Racism in Child Welfare: An Elie Hirschfeld Symposium

Elie Hirschfeld
Apr 16 · 3 min read

Originally published here: https://eliehirschfeldphilanthropy.quora.com/Racism-in-Child-Welfare-An-Elie-Hirschfeld-Symposium

Earlier this year, the inaugural Elie Hirschfeld Symposium on children’s welfare brought was hosted by NYU. Co-sponsored by NYU’s Family Defense Clinic and the Review of Law and Social Change, the event brought together distinguished panelists — leading experts on family law, public interest, and race — for conversation around the issue of racial injustice in the children’s welfare system.

Panelists ultimately issued a harsh critique of the current child welfare system, and calling for its abolition, rather than reform. Moderated by Chris Gottleib, discussion argued that the very foundation of the system’s design is based in injustice towards children and their families.

Panelists included Professors Khiara Bridges, associate dean for Equity, Justice, and Engagement at Boston University School of Law and author of Reproducing Race; Dorothy Roberts, University of Pennsylvania’s Founding Director of the Program on Race, Science, and Society; and Peggy Cooper Davis of NYU Law, former judge of the Family Court of the State of New York.

“You can’t explain mass incarceration, the explosion of foster care, and the welfare system without seeing how racism fueled all of these and how they have led to these disproportionate numbers of black people in the system,” Roberts said.

In order to change the way that black and brown children and families are treated in the child welfare system, Davis called for legislation that more definitively protects constitutional human rights. “There is no explicit [constitutional] right of political representation, or education, or public accommodation, or bodily integrity, or family, or personal integrity,” she noted. “There is no explicit right of equal protection.” The 14th Amendment, which was supposed to ensure equality for minority groups, is too vague and fails to be implemented in state-level institutions such as the child welfare system.

The current child welfare system is based on a view of poverty as an ethical shortcoming, said Bridges, asserting that the system fails to acknowledge the systemic structures of poverty that impact black and brown communities. “This moral construction of poverty is based on the idea that people are poor because something is wrong with them,” said Bridges. This perspective creates a child welfare system focused on addressing what it sees as moral failings through chaotic and emotionally tumultuous family separations, Bridges said. The result can impact entire communities, which are overwhelmingly poor and black.

Additionally, welfare agencies are now using predictive analytics — based on data sets of past offenders — to determine the likelihood that a person will commit certain crimes, including child abuse. The results of these analytics determine which referrals require investigation. But the data sets are drawn from deeply racist data, says Roberts. Current structural inequality and human biases are built into these predictions.

Davis compared the children’s welfare system as we know it to a type of colonialism:

“You have an entity, a child welfare system, that assumes authority over and supervises and alters the terms of life in a community and in families that had thought of themselves as autonomous, and it does so… With a presumption of cultural and informational, if not biological, supremacy.”

Thus, panelists agreed, the first stem must not be reform, but the abolishing of the current system.

Dorothy Roberts concluded:

“The system itself was designed to be unjust, to control and police and punish and marginalize whole groups of people, and therefore, it’s not enough to reform it. What you have to do is abolish it in the sense that the entire philosophy of it, the entire structure, needs to end, and something different, something radically different needs to take its place.”

Elie Hirschfeld

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