Child protective and welfare service agencies are supposed to ensure the safety and security of children in loving and protective environments. However, for some Black family and child advocates and Black families these agencies are a wolf in sheep’s clothing and could more accurately be called “family policing services.”
Child Protective Services, the official name in many states, is the government agency that responds to reports of child neglect and abuse and is mandated to protect children, but their often reckless approach wreaks havoc on Black families daily. The story of former “American Idol” contestant Syesha Mercado and her partner Tyron Deener is a textbook case on the overreach and disturbing methods of some of these agencies, said the couple.
Manatee County Child Protective Services in Florida removed the couple’s son, Amen’Ra Sba, from their care on March 11 when he was just 13 months old, after the parents sought medical assistance for him.
Authorities allege Ms. Mercado failed to agree to have the child take a Vitamin B12 shot. The mother denies this. Their newborn daughter Ast was taken at gunpoint by Manatee County sheriff’s deputies from the couple’s car in August under the guise of a medical checkup, according to the parents. Authorities allege the parents did not inform them of her birth. Ms. Mercado captured the disturbing incident on video which garnered over three million views.
Black parents often reach out to hospitals, physicians, and other agencies for help with their children. Suddenly the tables are turned, the parents are accused of child mistreatment or endangerment and children are taken away.
“It’s just completely false to think that White people are going to come in and save Black children that is part of that same ideology that we can go back to slavery as the origins of this idea that White people need to save Black children from their families. It’s been false, not only false but in a racist White supremacist ideology that paints Black parents and families and communities as if they’re defective and harmful,” said Dr. Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and sociology.
In the same manner that the murder of George Floyd brought the spotlight on racism in policing, the sad story of Ms. Mercado and Mr. Deener is shining a light on the gross inequalities of a national child welfare system steeped in racism and the ongoing destruction of the Black family as its outcome.
Targeting Black families
It’s difficult to get families victimized by the system to go on record about their ordeals out of fear of retaliation, given the vindictiveness of the system. April McBride, a Philadelphia resident, was willing to discuss her ongoing fight with the city’s child welfare agency. Ms. McBride said her descent into hell began when her eight year old daughter was disciplined for acting out in school. She received a spanking which left marks. The school reported the alleged abuse, and the child was removed from the school by the agency and placed in the foster care system immediately.
“My daughter was kidnapped,” Ms. McBride declared.
This happened without the agency talking to her or discussing the situation, she said. The scenario is all too familiar.
Having the financial resources to hire a private attorney, Ms. McBride was able to have her daughter returned in a reasonable amount of time. However, she was indicted for child abuse, and her name placed on a state registry. Although she is still fighting this finding, she cannot work in many areas, which happens to thousands of people in the state.
According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, Black people comprise about 13 percent of the total United States population and 25 percent of youth in foster care. In Philadelphia, Black people are 42 percent of the population and 65 percent of the youth in foster care. The Philadelphia Department of Human Services is legendary for its removal of Black children from their homes.
In an interview with The Final Call, the agency acknowledged problems but said it was working to solve them. “Since 2016, DHS priority is to right size the system. For child welfare, this means reducing the number of children in placement with DHS, expanding prevention services, and reunifying families as soon as it is safe to do so. This effort has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of families receiving DHS formal child welfare services,” an agency representative told The Final Call.
“We continue to work toward ensuring that families receive the services that best fit their needs, and that children and youth only come into DHS care when there is an imminent safety threat that prevents the child or youth from remaining safely in their own homes.”
Earlier this year, the “Children and Youth Services Review” found a correlation between child protective services investigations and race. It determined that Black families are subject to more significant intrusion and strident judgment at every contact stage, including disproportionate reports to Child Protective Services, subsequent investigations, and child removal.
Over a decade ago, a study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found Black children more likely to be evaluated for abuse than White children with comparable injuries. It raised concerns some children are being subjected to unnecessary testing while other cases of abuse go undiagnosed. Black families and families with governmental insurance were more likely to come under scrutiny than White families and families with private insurance.
Black families have come to dread the horrible knock on the door, which can come at any hour, day or night with the announcement, “We have received a report that your child is a victim of abuse and neglect.”
The report can even come from anonymous reports.
