An Introduction to Family Policing Abolition
Cohosts Josie Pickens and Jaison Oliver introduce The upEND Podcast and give an overview of what listeners can expect in the first season of the upEND podcast which will release monthly episodes starting in September 2023.
Episode guest Alan Dettlaff is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where he also served as Dean from 2015 to 2022. Alan began his career as a social worker in the family policing system, where he worked as an investigative caseworker and administrator. Today his work focuses on ending the harm that results from this system. In 2020, he helped to create and launch the upEND movement, a collaborative effort dedicated to abolishing the family policing system and building alternatives that focus on healing and liberation.
Welcome to the upEND podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we at upEND more accurately called the family policing system. In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like. We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started.
Hey, everybody. Welcome to the very first episode of The upEND Podcast. My name is Josie Pickens. I am the program director of upEND Movement.
And I’m Jaison Oliver. I’m a community organizer working on the upEND Movement’s communications team. And we’re the co-hosts of this podcast.
So I want to begin by explaining why we are creating this podcast. Many people don’t understand the way the child welfare system actually works and the origins of that system. We want to offer all of you conversations with experts, organizers, and to invite you all to learn more alongside us.
And we want to work through tensions that we may find as we try to build something more supportive for children and families. We want to answer the easy questions and begin working through the hard questions together. Now I’m going to introduce our guest. Alan Dettlaff is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, where he also served as dean from 2015 to 2022.
Alan began his career as a social worker in the family policing system where he worked as an investigative caseworker and administrator. Today, his work focuses on ending the harm that results from this system. In 2020, he helped to create and launch the upEND Movement, a collaborative effort dedicated to abolishing family policing system and building alternatives that focus on healing and liberation.
Thank you. Happy to be here.
So we’re going to need to define some terms together. And I think that that’s something that is very important. When we started here, we brought up the child welfare system, but here at the upEND Movement we refer to the child welfare system as the family policing system. So, Alan, why not child welfare?
Family policing is the term that we use to more accurately describe the system that many other people call the child welfare system. And we use that term family policing system to better capture the roles that the system actually plays in the lives of children and families and communities, which are surveillance, regulation, and punishment. Surveilling people in their communities, regulating their behavior, and then implementing mechanisms of punishment when their behavior doesn’t meet the expectations of the system.
And all of those roles, surveillance, regulation, punishment are roles that are more commonly associated with policing. So we use the term family policing system, but that’s also an intentional rejection of the term child welfare, which is the name that the state has given to us to make us believe in what I call the myth of benevolence. The system wants us to believe it focuses on children’s welfare, but in actuality it doesn’t.
Nearly 70% of children who are in foster care right now are in foster care solely because of what the state calls neglect, which is largely related to poverty. But rather than addressing those issues of poverty, the state actually has no means to help families who are struggling with poverty.
So in a typical family policing case, a parent, according to the system, doesn’t need daycare, she needs parenting classes. Mom doesn’t need income and quality food. She needs nutrition, training and budgeting assistance. If she disagrees with that plan, then she needs counseling. And if she vehemently disagrees with that plan, then she needs anger management classes. So the system is not actually about meeting the needs of children and families or addressing any issues of children’s welfare.
And I know that you’ve seen this firsthand when you worked in the system. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, I began my career as a social worker working in the family policing system. I actually went into social work because I wanted to work for the child welfare system. I thought that that was a way of helping children and families. And when I was in the system, I thought that I was doing that. And when I worked in the system, I worked as what the system calls an investigator, meaning that I was on the front lines investigating calls that come in to the system about child maltreatment.
And then it was also my job to then remove families or what the system calls removing families, removing children when there were issues of maltreatment identified in the homes. So I think, you know, in the time I worked in the system, I probably removed upwards of 60 to 70 children from their families across the five years that I worked in the system.
