FIJ Quarterly - Summer 2022 Edition

Families, and Practitioners , authors from Blk Child Welfare, LLC write: “Organized child protection emerged in Colonial America in the 1700s. This early CWS was not intended for Black children and families, but provided support to white children who were impoverished, abandoned, and orphaned (Sampson, 2010). At that time, states were granted the authority to arbitrarily remove children from their families under the guise of protection (Sampson, 2010), a practice that still is relevant today. According to Cook (1995), the English Poor Law was used to formulate a placing-out system and recruit willing families through local newspapers to provide free room and board for the indigent, thereby reducing overcrowded orphanages. Concurrently, the institution of slavery promoted separating Black children from their families (Contreras, 2018). According to Smith (2021), "the splitting of families was not peripheral to the practice of slavery; it was central” (p. 15). By the 1800s, the intentional separation of Black families had become commonplace and was endorsed by local and state law; reunification was forbidden unless it served to benefit slaveowners (Anderson, 2016). Just as slavery served as a mechanism for social control of Black people (Peprah, 2021), so did the child welfare institution for Black children (Billingsley & Giovannoni, 1972).” 1 In New York City, the institution of child welfare for Black children—and all children of color—has a unique and complex history. New York City was the site of the first formally documented and adjudicated case of child abuse in America. In 1874, the case of Mary Ellen Wilson represented a radical challenge to the view that children were to be regarded as chattel or property of their owners to do with as they wished. 2 Less than a decade after the emancipation proclamation was signed, Mary Ellen Wilson, a white child, was recognized as having suffered in ways that would have been deeply and intimately familiar to the formerly enslaved African children and adults in America who lived at that same time. These ways were enumerated in Mary Ellen’s court hearing, including regular and severe beatings with rawhide, insufficient food, being forced to sleep on the floor, having no warm clothes

to wear in cold weather, and being forced to do heavy labor. 3 The epiphany that this treatment constituted abuse, an epiphany that was won, literally, kinetically, on the bodies of those kept in chattel slavery and who had after emancipation been recast as human beings, was clearly a profound frameshift, one that had been precipitated by the most radical reassessment of the issue of race in America: the Civil War. In New York City, however, for nearly another 100 years, communities of Black children were not recognized as requiring protection in the same ways that White children like Mary Ellen Wilson were. About 100 years after the first case of child abuse was brought to the courts, beginning in the 1970’s, legal challenges to the New York State child welfare system slowly unwound the de facto segregation which had restricted access to protective foster care and most residential care to only White children. Once again, as in the first adjudicated case of child abuse, this happened on the heels of landmark civil rights legislation. Less than a decade before these challenges were framed, civil rights legislation broadly addressing discrimination against Black communities in voting, housing, and other domains had been passed. Legal challenges to segregation within the child welfare system made the case that: “The referral of children to voluntary agencies by New York City's Special Services for Children ("SSC"),[8] and the placement of children by the agencies in specific programs, has resulted in racial segregation; that racial discrimination by the agencies has been facilitated by SSC's identification of children for placement by race and/or skin color, and by the agencies' unrestricted right to reject children placed with them by SSC under broad, subjective admissions criteria; that agencies are reimbursed by SSC ______________ 1 Cantey, Nia I.; Smith, Lamar W.; Sorrells, Shemeka Frazier; Kelly, Dianne; Jones, Candis; Burrus, Deborah, Navigating Racism in the Child Welfare System: The Impact on Black Children, Families, and Practitioners. Child Welfare. 2022, Vol. 100 Issue 2, p163-184. 2 Jalongo, M.R. The Story of Mary Ellen Wilson: Tracing the Origins of Child Protection in America. Early Childhood Educ J 34, 1–4 (2006). 3 Jalongo, 2006

48 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022

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