child welfare

When the State Takes Aim at Families

This is an essay. It is only an essay. If it was an actual research article, it would contain facts and citations. Instead, it consists solely of my observations and thoughts about how and why people make the assumptions that drive destructive and violent child welfare policies.

A few weeks ago, I read this piece in the New Yorker about what happens when family court judges decide to remove children from families. The author concluded that even when done for the right reasons, removing children from families constitutes one of the highest forms of state violence against people. To date, this is one of the most disturbing articles I’ve ever read.

Thinking about the violence of removing children from families brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the surface. I couldn’t stop thinking about how assumptions about people perpetuate the violence of state-sponsored systems of all kinds, but particularly those that involve children. The people who make those assumptions and use them to direct state violence towards certain families are those we might expect: white, elite. Yet because child welfare professionals tend to be women, they become female agents of state violence, the iron fists in velvet gloves.

Adopted and foster-care kids (and adults) are two sides of the same coin, both products of assumptions about certain types of families and parents. In both cases, the state uses its power to legally destroy a family. In adoption, we assume that birth parents happily and willingly place themselves in the path of state violence. In cases of when the state forcibly removes children from parents, we’re assuming that what we see as the unseemly behavior of parents justifies state intervention and removal.

(Caveat: sometimes children face horrifying things in their own homes. Sometimes no other option but removal exists. Nevertheless, how many parents have had children removed for seemingly inconsequential reasons?)

We now talk about adoption in happy and positive language about that celebrates how mothers “make selfless and brave choices to make an adoption plan and give children a better life.” We feel good about this assumption because it hides our complicity in the necessary violence and market realities involved in adoption transactions. We discuss the forced removal of children from parents in the language of saving children from terrible outcomes. We talk about destroying families in the sanitary and neutral language of “removal.”

How much of the state violence we direct towards families comes from flawed assumptions that certain types of parents, particularly poor parents, can’t possibly be good parents? We do not trust them or believe in them as parents. Our assumptions about poor parents lead us to believe we are using state violence for a higher and more noble purpose, regardless of the level of violence involved or its consequences.

Confronting the ways that we personally help create the ideas that fuel the day to day machinery of the violence of child welfare policy feels incredibly uncomfortable. No one wants to feel complicit in participating in systems that oppress people and hurt children. Nevertheless, when we assume certain things about other people, we’re building new machines designed for violence. It has been my theory for quite some time that deep, deep down, people know that removing children from families is morally wrong. Because we know this (even if we won’t admit it), we have to go to extremes to convince ourselves that we use state violence for the noble purpose of saving children from their families.

 Our assumptions about people and families help shape our understandings of what passes for the right kinds of families. On the flip side, we also shape ideas about which families aren’t appropriate for children. Social workers actually use language that classifies parents as “appropriate” or not. Together, teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and others define the boundaries for acceptable and proper families, according to hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality, and able bodies.

Many people don’t ever have to think about whether they have a family that conforms to certain ideas about what passes as an appropriate family, the privilege of having a family that will probably never be targeted for state violence. What we think of as appropriate and inappropriate families for kids is, of course, historically and socially constructed. It changes over time.  In times past, only white, married, heterosexual, middle-class families were the right kinds of families. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, people believed that white single mothers were absolutely inappropriate as parents. The Moynihan report of 1965 depicted poor single black mothers as a product of a peculiar pathology inherent in African-American communities and the 1980s hysteria over the fate of “crack babies.” On the other hand, we’re increasingly more open to the idea of LBGTQ parents and families that buck the extreme conformity of decades past.

Adopted and foster kids, on the other hand, are the negative images of social beliefs about appropriate familiesThe original families of adopted and fostered kids represent a wide spectrum of family structures: female-headed households, single mothers, poor mothers, mothers of color, young mothers, parents with criminal convictions, families that live in poverty, families in which the father is raising the kids, families in which parents are in jail, and homeless families, just to name a few.

The families that we define as inappropriate for children now become targets for state violence.  Our assumptions about them show us precisely where to aim the terrible power of the state.

Once marked for state violence, two things may happen: if the family is white and the mom is still pregnant, we direct combined state and private violence towards her in the form of coercive adoption marketing that informs her that she’s not good enough to be a mother. If the family is of color and/or lives in poverty and the kids are older, we direct state violence towards the family in the form of coercive practices that involve child protective services and case workers and safety plans and family courts and summonses for child abuse and supervised visitation and foster care placements. We insist that poor families cannot have their children back until they conform to middle-class norms of proper social behavior despite the fact they have no resources to do so. We require that they jump through hoops of different shapes and sizes to appease the people with the power to return children.

We use state violence to destroy inappropriate families and remake them into the image of families we find acceptable. Our assumptions about what constitutes proper families become evident in the market costs to adopted children and those in foster care. The market value of adopted children creates Domestic adoption of white newborn babies (with a preference for white girls over white boys) still costs the most, as those kids are still a hot commodity, fetching thousands of dollars and inspiring weird crowdfunding efforts. Depending on the sending country, international adoption costs around $30,000. Black babies, on the other hand, come at discounted prices. Foster kids, most of whom are older kids and kids of color, come cheapest of all. Sometimes it costs nothing to adopt foster kids.

Despite our best efforts to direct state violence only where we deem necessary, outcomes for adopted and fostered kids are pretty dismal. Even in what are often considered poor families or bad families, children seem more traumatized by removal policies than by their family situations.

 Nevertheless, the logic of the state and social control mandates the use of state violence to control people, regardless of how poor the long-term outcome on people and families.

How can we, as individuals and communities, move people and families out of the path of state violence?