And I at that time really thought that I was helping those children and families. But what I realized after I left the system is that I was caught up in what I think of as a culture of removal, where removing children from their homes is viewed as help, when in actuality it causes an immense amount of harm that the system never talks about.
What I also saw is children who loved their parents and didn’t want to be separated from their parents. Even in cases where harm was occurring, children wanted that harm to stop, but they didn’t want to be taken away from their parents. And that’s what I didn’t realize when I was in the system.
The other thing that I really didn’t realize is every time that I removed a child from their family, not once did they say, “thank you so much for removing me from my horrible abusive parent.” That never happened. Because those children loved their parents. In fact, when I would go see them afterwards, all they would want to know is when they were going to be returned home. But those are all of the things that the system doesn’t talk about.
So as we’re defining terms, I also think it’s important as an abolitionist podcast to start with the end in mind. So keeping with that, what is abolition? Let’s define this term from your perspective.
Any time that I define abolition, I always go to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who in a very simple but meaningful way, says that “abolition is presence, not absence.” And what that means is that abolition really focuses much more on building a new society, new means of caring for people, in this case children and families, versus the actual act of tearing down.
But that’s often confused when people think of abolition. Too often, the whole idea of abolition is simplified to only talk about the dismantling or destroying of an institution, but actually abolition has a much deeper, richer meaning that’s erased when we only talk about the ending or the tearing down. Abolition does intend to do that, but its focus is really on building a new liberated society.
And what’s often misunderstood about abolition is that’s actually been the goal of abolition since the very beginning of the abolition movement in the United States in the 1800s, which started as a means of ending chattel slavery. But the goal of the original abolitionists was never to stop at the end of slavery. The goal was always to both end slavery and to build a new society where Black people actually experience freedom and equality.
And when we really see that when we think about some of the correspondence writings of the original abolitionists after the abolition movement or after emancipation. Particularly, I was struck when I read from a speech by Frederick Douglass, who after emancipation had left the South for several years and then came back and witnessed the conditions of the formerly enslaved and really lamented the fact that the abolition movement had stopped at emancipation and had not continued toward the true goals.
And he gave a speech on the 26th anniversary of emancipation, where he said that the formerly enslaved were victims of a cunningly devised swindle. And although they were nominally free, they were actually still a slave. And then he ended that speech saying, I hear now denounce his so-called emancipation as a stupendous fraud, a fraud upon him, a fraud upon the world.
So when I talk about abolition or defined abolition, I like to use the idea of abolition democracy, which was first used by W.E.B. Du Bois to conceptualize this idea, and then was later expanded by Angela Davis in her book, “Abolition Democracy.” So according to Du Bois, the real idea of abolition is that it has to be more than just simple eradication of slavery.
Abolition had to be a positive project that was about creating new institutions, new structures for the purpose, about bringing about a racially just society. And then Angela Davis said, But because that never happened, then Black people experienced other forms of slavery, debt peonage, the convict leasing system, and what the prison system does today. So today, the work of abolition is actually the same as the work of abolition in the 1800s.
And it’s about both ending harmful systems, but much more importantly, building new structures so that the need for those harmful oppressive systems is obsolete.
It’s so wonderful bringing those connections together because it also ties into our work here at upEND and why you, along with our other founding members, decided to create and found upEND. So I think it’s important for us to now talk about what the upEND Movement is.
upEND Movement is a collaborative effort that was launched in 2020 that works as part of a broader movement, a broader national movement to abolish the existing child welfare system, which we believe is built on a model of surveillance, separation, punishment, and rather, build a new society where children and families have everything they need to thrive within their communities, children have everything they need to thrive in their homes, and the idea of forcibly separating children from their parents would never occur.
So the goal of upEND as part of this broader movement is largely public education for the purpose of bringing about the political will necessary to create the changes that we think are necessary to move towards eliminating the system.
In a large part, we focus on dismantling that myth of benevolence by explaining, one, that most of the children who are in the system have not been harmed by their parents. They’re simply poor.
