Have You Ever Feared the State Will Take Your Children?

carlisle indian industrial school

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, circa 1900.

Are you a parent? Have you ever feared that the state will take your children from you? How often do you have this fear? The answer might depend on your racial identity and how much money you make, not your parenting skills.

In the New York Times, Emma Ketteringham draws attention to the under-discussed class and race dynamics of child removal:

There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.

The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.

In that framework, the answer is not affordable housing or transportation, meaningful employment, health care or access to healthy foods, as it should be. Why is the focus always on removing children to foster care and imposing parenting classes? This never-ending cycle traps generations of low-income families in a punitive system of state surveillance and foster care. Worse, it makes parents fear contacting child services when they need help caring for their children.

“Neglect” cases are often not what they look like on paper. Our clients are trying to raise their kids under tremendous economic and psychological pressures. Often they have faced significant challenges, like homelessness or incarceration. They love their children and cherish their identity as parents. But in court, they face the loss of what is most precious to them: their children.

Ketteringham is writing specifically about New York City’s system but I’m guessing her critique is more broadly applicable. I don’t know much about the foster care system but I hope you’ll indulge a few anecdotal thoughts from my own experiences in church, community, and foster care in recent years.

Alicia and I have known Christians who are fostering, Christians who are trying to get their kids back from the foster care system, and Christians who lost their kids, got them back, and are now on the other side of that awful ordeal. We also know parents who have never had their kids taken from them, but for whom the threat of it is daily background noise.

It came as a great shock to me when I realized that parents I respect live in fear of their kids being taken from them. What made it more surreal was the realization that this is normal for them. “Be careful, the state might take your kids,” is not an unimaginable foreboding; it’s a present possibility. I have lived my life as a parent without this possibility on my horizon. And it’s not because I’m a great parent.

Beyond anecdote, something I do know a little more about is the long history of child removal among Native American children as part of the United States’ settler colonial policies of cultural genocide. See Margaret Jacobs’ great book.

Most of us want to live in a society that seeks to protect children, even to the point of involuntary removal. Yet we must be aware of the dreadful history—and present—of unjust removal. When Alicia and I became foster parents, it didn’t feel heroic. It felt more like we were implicating ourselves in something messy and morally gray. We would do our best to care for a child, but we wouldn’t know—couldn’t know—whether that child should even be with us.

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