By Julia Arroyo, YWFC Managing Director for National Foster Care Month
I was three years old when I was first criminalized. I was removed from my family, my caretakers, and placed in foster care–becoming a data point in the child welfare system. From then on, I was “adultified” and treated like a perpetrator to be punished, not a child to be nurtured. It was a revolving door of foster homes, group homes, courtrooms, and juvenile halls. At sixteen, I was handcuffed at school and sent to juvenile detention because there was nowhere else for the system to put me.
My experience is sadly common for Black and brown, low-income, trans, and gender non-conforming youth. While Black children are one-fifth of the total child population, they account for one-half of those in foster care–mirroring the reality that Black people are grossly overrepresented among the 2.2 million people who are incarcerated. Detention in lieu of home placement is something many system-involved young people experience. Ida McCray, founder of Families with a Future, says the connection between child welfare and “tough on crime” sentencing laws “is the greatest separation of families since slavery.”
The ongoing horror of police killing Black people and the epidemic of mass incarceration are forging a new public consensus that we need a restorative approach to community safety.
The harm perpetrated by the child welfare system must be part of that conversation.
A recent report by the Young Women’s Freedom Center shows 75 percent of the formerly incarcerated young people surveyed were involved in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems; 49 percent had been in foster care. The report shows, it is “difficult to disentangle each system’s jurisdiction over their lives” and that being placed in foster care and group homes can be just as punitive as experiencing arrest and incarceration–and perhaps even more damaging and dangerous.
Children in foster care are more likely to be neglected, abused, and traumatized. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, children in foster care are four times more likely to be sexually abused and children in group homes are 28 times more likely to be abused. Research conducted in Oregon and Washington found that one-third of foster children reported abuse by a foster parent or another adult in the home.
The assumption that children must be taken into foster care because we have “bad” parents is a false one. The trauma of losing one’s child to the system is a predictor of incarceration. Child Protective Services, and the court interventions that follow are invasive and come with demands entwined with other systemic failures for families: around housing (in a housing crisis), time consuming and expensive courses (from those working two or more jobs), drug testing (even when no substance abuse has been alleged) and strict visitation requirements. It explains why 90 percent of mothers are incarcerated after, not before, their children were taken from them, according to the Vera Institute.
As the country examines the structural and state violence that Black people, people of color, and people from low income communities experience, we must prioritize the self-determined needs of children who are impacted by the child welfare system and pushed into the foster care to prison pipeline. We do this by transforming outdated systems that exist only to punish, regulate, surveil and criminalize families, especially families of color, just because they are experiencing poverty.
That is why we are calling on state and local counties to protect children, restore families, and radically transform California’s Child Welfare System.
It’s time to listen to survivors of this system, return us to our families, and release the state’s grip on our communities.