Zainab Akbar, Managing Attorney of NDS Harlem’s Family Defense Practice, testified before the New York State Assembly on the need to defund the Family Policing System and invest in community-led programs that truly help the most vulnerable families.
Read her testimony below
Thank you for centering impacted people today to speak the truth about the violence of this system. For too long, the legislative floor has belonged to the government agency that has terrorized low-income Black and Brown communities it claims to serve. I encourage this body and all other elected officials to prioritize the voices of the people who elected them and whom they’ve vowed to serve and to deprioritize the law enforcement agencies, which includes ACS and other so-called social services agencies. My name is Zainab Akbar and I’m the managing attorney of the Family Defense Practice at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem. In my testimony, I seek to provide background to this body about why we call the “child welfare” system the “family policing system.”
NDS and the other family defenders testifying today will not be using the term “child welfare system” in the course of our testimony, because that name deliberately obfuscates the system’s history and purpose. Instead, we’ll refer to it as the Family Policing System or the Family Regulation System. This system is racist to its core, in its origin and at its foundation. It is not a system that addresses the needs of children and families. It is instead a system that punishes, controls, surveils and forcibly separates low-income Black and brown families for no other reason than that they are low-income and Black and Brown.
The Family Policing System’s origins are in the separation of enslaved Black children and parents for the benefit of the white people who sought to profit from their labor. In the early 1800s the government-supported separation of indigenous children from their parents and institutionalizations that were meant to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” That policy continued to physically and culturally disappear thousands of indigenous children until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978, which – even if imperfect — put sovereignty over indigenous children back in their community’s hands. The system continued with “Orphan Trains” of the late 1800s and early 1900s, when The Children’s Aid Society, still in operation in New York City today, separated thousands of poor Italian and Irish immigrant children from their families, and sent them to the Midwest to work on farms. As assembly members probably know, Italians and Irish folk were not seen as white at that time in American history.
The poverty that these families experienced was framed as a personal failing instead of the structural issue it was. Family connections in impacted communities were considered inferior and therefore breaking those connections was considered to their, and more importantly, to society’s benefit.
The Family Regulation System we fight today is rooted in this history, but its funding did not explode until Republicans and Democrats alike slashed public assistance programs in the 1980s and 1990s. These cuts happened in response to Black families gaining access to social programs through civil rights struggles. The cuts were coupled with billions of dollars in new funding for foster care. The federal foster care budget stood at less than $500 million in 1981. By 2003, it was at $4.5 billion. Suddenly, the Family Policing System had new, more powerful hammers, so it went out looking for nails. Family Policing agencies targeted the Black community, where families had already been made particularly vulnerable by the racist War on Drugs and the cuts to public assistance.
The cuts to public programs and the surge in money to Family Policing agencies amounts to a two-pronged attack on Black families, staged over 40 years and justified by racist stereotypes about Black mothers. The racism behind the “Welfare Queen” trope is alive and well in 2021 – it is just dressed up as a “neglect” finding hurled at a working mother by so-called social services agencies as they abduct her children.
Research from all corners, from the Federal Children’s Bureau to the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges to numbers reported by ACS itself, demonstrates that Indigenous, Black, and Brown families are disproportionately represented in reports, investigations, and prosecutions by the Family Regulation System and that Indigenous, Black, and Brown children are disproportionately represented in the foster system. This is not the work of a few bad apples. These outcomes, demonstrated reliably and consistently across a variety of social research, are a result of white supremacy and structural racism, masquerading as social betterment. (https://www.ncjfcj.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/NCJFCJ-Disproportionality-TAB-2015_0.pdf )
Since I began doing this work a decade ago, I have seen this racism and abuse of power with my own eyes. White families are kept together by caseworkers and lawyers under circumstances in which Black and Brown families are separated. White parents are given a second chance by caseworkers and lawyers whereas Black and Brown parents are treated as irreparably and fundamentally flawed. Caseworkers use misinformation and the threat of family separation and police involvement to coerce vulnerable families to relinquish their constitutional rights. Hospitals work in concert with the system to target pregnant low-income Black and Brown parents to drug test them without consent, regardless of whether there are any actual child safety concerns, a legacy of the now-debunked racist “crack baby” myth. The Family Policicing system empowers the violence of greedy landlords, jilted lovers and vengeful family members by allowing anonymous reports to be filed, leaving families to pick up the pieces after the resulting intrusive investigations. All of these processes function as a broad “stop and frisk” dynamic that entangles low-income Black and Brown families into a system that has always torn them apart.
Many of us envision a world in which the government prioritizes support of low-income families of color instead of prioritizing surveillance and punishment. The funding structures that existed to support low-income families before the civil rights movement illustrate the vast possibilities of support for families. One small step towards that world, a world which is possible, is for this body to pass the legislation to affirm families’ rights and to hold the Family Policing System accountable for the violence it perpetrates.
The assembly must take concrete steps to improve outcomes for families. The legislature should vote to end anonymous reporting to the State Central Registry to protect families from individuals actions using the power of the state to harm families. The legislature should protect new parents and their babies by requiring informed consent before they are drug tested by hospitals. And the State must institute Miranda-like Rights for parents that brings transparency to the Family Policing System for families facing investigations, unaware of their gravity.
These steps are important, and we urge the Assembly to act on them now. But we also note that they amount to mitigation of the most damaging tolls the Family Policing System exacts from low-income Black and brown families. To truly reckon with this damage, we must defund the Family Policing System and invest in community-led programs that truly help the most vulnerable families.
Sam McCann, Communications Specialist, NDS
Phone: (212) 316-7399