What follows next is an intrusion like no other. Children are awakened and can be strip searched, asked to take off their clothes by total strangers looking for signs of physical abuse. Caseworkers can rifle through the home, turn on faucets and ask, “why there is no milk in the refrigerator?”
It manifests as a humiliating, punitive and overstepping system, particularly toward Black families. Child welfare advocates say it must change.
This terrible scene played out again recently in Los Angeles. According to news reports, Kayla Love and Khari Jones were thrilled about their daughter Fari Love Jones, born at home in June. The child came quickly, and paramedics were called. Fari was subsequently taken to LA County USC Medical Center.
The couple declined to let doctors draw the baby’s blood. The parents informed the hospital they would have the child’s medical care followed up by their personal physician. “We said no. We prefer our child to be seen by a private physician. I don’t want your services. Reserve the right to deny,” Ms. Love said. After returning home that evening, 10 to 15 police with guns drawn stormed their home with a child welfare social worker in tow, she said. Authorities claimed the parents left the hospital against medical advice, placing the newborn in danger.
“This is predatory. They are just going for people they feel can be a victim. They didn’t know who they were dealing with. We are not letting this slide,” Ms. Love said.
California state Sen. Sydney Kamlager angrily posted on Twitter: “A young Black couple just had a baby at home. LAPD showed up; guns were drawn on the father and his newborn baby!”
“They were criminalized for giving birth. I am sick of us not being seen as autonomous beings. SICK!!!” Sen. Kamlager wrote.
The hospital states it was merely following protocol. “When there are concerns about the health and welfare of a minor, our medical staff have obligations to report such matters to appropriate social welfare authorities so they can investigate the safety of the home environment,” a hospital statement said.
A history of tearing Black families apart
Child welfare and the Black family can be traced back to Reconstruction after the Civil War. “For a time, white Northern reformers became captivated by an idealized mission of civilizing ‘Freedom’s Children,’ the offspring of former slaves. In an echo of the Orphan Train concept, some Black children were sent north to live—and work for white families where they traveled hundreds of miles away from their families to fill the needs of northern employers for dishwashers and household servants,” noted the International Socialist Review.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health examined and tracked the rates of Child Protective Services involvement in the lives of half a million children born in 1999 in California.
“The number of Black children in the system continues to be staggering: Half of the Black children, as well as half of the Native American children, experienced a CPS investigation at some point during the first 18 years of their lives, compared to nearly a quarter of white children,” the report stated.
“One in eight Black children spent time in foster care—a rate three times as high as white children. Three percent of Black children experienced termination of parental rights, compared with 1 percent of white children.”
The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, in a message titled “Rebuilding the Family,” spoke on the intentional dismantling and targeted, systematic destruction of Black families.
“The great sin that has been committed against Black people, in particular, is the destruction of the Black male and the corruption of the Black female; the denial of our natural right to marriage and the raising of a family,” the Minister stated.
“The destruction of the Black family is a sin of huge proportion; therefore, the effort to rebuild this family must be aided by those who destroyed the family, and the responsibility of helping must be accepted by the generations that have benefited from the institutional slavery and the destruction of our families,” Min. Farrakhan continued.
Black family and child advocates are demanding agencies and systems be reformed, even reimagined. Advocates are advancing an agenda to transform the system’s approach to family safety, which they say is rooted in racist notions of non-White motherhood and plagued by institutional racism.
Joyce McMillian heads the Harlem-based group JMacForFamilies. In a detailed interview with The Final Call, Ms. McMillian reflected on the case of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio. Ma’Khia, 16, called police to her foster home because she felt threatened by older adults who were at the home. A physical altercation ensued and Ma’Khia, who had a knife, was shot and killed by a responding police officer. Ms. McMillian said she advocates for Ma’Khia’s mother, who has three other children still in foster care.
“Child welfare in America is an extension of the 13th Amendment, which allows a person convicted of a crime to be forced to work. It’s the only way to have slaves in this country. They are the same system where one is for children, and one is for adults. Children in foster care are preconditioned, kind of like a prerequisite to incarceration because the outcome for the majority of the children is a prison,” she explained.
“One study shows 90 percent of children in foster care will become involved in the juvenile justice system. It’s a foster care to penitentiary pipeline. The parallels are remarkable. Both are stripped searched; both are separated from everyone they know and love. Both have oversight during visits. They both change homes and cells regularly and use pillowcases and garbage bags to transport their stuff. When they are returned home, there is oversight, and the violation of the slightest infraction will land them back in foster care or prison. I am here to tell you any system that portends to protect children should not look like a system that punishes adults,” Ms. McMillian pointed out.
