The child welfare system is predicated on the subjugation, surveillance, control, and punishment of mostly poor Black and Native children and families. We more accurately refer to this as the family policing system. The system and its supporters portray family policing as a legitimate, supportive helping system—one that protects the safety and well-being of children through necessary state-sanctioned interventions. But the history and reality of the system’s impact on the lives of children, families, and communities underscores the ways in which the system functions to maintain anti-Blackness, White supremacy, racial capitalism, and colonialism. We can collectively do better. How We endUP puts forth ideas about how we can, in community, improve support and care for children, youth, and families as we move towards abolition of family policing. These ideas are intertwined and address what must be dismantled as well as what must be created and supported.

The destruction of Black and Native families and communities in the United States began with American chattel slavery and the disposition of Native people from land through settler colonialism. For over 400 years, Black children have been torn from their families for the exploitation of Black labor necessary for capitalist accumulation.1 As Professor Dorothy Roberts argues, the destruction of Black families through slavery laid the foundation for the devaluation of Black families through the surveillance and policing of today’s family policing system.2 The making of what we now know as the United States further required the attempted genocide and disposition of Native communities to allow settlers to profit from stolen land.3 This legacy of exploitation, violence, and control continues through the modern family policing system.

The family policing system’s intent to surveil, control, and separate poor families and their children emanates from its inception. The architect of the modern family policing system, Charles Loring Brace, envisioned a system that would “save” poor children by removing them from their communities and families to instill in them the value of hard work.4 Through the Orphan Train Movement, the precursor to the modern family policing system, Brace and the Children’s Aid Society orchestrated a movement that took poor children, who were mostly immigrants, from their communities, often without consent, and lent them to various families where they labored on their farms.

In the words of Brace, the system intended to discipline “these dangerous classes” of children into workers to prevent a revolt against capital.5 That is, Brace built a system intended to discipline working class people to accept personal responsibility as the solution to poverty to convince society that poor parents were neglectful and unfit. The system was thus deemed necessary to intervene on behalf of poor children, “saving” them from their families and communities. At its very inception, the system’s primary intervention became family separation, blaming parents for their poverty to obscure the need to dismantle the social structures responsible for poverty.

The family policing system initially targeted poor White immigrant children and families because Black and Native children and families were not fully incorporated into government systems of support. Yet, as government institutions began to integrate, and child welfare policy became more formalized, the family policing system disproportionately separated Black children from their families based on Eurocentric and White supremacist ideas of parenting and family structure.6 Today, more than half of all Black children in the United States are investigated by child welfare authorities,7 and Black and Native children are forcibly separated from their parents and placed in foster care at rates significantly higher than those of White children.8 Stratified across race, class, gender, disability, and citizenship, the family policing system systematically targets communities for surveillance and punishment in the name of saving and protecting children.

We point to the ways in which this history of anti-Blackness, White supremacy, colonialism, and racial capitalism shape the modern family policing system because reforms intended to strengthen the system are often proposed as the solution to what the field has long called racial disproportionality and disparities.9 Indeed, data show that Black, Native, and, in many jurisdictions, Latinx children enter foster care at rates significantly higher than their proportion of the general population and experience racial disparities at multiple decision points within the system.10 But reforms that focus solely on racial disproportionality and disparities obscure how the system functions as intended and absolves us from the larger societal changes required. The family policing system was built to separate children from their families, and as such, reforms cannot fix a system that is functioning as intended.

Thus, the vision for the future of the family policing system must be a vision of abolition. The racist origins of family separation and the racist intent upon which the family policing system is built are so deeply rooted in its policies and structures, they cannot simply be revised or modified. Critics of abolition often argue that abolitionists ignore the safety and well-being of children. Conversely, upEND and the larger movements we are joining focus on the elements of care and child, family, and community well-being that the family policing system neglects. We focus on transforming material conditions and disrupting the social order that causes families to experience harm and hardship. When abuse and harm do occur, we strive to build and support solutions that are non-carceral and center accountability, safety, and healing.

We strive for abolition because we understand that the biggest threats to child safety and well-being are anti-Blackness, economic exploitation produced by racial capitalism,11 the continuing cultural genocide produced by colonialism, gender oppression sustained through patriarchy, the ableism entrenched by the current system, and White supremacist norms of good parenting, family, and safety—norms that maintain power in the hands of oppressive systems. Abolition seeks solutions for issues for which the state has no solutions, because the current system maintains and upholds ideologies and constructs that ensure harm will continue. We seek to build a society where children, families, and communities self-determine what well-being and safety mean for them and are supported with the resources to do so because they are no longer oppressed by a system that destroys their ties to families and communities.

How We endUP puts forth ideas about the abolition of family policing. Some of the ideas focus on reducing harm to parents, children, and families who are currently in the system, while others work to envision a world without family policing and its tools of surveillance, control, and separation. Importantly, while this document focuses specifically on the family policing system, we understand that the family policing system is just one part of the carceral web. From incarceration to borders to family policing, we oppose the surveillance and state-sanctioned separation of children from their families in all forms. We build on the work of reproductive justice, which centers bodily autonomy and asserts that parents should live in a society where they have power to make decisions about how and when they will parent and the ability to raise their families in conditions that are free of oppression.12 We also recognize that reparations are key to abolition; beyond necessary monetary payment, we believe that true reparations require the dismantling of the structures that produce harm—racial capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, White supremacy, patriarchy, ageism, adultism, and anti-Blackness. In other words, we seek to build a world where the care, support, and well-being of children, families, and communities is fully realized.

To be clear, abolition requires the complete elimination of the existing family policing system and a fundamental transformation of the ways in which society supports children, families, and communities. Doing so is a process that involves many people and an array of efforts and organizing. Abolition involves simultaneously dismantling the racist policies and structures 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, nor is it about ignoring child safety; it is about creating the conditions in society where the need for family policing is obsolete. Here are some ideas to help us get there.

Citations available here.