Framing the Discussion

If the goal of this race equity initiative was to develop culturally responsive and targeted approaches and practices that advanced equitable legal outcomes for families, it meant that we were not going to shy away from hard conversations about bias and racism in the child welfare/family regulation system.  Yet to have such conversations and to learn and advance such practices, we found the following concepts and understanding foundational. 

1) Intentionally and thoughtfully considering the stories, words, ideas, critiques, and directive of the those with lived experiences in the child welfare/ family regulation system

2) Exploring child welfare history as it related to race, and opposition to Native American sovereignty to understand the overrepresentation, racism, and bias in reporting, investigating, separating families, and terminating rights between children and parents of Black, Brown, and Native communities

3)  Recognizing the value of interdisciplinary teams in both parental and child law representation.  These teams can include social work staff, parent advocates, peer advocates, mental-health professionals, and attorneys. 

Creating a solid base of knowledge and skills about these three principles is fundamental to developing a deep and meaningful understanding of why it is important to consistently practice in an anti-racist manner.   

The Importance of Narratives-Hear and Learn directly from Parents and Children who have been Impacted by the Child Welfare System

As lawyers and members of multi-disciplinary legal teams, what can we learn, if anything, from the clients (children and parents) we represent? Can clients contribute more than the facts of their cases? Do they trust us enough to share all the “key’ facts and issues, or is there a chance that when they do share such information, they are “cut off”, or feel like their voice is not fully respected because of their age, social and financial status, gender, race, ethnicity, English language acumen, educational attainments and/or the circumstance they happen to be in- child welfare involved?

“Nothing about us without us.” Period. In developing this initiative we took this saying seriously. The strategies were developed by lawyers but with ongoing work, guidance, and a review of the material by those with lived experience*, aka foster care alumni. Why? Because anything less would have been an intellectual exercise in telling the reader what we as legal practitioners think is “best.” We believe that these alumni possess an expertise that is not available anywhere else. They bring their perspective of the good, the bad, the ugly- and concrete ideas to improve the system. As we interviewed former foster youth, and parents and relatives that had children in the child welfare system, as well as legal organizations doing this work- certain themes were striking and reoccurring, most narratives were sobering and thought provoking, sometimes heart breaking but always illuminating. And that’s the point. Read the narratives, pause and then develop legal strategies and approaches based upon clients’ insights. Many habits and practices in and out of the courtroom that practitioners take as normal and “the way we always do things” is the reason we must pause- then move differently to achieve a more equitable dependency practice.

The Importance of Historical Context

This section provides a historical narrative and timeline on the intersection of race and child welfare, with data and statistics that demonstrate the overrepresentation, racism and bias in reporting, investigating, separating families and terminating rights between children and parents of Black, Brown, and Native communities.  

Sketch of a slave auction. (Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture)

“But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.”

Barbaric’: America’s cruel history of separating children from their parents, (quote taken from a 1849 narrative, Henry Bibb, a former enslaved person in an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, which documents the tragic U.S. history of enslaved children being separated from their enslaved parents).

Racism in America is deeply rooted and extremely tangled in every facet of society, including our legal systems. In June 2020, the public murder of George Floyd by a police officer ignited national outrage and a renewed call to action to stand up to systemic racism committed under authority of law against Black Americans.[1] George Floyd’s murder was a racially transformative moment that spurred Americans from all walks of life not only to reflect on racialized policing, but also to engage in hard conversations about the racial oppression that Black people in America experience every day. This is true in the child welfare system just as much as the criminal justice system.

This section seeks to ground these numbers in a historical understanding of how legally sanctioned oversurveillance and underinvestment in the lives of Black families have led to and continue to impact decisions to separate Black children from their parents as well as decisions about what happens once a child has been removed. Examining and acknowledging America’s history of anti-Black racism and how it has impacted families since times of slavery and into the modern-day is a necessary step for charting a future path in child welfare that seeks to avoid repeating past errors. With a better understanding of our collective history of under-investment in Black families and over-surveilling Black communities, we can more deeply appreciate what child welfare experiences today mean for Black children and parents and can begin to ensure any system designed to meet family needs is grounded in listening and understanding those needs to tailor services to what is being asked rather than designing services based on what others want to offer.

Please note, we will continue to update and incorporate and add other historical perspectives connected to Brown and Native communities shortly.

A more detailed history of child welfare laws and practices is included in the link below.

The Value of An Multidisciplinary Team

An interdisciplinary team approach to representing children in child welfare cases results in quicker resolution of more cases and better family preservation than a non-interdisciplinary approach.

To address these complex needs and improve outcomes for children and families, FJI recommends attorneys have access to an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary model of representation when possible. Social work staff such as Parent Advocates, trained professionals who have experienced being investigated for maltreatment, being prosecuted in family court, losing their children to foster care, can help guide clients through complicated municipal bureaucracies, make referrals to service providers, and advocate for parents at family conferences.

A major research study by NYU School of Law and Action Research, funded by the Casey Family Foundation, confirmed, “when children’s parents received the interdisciplinary representation and those children did enter foster care, children spent 118 fewer days on average in foster care during the four years following the abuse or neglect case filing. Subsequent competing risk models show that children whose parents received the interdisciplinary law office model achieved overall permanency, reunification, and guardianship more quickly.”