FIJ Quarterly - Summer 2022 Edition

for children who apply directly to the agency rather than being referred by a City placement office; and that some agencies have listed vacancies by race. As a result of the racial discrimination alleged, plaintiffs argue, black children wait longer for placement, are more often inappropriately placed, and are disproportionately placed with agencies or in programs of inferior quality.” 4 Desegregation of the child welfare system made participation in it available to all children in New York City. Ironically, or tragically perhaps quite predictably, the profound frameshift that challenged the role of race in the child welfare system did not ultimately advantage Black communities and communities of color. In fact, the result was to make it possible for the child welfare system to be used to accomplish what civil rights legislation had made impossible, or at least more difficult to accomplish. Desegregation made the use of the child welfare system available to accomplish other broad, social purposes far removed from the intervention in matters of safety and risk in the relationships between parents and their children, purposes hauntingly familiar to Black and Brown communities since before the emancipation proclamation. These included unrelenting surveillance, the demand to conform to particular behavioral expectations in intimate family relationships, and the pall of potential family separation and legal termination of parental rights, each of which, separately and together, had been cast over the Black family for the centuries preceding and after the emancipation proclamation. With the desegregation of the child welfare system, the makeup of the child welfare system in New York City shifted: it became and is today a system almost entirely devoted to the management of the Black and Brown families in largely residentially segregated communities, wielding behavioral surveillance, family separation, and the potential for the permanent termination of parental rights as its most awesome powers. Consistent with historical strategies for social, economic, and political control of Black and Brown communities employed from the founding of our nation to the present day, child welfare in our reading must be recognized as a fraught location in which there has been a failure to acknowledge a clear heritage and kinship with

other historical and current strategies for the economically and politically dominant culture’s management and control of Black and Brown bodies and Black and Brown souls. What child welfare interventions succeed in doing in Black and Brown communities is, arguably, not create safety but rather create an impression that individual actors are culpable, that they are mentally unwell or unfit, that they do not know how to parent or to be loving or nurturing, that they are violent and negligent, and that they require psychological counseling and behavioral intervention in order to improve. Remarkably, the origins of community trauma, though comprehensible and historically recent, remain unnamed and unrecognized. The cynical elegance of such a system, and what makes it perhaps more indecipherable and illegible than, for example, the criminal justice system, is that it presents itself as a compassionate system that is uncovering harm and protecting particular individuals from their own uncontrolled viciousness, and not just any viciousness but the basest viciousness that would motivate a parent to harm a child. The system guides individuals whom the system itself has determined have caused harm through a therapeutic process where family members will be encouraged to come to terms with their own acts of cruelty or negligence and will have the opportunity to reform. It offers the children who have experienced what is characterized as parentally caused harm the opportunity to reengage with enlightened parents who have accepted the proofs of their inadequacies, have unlearned violent or neglectful behavior, and have learned new ways to respond to their conditions, however unjust their community conditions may be. The impression that this is a virtuous system that protects individual vicious actors against their most base impulses diverts attention from the widely shared social agreements that employ child welfare as a tool of the most profound control in particular communities. Child welfare in New York City did not protect Black children after child abuse was identified as a condition in Mary Ellen Wilson’s landmark case, nor has it, on the whole, meaningfully protected children in Black and Brown communities since ______________ 4 Wilder v. Bernstein, 645 F. Supp. 1292 (S.D.N.Y. 1986)

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