Two, focusing on the harms of foster care. The reality that children who spend time in foster care often then as adults experience things like houselessness, poverty, low educational attainment, incarceration in many cases, and that all of the harms that result from foster care occur disproportionately to Black children and families.
So we try to dismantle this myth of benevolence in order to bring about public will and political will to create changes to dismantle the system.
And what motivated you all to create upEND?
You know, I worked for the child welfare system in the late nineties, early 2000s. And when I left, the system really came to start to understand the harms of the system, the harms that the system causes disproportionately to Black children and families, and my own complicity in that harm. Because of that, when I went into a Ph.D. program, I started to study the impact that racial bias has on decision-making.
And I spent probably 10 to 15 years trying to understand that issue and working with states to reform the system to try to make things better. Much later in my career, after I became dean of the Graduate College of Social Work and wanted to become reengaged in that work, I was able to think back on my time working in the system for that upwards of a decade and realized that absolutely nothing had changed.
The disproportionality that existed in the system in the late 1990s when I was in the system was the same as the disproportionality that exists today, despite almost 20 years of reforms. And when you look at that, so outside of me, when you look at the whole context of the national child welfare system, you see that that system has been engaged in these reform efforts for decades.
And those reforms have focused on everything from improving training to increasing the diversity of the workforce to addressing how decisions are made. But what I and my colleagues who started upEND who have all been involved in reform efforts for a long time realize, is that reforms ask the child welfare system to do the impossible.
Reforms ask the child welfare system to forcibly separate children from their families in a way that’s a little bit less racist, a way that’s a little bit nicer, and in a way that’s a little bit more palatable to the general public. And that’s just not possible. The problem with the child welfare system isn’t that we need a new family well-being system or we need a more multicultural workforce or better training. The problem is that the system itself was built to harm and oppress Black children and families, and it does that exceptionally well.
So after being involved in reforms for decades, we realized that the only way to really end the harm is by eliminating the entire system itself. You can’t just reduce harm. You have to eliminate harm.
I’m thinking about a lot of the counties and states that are implementing reforms and rebranding to show that things are getting better. But you’ve said you’ve been looking at this for 20 years and seeing that it’s not working. What has your research, particularly on Black families, shown you?
As it speaks to reforms, it shows that reforms are essentially a mask. Reforms are a mask used by the system to create the perception in the public and among politicians that they’re aware of their problems and they’re doing something to address those problems when in fact, the system knows that those reforms are not going to work. But it’s not about whether they work or not.
The system knows they’re not going to work. It’s about fooling the public into thinking they’re doing something. We could see that now with the popular reforms of the day, which are predictive analytics and blind removals. Predictive analytics is a way of using AI or artificial intelligence learning to try to improve or reduce the errors that are associated with human decision making.
What we know of predictive analytics tools is that they actually lead to more bias and more disproportionate outcomes. Child welfare administrators know that, but they continue to implement them because it sounds good to people who don’t understand all of the fancy statistics that go into these models. They say, “Oh, we’re adopting this new predictive analytics model and that’s going to help in our decision making,” knowing full well that it’s not. But it tricks the general public into thinking who does.
Blind removals is a means of taking a case and removing all of the socio demographic variables from the case record and then bringing that before a panel of what they call experts to determine if a removal needs to happen or not. Thinking that if they remove all of those indicators about race, neighborhood, then that will reduce or remove bias from the decision.
First, any state or system that implements blind removals says something about the system. It says that the system acknowledges that their workforce is so racist that they can’t be trusted to make decisions on their own and they have to remove all of this demographic information. But two, we know that blind removals have completely been debunked. There’s been studies of blind removals to show that it does nothing to eliminate racial disparities.
But yet counties all across the United States are adopting the blind removal process because it makes sense. You say to people, we’re going to take out this demographic information and then we won’t be racist anymore. But it actually doesn’t do anything.
