End the Involuntary Separation of Children from Parents
It is well-documented that the separation of children from their parents results in significant and lifelong trauma, as well as increased risk of harmful outcomes including mental health disorders, substance use disorders, unemployment, and homelessness.13 The risk of experiencing these outcomes is increased for Black, Native, and, in many instances, Latinx youth who are disproportionately separated from their parents and placed in foster care by the family policing system.14 For families and communities, surveillance and disproportionate separation leads to intergenerational trauma and harm that perpetuate the oppressive conditions that maintain injustices among Black, Native, and Latinx families and communities. Nationally, more than 60% of state-sanctioned family separations are due to neglect,15 which is largely associated with the conditions of living in poverty.16 Beyond this, children are often separated from their parents due to reasons unrelated to serious harm. Racist practices and beliefs, which include judgments against a White normative parenting standard; vague definitions of maltreatment; inconsistent and subjective decision-making; and fear of liability are all factors that contribute to the inappropriate use of family separation. The harms that result from state-sanctioned separation and placement in foster care will only end when this practice is discontinued, and children are supported within their families and communities.
While definitions of neglect vary by state, most states define neglect as a failure to provide for basic needs including food, nutrition, clothing, education, shelter, and medical care.17 The inability to meet these needs is largely due to poverty and related concerns of homelessness and joblessness. The prevalence of poverty is a result of racial capitalism and centuries of racism in public policies that disproportionately impact Black, Native, and Latinx families.18 Yet when parents experience poverty and are unable to meet their children’s basic needs, they are held responsible for neglect and their children are at risk of being removed by the family policing system. The determination of neglect and the act of family separation are largely influenced by narratives of poverty based on racial stereotypes and deep-seated biases that result in the disproportionate removal of Black and Native children from their parents.19 The family policing system does not provide services to remedy poverty, and as such, state-sanctioned separation of children from their parents should not be a response to families living in poverty. Rather, parents should have access to the resources they need to ensure healthy development for themselves and for their children, including food, housing, and other direct material support.
All removals conducted by the family policing system must be approved by a juvenile or family court judge, who has the authority to temporarily—and potentially permanently—remove custody of a child from a parent and transfer custody to the state. Yet at the point of involuntary removal, judges do not consistently and rigorously question the decisions made by family policing agents and fail to consider the harm that will occur because of removal.20 The use of state-sanctioned family separation can be significantly limited through judicial intervention.21 Further, while judges can have an immediate impact on individual cases, state legislators can have a larger impact by enacting legislation that significantly limits the coercive power of the state to separate children from their parents. Ultimately, legislative solutions are necessary to end state-sanctioned family separations and prioritize the well-being of children in their homes and communities. Legislative solutions include significant investments in community-based resources AND fundamental needs, including child allowances and a universal basic income.
Some families brought to the attention of family policing systems do not meet the state’s criteria for removal, but the state still has concerns about the issues that brought the family to the attention of the system. These families are offered services that are classified as “voluntary” and are often referred to as “family preservation services” or “alternative responses.”22 Voluntary services cannot be provided by a system with the coercive power to separate children from their parents. Many of these services lack relevance to families’ actual needs and are provided to families within a system of surveillance and punishment that penalizes parents for any form of “non-compliance.”23 In this regard, “compliance” and “non-compliance” are judgments passed on families that are solely related to participation in services, not on whether services are effective in meeting families’ needs. Compliance is often impossible as families are asked to participate in services with no consideration to issues of accessibility, transportation, childcare, or job responsibilities.24 These barriers are structural and are exacerbated for families living in poverty, who are disproportionately Black, Native, and Latinx. Further, families describe service requirements and the expectations of what they must do as unclear and continually shifting.25 Yet, a parent’s lack of compliance is characterized as lack of cooperation, justifying family separation as a means of enforcing compliance. The separation of children from their parents should not be a punishment for families who are unable to meet the demands of a coercive state system. Rather, families should have access to and choice in appropriate resources, without coercion, to ensure both parents’ and children’s well-being.
Nearly $8 billion is spent annually to maintain the current system of foster care.26 Yet in response to the multiple layers of harm that result from foster care intervention, as well as the adverse outcomes experienced by youth aging out of foster care, family policing systems often advocate for increased funding for foster care services, including specialized placement options for youth with mental health and behavioral health challenges. Increased funding is also requested to provide services for older youth who have never been reunified with their parents, including independent living programs. The need for these services exists because the family policing system has failed children and youth, compounding the harm of multiple placements, lack of effective treatment and supports, and lack of connection to family. Family separation and placement in foster care should not be the gateway by which youth are eligible to receive services that nominally promote healthy development, as these services come at the expense of children losing their identities, families, and communities. Rather, funding should be divested from foster care and heavily invested in services that support the healthy development of children and families within their own communities. The field already recognizes the harms of incentivizing financing in deep end, congregate care placements and has worked to shift funding to increased prevention services.27 We are calling for bigger funding shifts—shifts that support families directly and enable communities to care for families currently impacted by family policing. These shifts must dismantle old funding structures and build new ones to support families and communities through non-coercive means.
When children are involuntarily separated from their parents, the family policing system often moves quickly toward termination of parental rights as a means of establishing “permanency” for youth through adoption or other means. This is often due to parents’ inability to meet the demands of family policing systems within the timelines set forth in the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). ASFA requires that states move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. In addition, financial incentives are built into ASFA that encourage states to increase adoptions.28 Rather than working to achieve family healing and reunification, these incentives encourage states to move expeditiously toward adoption or other permanency options. This disproportionately harms Black and Native children, who are not only more likely to be placed in foster care than White children, but also spend longer periods of time in foster care than White children,29 and thus are more vulnerable to termination of parental rights. All policies that support the involuntary Termination of Parental Rights, including ASFA, should be repealed. Family preservation should be prioritized in all cases and the practice of involuntarily terminating parental rights should be ended.