BLM means BFM: The Foster System Hurts Black Families & We Must Include Black Mothers in the Fight for Justice

For Black lives to matter, Black families must matter. Black mothers must matter.

For Black lives to matter, Black families must matter. Black mothers must matter.

In 2018 I met an incarcerated mother who had been arrested, charged, and held on a $50,000 bond for child neglect, endangering the welfare of a child, and misdemeanor assault. She explained to me that she and her aunt got into an argument at her home, that items had been thrown and the police called. By the time the police arrived, the argument had ended. Both women attempted to explain to the officers that everything was okay and that no one had been injured, but instead of listening to the women, the officers entered the home and conducted a search.

What the officers found were two children sitting on a mattress that had been placed on the floor, garbage bags filled with clothes and other personal items, nearly bare cupboards and a scarcely filled refrigerator. What they did not find were weapons, drugs, or visibly injured or deprived children. But what happened next was a reality that many Black people living in marginalized communities know all too well: a mother was arrested – led out of her home in handcuffs in front of her two crying children. The nightmare for that mother did not end that night, not only was she arrested, the police called child protection services and the children were removed from their home, leaving the mother to wonder where her children were.  Ultimately, the decisions made by those officers led to a multi-year fight for not only the mother’s personal freedom but for the right to have her children back in her care and home.

This mother’s story is not unique. A call to the police for what can seem like a relatively minor offense can result in a myriad of things: death, injuries, arrests, multiple criminal charges, or the loss of a person’s children to child protection services. Racist policing and structural racism are being condemned across the country, but the travesties that are occurring to Black families, Black mothers in particular, are often excluded from conversations about Black lives. Which is why for Black Lives to matter, Black families must matter.

What the criminal legal system is to Black men, the foster system is to Black women.

Like the criminal legal system, the foster system disproportionately impacts Black families at an alarming rate. If you were to walk into any child protection courtroom in Cook County, Illinois you would see a majority of Black mothers inside. The image is explained by the horrifying fact that  70% of the children in foster care in Cook County are Black, while only making up 24% of the population, and statewide, Black children make up 44% of the foster care population while Black people only make up 14% of the overall population. These families are among the 11,000 who were cut off from visitations with their children for more than three months as the Department of Children and Family Services cited Coronavirus concerns – a policy that defied state and federal guidance issued for the pandemic.

When parents are thrust into the foster system, their rights to their children cease to matter and the bond with their children ignored. 

No longer can we afford to leave the foster system out of conversations about racist policing or juvenile legal system reform. Black families are surveilled and ultimately separated because of  racialized determinations made about their parenting or ability to do so. Instead what should actually be judged, are the economic divestments experienced by marginalized communities fueled by structural racism and bias – the very same things that led us to mass incarceration. This is not to say that children are never harmed because harm does happen, but harm, much like crime, does not occur in a vacuum or as a result of one issue, so therefore, the solutions are multi-faceted and complex. However, what is clear, the foster system is an expensive “solution” with troubling outcomes for all involved. What might it look like for parents to have the necessary tools for health, housing, and economic well-being instead?

For the mother I met in 2018, a bad situation turned into a life-changing event. The police were not required to make an arrest and they most certainly did not have any reason to call child protection services. The children were unharmed, not neglected or in any danger at home — facts that were quickly proven after they were examined at the local child advocacy center. The officers’ misguided judgement resulted in their long-lasting trauma.

The Floyd/Taylor uprisings have again brought us to another opportunity for long awaited for change that has again come at the expense of countless Black lives and families. Let’s envision and advocate for new approaches that center parents and their children and interrupt the larger web of conditions that permit the foster system to trap Black mothers, fathers, and children. In reimagining systems that have caused such irreparable harm, I see community as an anchor of support – a foundation for affordable housing options, access to food, jobs, and resources that create the outcomes we all want to see in our families, our communities, and our society.

Take action now to support economic and racial justice for Black families.

About the Author

Patrice James
Patrice James
Patrice James
Founding Director

Illinois Black Advocacy Initiative

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