So all of these reforms that we’re saying are going to fix the racial disproportionality and these racial disparities, like you said, are really just a show, a mask.
It’s a show. And it has been for 60 years. The first book about racial disproportionality, the overrepresentation of Black children in the system called “Children of the Storm”, was written in 1972. This is not a new problem to child welfare systems. And that book suggested all kinds of reforms, and many systems probably implemented those reforms. But here we are 50, 60 years later, and nothing has changed at all.
This makes me think about traditional policing and how people talk about body cameras. As an example of a reform that’s really going to create accountability or that’s going to change how the how the system works, that’s going to stop police violence. What we see is just more of this becoming widespread to the point where one would become desensitized to it.
But also, we’re just investing more and more money into these false reforms or becoming more invested in the system and trying to make the system palatable and trying to figure out ways to make it manageable for the people who have to suffer through it.
I think is also important to discuss how we are giving power to this system by continuing to try and implement these reforms, because we are telling the system exactly what will make it more palatable and we are giving them the language to use. Wow. All of that is so interesting. What you said about the research and how long this research has been happening is also so interesting.
And I’d like you to speak a little bit about why you decided to focus on this research and particularly like how does the history of Black family separations connect to what is happening in the system today?
Yeah, that’s a really important aspect that I hope people come to understand. The connections between the history of family separations in this country during the era of chattel slavery and the family separations that are done today. I think, you know, many of us understand that family separations have always been a tool used by the state to maintain the subjugation of certain groups of people.
Family separations were done during slavery. They were done to Indigenous populations. When Indigenous children were sent away from their families to Indian boarding schools. They were done during the Japanese internment camps as a way of maintaining subjugation of that population. But I think to really understand what’s happening in our present, we have to understand what happened in our history and what got us to this point. And that’s why I started studying the history of family separations in this country.
But it also is because of a more personal memory of mine, one of the removals that I did, probably the one that haunts me most to this day that I think about all the time was a boy whose name was Charles. He was about eight or nine years old.
And Charles was or this case was referred to the system because Charles was engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior with other boys in the neighborhood. And I was working in a sexual abuse unit at that time. And the view of the system is that when there’s sexual behavior among young children, that’s beyond what you would consider normal experimental behavior, that could be an indicator of sexual abuse.
So that case was assigned to me. Charles lived, Charles was a young Black boy. He lived in a predominantly poor Black neighborhood. I interviewed Charles. I interviewed all of his family. Charles never made what we call an outcry of sexual abuse. There was never any indication that he had been abused by anyone. We tried stopping the behavior with what we call a safety plan, saying that Charles’ parents needed to supervise him when he was around other children.
But that didn’t happen. And some of the behaviors continued. And a decision was made in the agency to remove Charles from his home. When I went to remove Charles, I went with the police, which often was often the practice then. And when we came to the door, Charles’ mother and grandmother were home, and they knew immediately why we were there.
And they screamed and they said, “Charles, run. They’re here to take you away, and they’re going to sell you to the white people.” And Charles ran into his room and we followed him in there. And he was in the process of taking all these clothes out of a drawer and putting [them] in a backpack. And he had the window open and was trying to get out the window.
And the police had to grab him and pull him away. And as we were taking him out to the back, out to the police car, his grandmother was just kind of was sitting in her chair, kind of pleading, “please don’t sell them down the river. Please don’t sell them down the river.” And I didn’t know what sell them down the river meant at that time.
I remember thinking, what does she mean, sell them to the white people? We don’t do that. But I understand that now, to be sold down the river meant to be sold into the worst form of slavery in the Deep South, usually from states like Kentucky that were considered slave breeding states. And to be sold down the river because of the rapidly expanding demand for cotton meant not only the worst working conditions, but the worst and most abusive terrorizing conditions for slaves to the point where slaves who were sold down the river or enslaved people who were sold down the river often tried to end their lives by suicide before being sold, literally transported down the river. There’s a book called “Slavery and Crime in Missouri, 1773 to 1865”, which has a journal entry about a man who witnessed the suicide of a slave who was about to be transported. And he said, a Negro man, having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, then failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.
