Justice  /  Q&A

The “Benevolent Terror” of the Child Welfare System

The system's roots aren't in rescuing children, but in the policing of Black, Indigenous, and poor families.

NE: I want to take a step back. The current logic of what most folks know as the child welfare system is that keeping children safe requires removing them from their parents and placing them with alternative caregivers. There’s so much historical context bound up in that premise. Can you walk us through it? How did we end up with a child welfare system based on removal, surveillance, and separation?

DR: It’s simply a myth that the child welfare system has ever been about rescuing needy children from violent parents and putting them with more loving and caring caregivers. That has never been the purpose or design of the child welfare system. To understand why it operates in such a violent way today—in a way that relies absolutely on either the threat of taking children or removing children from the home—you must go back to its origins. From the beginning the child welfare system was designed to oppress politically marginalized and disenfranchised communities, mainly Black and Native communities. It has been a form of state disruption and control from its very origins and an avenue for private charities and later state agencies to deal with poverty in a punitive way.

To understand how we got here, we must go back to the enslavement of African people in the United States and the legal right of white enslavers to separate family members at will without any regard whatsoever for family relationships or any notion of a right to family autonomy. Under the slavery system, the white head of the plantation family had control over everyone and, if it was economically or otherwise convenient, he could sell off members of Black families. So at the very beginning of what became the United States, the forced separation of Black families planted the idea that Black parents are incapable of taking care of their children, that they should have no authority over their children, and that white people should be able to come in and take Black children away from their parents. The disparaging and discounting of Black family bonds facilitates that mentality and, even today, bolsters the child welfare system, which takes Black children away from their parents at higher rates than white children in the United States, and at astronomical rates in general.

The child welfare system is also built on the history of the U.S. military deploying child removal as a weapon of war to decimate Indigenous tribes. Dispossession of children occurred alongside dispossession of land. Family separation was and is a tool of war and subjugation. Those aspects of the child welfare system are usually ignored when its advocates discuss its origins. The system’s roots aren’t in rescuing children, but in forcibly taking children.