This history has largely been whitewashed, with limited scholarship and teaching about the insidious and persistent White supremacy and racist roots that play out in our public systems of today. We see an opportunity to expose these racist roots and educate the broader public.

An important part of understanding family policing is acknowledging that the forced separation of Black children from their parents is a practice that originated with human chattel slavery as a means of maintaining power and control by a system of White supremacy that is foundational to this country’s origins. Throughout its history, the notion of White supremacy has been embedded in child welfare systems’ policies and structures to first exclude Black children from child welfare services and later to perpetuate oppression against them.

Why abolition? Why not reform?

Racism is so deeply embedded in the policies and practices of the family policing system that it simply cannot be reformed away. It is jarring to many to reckon with the fact that child welfare is not exempt from this history of racism and that it is often not a helpful system, but rather causes harm to families.

Part of our work involves raising awareness of the harms that result from family separation and foster care, and the disproportionate harm this causes to Black, Native and Latinx children, families and communities. Abolition requires both dismantling of the family policing system and the creation, or remembering, of ways of caring for children and families in communities. Many people will have to work through their biases and be willing to give up their power and control over families, to trust new ways of caring for one another.

A statement like “We seek to build a world where the care, support and well-being of children, families and communities is fully realized” seems hard to argue with. How do we get there from here?

It starts with ending the use of involuntarily family separation and redirecting the billions of dollars spent on foster care to the families and communities who are most impacted by family policing systems. In addition, we support a universal basic income, child allowances, safe and accessible housing, paid parental leave for families welcoming new children, paid sick leave and a job guarantee with a living wage. Abolition involves simultaneously dismantling the racist policies and practices that produce harm, and replacing them with resources and supports designed by families and communities that promote the safety and well-being of children in their homes. In this way, abolition is not about simply ending the family policing system; it is about creating the conditions in society where the need for family policing is obsolete.

Which organizations or influential individuals do you hope to partner with?

We hope to partner with everyone who is committed to improving the safety and well-being of children, youth and families in their communities who recognize the need to end the harms done to Black, Native and Latinx families by the family policing system. Many parents, youth and advocates have been calling for abolition and doing the work to achieve this for many years, and we hope to join with all of these partners. The movement is not about us, but rather the society we seek to collectively create.

What are the plans for the Oct. 26-27 summit?

We hope to expand on some of the ideas we offered in How We endUP and strategize with others about how we can, in community, improve support and care for children, youth and families as we move towards the abolition of family policing.

What role do stories—positive and negative—play in your advocacy?

Stories of the parents and youth impacted by the family policing system are very important because they demonstrate the harm and trauma that result from family policing intervention. Even for families and youth that experience positive outcomes, those outcomes come at a tremendous cost. Throughout our work, we hope to continually amplify these voices and center these experiences.

How can the upEND movement engage organizations that think they’re helping kids but may actually be reinforcing the system’s negative consequences?

Part of the work is to raise awareness of the harms that result to children and families from family separation and foster care. We recognize that there are incidents of harm to children that occur in society. When this harm does occur, we seek solutions for harm that are non-carceral and do not rely on state-sanctioned separation due to the additional trauma and harm that result from this intervention.

We also recognize that child welfare agencies have often been unable to prevent harm to children, even with their authority to remove children from their homes. In this recognition, we seek to understand why we live in a society where such harm occurs and how we can support the creation of a society where such harm does not occur.

recent Washington Post story spotlighted the groundswell of donations, sparked by a Reddit post, to a nonprofit that buys gifts for foster children. How else could charitable money be used to change the system?

Children in foster care certainly need support because of the harms the system has caused to them. However, what is often misunderstood in these stories is the perception that children in foster care lack families who can care for them, when the reality is that most children in foster care have families and extended families who are struggling to have their children returned to them.

As we outline in How We endUP, investments and resources are needed to support children and families within their communities to ensure families have what they need to thrive. Resources can also be used to support the multiple organizations across the country working to dismantle the harmful impacts of the family policing system.