That’s how horrible it was to be sold down the river. And that’s what this family thought I was going to do to their eight-year-old boy. That I have never stopped thinking about, but knew that at some point came to understand that the trauma of the family separations that occurred during slavery cannot be separated from the trauma of today’s family separations when they happen, and Black families who still carry a trauma with them from the era of slavery.
It’s intergenerational. So, we talked a good bit about reforms and how reforms don’t work and how reforms actually give power to the system. And then we have to move into this question of if we know the reforms don’t work and we know that reforms are not the answer…
And maybe I want to jump in and say we do know that reforms work, but they work to a different purpose, right? They’re working…
To empower the system.
Yeah. They’re working to create this facade as opposed to addressing the problems that they supposedly are designed to effect. So they’re working…
But they’re not working to actually help families.
Right. They’re working against children and families.
So, I mean, it’s natural that we go back to this conversation about abolition. What would it mean to abolish the child welfare system or what we more adequately call the family policing system?
Abolishing the system really means a complete elimination of the system, but it also means going back to Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s idea of abolition is presence, not absence. It also means simultaneously building new conditions, new structures, new means of caring for children and families in a very gradual process. I think it’s important for people to understand that abolition is not something we’re calling for overnight.
This is something that happens gradually, that as we gradually decrease our reliance on forcible family separation, were reallocating, reinvesting in the funds that are used to maintain the system of foster care into families and communities, to reduce the need for foster care, to make the current system obsolete. Another way that I like to think about abolition is something else that Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, who says that abolition is a way of seeing. Abolition makes you ask when you look, what are you seeing and what would you rather see?
And when we look today at the family policing system, what we see is a system built upon a model of surveillance, regulation, and punishment. We see a system that disproportionately surveilled Black bodies, a system that disproportionately separates Black children from their families and a system that responds to families in need with an intervention that actually causes those families more harm.
We see a system that was created to ensure that Black children and families exist in poverty and remain in poverty. We see a system that establishes a narrative that the condition of poverty is parents’ fault and therefore their behavior needs to be changed. Rather than acknowledging that poverty is a societal issue, really a societal failure, and that there are larger ways of addressing the problem of poverty. And we see a system that replicates the harshest form of punishment used during slavery to ensure that Black families stay in a state of subjugation for the purpose of maintaining white power.
And if we think about this, what do we see now? What we’d rather see? What we’d rather see is a world where children and families have everything they need to be healthy, to eat, to live safely, to thrive in their homes and communities. We’d rather see a world where families are interconnected to each other, where families act as first responders when another family is in need without any kind of fear of judgment or punishment. And we’d rather see the idea or a world where the idea of a family policing system or the forcible separation of children from their families would never come into existence because the idea of separating children from their families is so abhorrent, we would never bring that into reality.
And we’d rather see a world that isn’t dependent on the subjugation of some in order to further the supremacy of others. A world really where true equality is fully realized. What we would really rather see is a world where we are free. That’s the work of abolition, and that’s the work that we continue to do today.
Yes, I mean, I think all three of us can say that we identify as abolitionists and we are constantly having conversations about what abolition looks like. And we get that pushback from folks who just are not able to envision or imagine that in a real way.
What would you say from the conversations that you’ve had with people who are a bit resistant to adopting abolitionist ideals or calling themselves abolitionists? What do you think some of the barriers are for those people that push them away from abolitionist language, abolitionist thought, or even calling themselves abolitionists?
The best way that I’ve been able to explain abolition, and particularly abolition of the family policing system to other people is to ask them to think about their own families. Not just their immediate families, but their larger network of people that they love and care about. A community of people who love and care about each other. And then imagine that a child within that community is harmed by another member of the community.
