Systemic racism is a key driver of the so-called child welfare system, better understood as the family regulation system. This is a system in which thousands of mostly Black and Brown families are put under a microscope and threatened with separation, often based on reports that turn out to be baseless.
Parents, advocates, and academics have known this for decades. But a report obtained by the Bronx Defenders and recently published by the New York Times shows that even the employees who work in New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services agree.
The draft report was commissioned by ACS itself. It came against the backdrop of the 2020 George Floyd protests and it systematically engaged Black and Brown parents, advocates, and frontline ACS staff to identify opportunities for antiracist improvements within the agency. The report found that all three groups – parents, advocates, and staff – view ACS as a system that “actively destabilizes Black and Brown families and makes them feel unsafe.”
Study participants described family regulation in New York City as a “predatory system that specifically targets Black and Brown parents” and subjects them to a different level of scrutiny as compared to white parents. White parents are “presumed to be innocent”, they say, while Black and Brown parents are presumed incompetent and a risk to their children. Moreover, the report finds that ACS clearly links safety with class and penalizes poor parents for their struggle to provide food, housing, and resources for their children without offering pathways toward economic stability.
These revelations, while disturbing, do not surprise those who have experienced the family regulation system or studied its origins and effects. From the system’s inception, racism has been a feature, not a bug.
Forcible separation of Black families has deep roots in American slavery, which commodified and exploited enslaved Black women’s reproductive capacity as fuel for economic growth. This system depended on denying enslaved mothers custody of their children, who were considered property of the slaveholder. To justify this callousness, those in power developed narratives devaluing Black motherhood.
Similar stereotypes inspired the more modern “child welfare” system, which began to take shape in the 1850s. As east coast cities became crowded with Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants—who at the time were not considered white—a Protestant minister named Charles Loring Brace devised the concept of “Orphan Trains” to remove immigrant children from their “genetically inferior” parents.
Given this data and history, it is unsurprising that ACS staff describe their own work as racist and harmful to the very families they purport to protect.
When the government assumed responsibility for “child welfare” in the early 20th century, it continued to wield it against Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. State intervention in indigenous communities was so extensive that by the 1970s, up to two-thirds of indigenous children no longer lived with their families or in their own communities.
Black families were increasingly targeted for state intervention beginning in the 1960s, largely as backlash against their increased eligibility for public benefits. Society began to blame poor, Black, unmarried women with children for burdening the state, dubbing them the “undeserving poor.” As a result, Black and Brown parents were shut off from resources, blamed for raising children in poverty, and punished with permanent termination of their parental rights.
This is the framework in which ACS continues to operate today. Black families are seven times as likely as white families to be reported to the family regulation system and 13 times more likely to have their children removed. Ninety percent of the families ACS investigates are Black or Brown.
The majority of reports to ACS are also linked to poverty, with nearly two-thirds based solely on allegations of neglect. Although ACS does not track parents’ socio-economic data, nationwide, families living below the poverty line are 22 times more likely to be involved with the family regulation system.
Given this data and history, it is unsurprising that ACS staff describe their own work as racist and harmful to the very families they purport to protect. The recent scrutiny of ACS’ practices is welcome, but it shouldn’t just spark outrage; it should lead to tangible action. Lawmakers must reduce the number of Black and Brown families needlessly investigated, torn apart, and traumatized by the government.
One step lawmakers can take immediately is to pass a bill to require that ACS officials tell parents their rights during an initial interaction. Parents have the right to refuse to speak with ACS or let them into their home absent a court order, yet caseworkers routinely pressure parents into letting them search their homes, question and examine their children, and access sensitive personal information without ever going to court.
ACS as an agency opposes this legislation. But the internal report shows that members of ACS staff and leadership, along with parents and legal advocates, support the idea behind the bill. This is an urgent step to help level the playing field and enable parents to make informed decisions that best protect their families before ACS workers come bursting through their doors.
New York City and State should also ensure that parents have access to legal counsel during a child protective investigation. Currently, parents are only entitled to appointed counsel once a case has been filed against them in family court, after ACS has conducted its investigation, which often includes interrogating parents, children, teachers, doctors, and neighbors; examining their child’s body; reviewing sensitive medical information; searching their family’s home; and even removing their children.
Timely representation during the investigation is a proven way to keep families together, but the vast majority of parents investigated by the system cannot afford to hire their own lawyer if one is not provided by the state. New York should fund representation for all parents during the investigation stage to better support families and hold family regulation agencies accountable.
Lastly, state and local governments should examine how poverty is punished by the family regulation system. The ACS report details how the system “penalizes families for their economic conditions,” attributing blame to parents struggling to obtain stable housing, nutrition, or medical care and characterizing the challenges they face as “neglect.”
Instead of this punitive approach, the state should strengthen social safety nets—independent from family regulation agencies, surveillance, or mandates—to help families meet their basic needs like affordable housing, child care, and medical care.
City and state leaders must act swiftly to quell the trauma this system has inflicted across generations of families and support, rather than punish Black and Brown families.