A punitive system
“You should protect children by keeping them home. These children are not taken for reasons related to a crime. These kids have been taken for reasons related to an opinion. We know that the root cause of out-of-home placement is economic hardship. Simply examine where these agencies are located. The simple answer is the money spent on foster care could be better utilized to strengthen the home. Why remove a child because the lights are out or no winter coat? I tell you; it is all because of design,” said Ms. McMillian.
Pamela Muhammad is a Houston-based attorney. She has represented many mothers trapped in the child welfare system.
“You have a punitive organization, and they’re surveilling Black women to the extent that they call it ‘the new Jane Crow,’ where because of poverty, you see people targeted. They’re saying these mothers are abusive, but often at best, it may be neglect caused by poverty,” Atty. Muhammad told The Final Call.
“Once in the system, the parents are confronted with two problems. They are made to jump through hoops, having to take different classes. It’s a moneymaking machine,” Atty. Muhammad said. “The children are appointed White attorneys called guardian ad litems who allegedly represent the best interest of the child and find every reason under the sun not to return the child to their family. So you have three attorneys involved. The parent’s attorney who is almost always court appointed and overwhelmed, the child’s attorney and the attorney for the state in an adversarial system that is wholly dysfunctional and has no interest in bringing families together,” she explained.
“It’s just all punitive. If you have one child in the system, they want to find a way to place your other child. Every obstacle is placed in the way for relatives to assume care of the family member. Suppose the family member has a negative encounter with the agency in the long ago past? In that case, they are prohibited from caring for the relative child. If the parent has an abuse charge against them, they cannot find work in certain areas. This inability to find work is held against them and cited as another reason the child should not be returned,” said Atty. Muhammad.
Dorothy Roberts, who also authored “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families,” said the system needs to be “blown up.”
“Child welfare is an arm of the U.S. carceral state that aims to destroy the Black community,” she said. “It is intimately connected to police and the regulation of Black families and to breaking them apart. You cannot fix what is designed to oppress Black people. The harm it does to Black children is tremendous. We have to abolish the system, and it should be replaced with community-based ways of caring for families and keeping children safe,” she added.
“What is needed is radical transformative thinking where we abolish this brutal intrusion into Black families and create and build and strengthen the ways that Black people have always cared for children,” Dr. Roberts argued.
Many mothers who have been victimized by Child Protective Services have felt isolated due to many factors.
The African National Women’s Organization has stepped forward to fill this dark hole through their “#Arrest CPS campaign.”
Yejide Orunmila, president of the organization, told The Final Call something needed to happen to give voice to the many working class Black women who have felt the cold hand of CPS agencies around the country.
“Our campaign is meant to expose Child Protective Services as an agency that facilitates state-sponsored kidnapping of Black children, in particular,” she said. The campaign organizes parents who have been impacted or victimized by CPS to advocate on their own behalf, she explained.
Based in Maryland, ANWO organizes nationally around the CPS issue and is one of the few to advocate for victims of the system.
Ms. Orunmila shared how last month the group organized a “National Day of Action” with protests in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Sanford, Fla.; Wilmington, Del.; Washington, D.C.; Portland; Philadelphia; San Diego; Pittsburgh and St. Louis “exposing the parasitic nature of the foster care system and the devastating role it plays in the lives of Black families.”
Ms. Orunmila noted that her organization has been advocating for parents and families since 2017, when several women in Philadelphia who didn’t have anybody to help them in their desperate attempt to have their children returned came to their attention.
“The system is disgusting, and it requires more than us. It requires a whole movement. That’s going to bring it to task.
“In attacking these issues, ANWO works with building action committees, advocating for adequate legal representation and community support. The organization also publishes a pamphlet on guidelines to follow if investigated by CPS entitled ‘Know Your Rights,’ ” Ms. Orunmila said.
For more information on ANWO visit anwouhuru.org. Other resources include the Philadelphia-based Families Are Important to Heal (F.A.I.T.H.). This group can be found on Facebook under Faith Advocacy (Movement). Or visit officialbiggadre.hearnow.com.