And then I ask them, what would you rather see happen? Would you prefer to get together as a family and a community, as a network of people who love and care about each other and decide for yourselves what needs to happen to ensure that that child is no longer harmed?
Or would you rather have the government take that child away from you and decide on their own what needs to happen? And I think that most people would prefer that first option to get together as a family community and decide for themselves what should happen. And if you want that for your family, then you should want that for every family. And if you want that for every family, then that’s abolition.
Yeah. So good.
We hope you’re enjoying The upEND Podcast. A quick note: upEND is funded through the generosity of people like you who believe that ending the harm of the family policing system will help us to create a safer future. If you’re enjoying this podcast, we hope that you’ll consider donating to our work. Visit upendmovement.org/donate for more information.
The first season of The upEND Podcast is oriented around your forthcoming book, “Confronting the Racist Legacy of the American Child Welfare System: The Case for Abolition.” Can you tell us about the book and then what we can expect in the next eight episodes of the podcast?
Yes. So at the heart of the book is a call for abolition. It’s both an argument for abolition and the evidence base for abolition. Going back to the era of chattel slavery that we talked about. Because to really make the case for abolition today, we have to start at the beginning at the origins of family separation in the United States.
So the book and the next episode of the podcast will start there. And then following along with the arc of the book, we’ll trace the origins of the modern child welfare system, which emerged just shortly after abolition of slavery, to demonstrate that the harm and oppression that result from child welfare intervention today are not what many people think of as unintended consequences, but are actually the intended consequences of laws and policies that have been put in place ever since abolition of slavery to maintain the oppression of Black families.
We saw that happen with Black codes. We saw that happen with Jim Crow laws. All of these things were happening simultaneously, immediately following abolition of slavery to essentially recreate a society where Black Americans were not free and the child welfare system was a big part of that. So we’ll talk about the origins of the system. We’ll talk about how the outcomes that we see today are the intended outcomes of the policies and practices that have been put in place in the system.
We’ll talk about all of the evidence of the harm that the system causes, the disproportionate harm that the system causes to Black children and families. And then the book closes with making the case for abolition. And I think what I really like about the message that both this book shares and many books about abolition, which I hope people will read to understand more, is that abolition really is about hope.
The best way that I’ve come to describe abolition and hope is that abolition is hope for something we know is possible, because the idea that it is impossible is not something that we can accept. That’s what abolition means to me. So the book and this podcast are going to trace the history of the abolition movement from the era of chattel slavery to now to show that the true dream, the true goal of abolition, has never been fully realized.
And the work that we’re doing today is just an extension of the work that began over 200 years ago to create a society where liberation truly exists.
So looking forward and thinking about this podcast and the upEND Movement as a whole for a vision of the future, what do we expect or hope to see as we continue this mission of spreading hope in 5, 10, 50 years? Thinking back to that book that you talked about. What do we hope to see as a result of spreading hope in this work?
I hope to see the myth of benevolence dismantled so that people come to see the child welfare or family policing system for what it really is. I hope that people come to see the harms that result from child welfare intervention in the same category of harms that result from the larger carceral state which include policing and prisons. And I hope mostly that we in some ways demystify the idea of abolition so that people understand that it is so much more than ending systems, that the ending of systems is simply a means to create the society that we all should want, which is a society where everyone is free in all aspects of what freedom means, both in a legal aspect and free from the cages that contain us within ourselves. Because we know that we live in a liberated society where we don’t have to be held back by the things that keep us within.
I love that. And I think that that is a great way to end this episode. On a note of hope. So, Alan, we thank you so much for joining us today on The upEND Podcast. And thank you all for tuning in and listening with us today. Thank you, Jaison, for joining me.
And we’ll see you next time.
Thank you for joining us for The upEND Podcast as we explore family policing system abolition. To learn more about upEND and our work to strengthen families and communities, visit our website at upendmovement.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @upendmovement.