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© US National Archives


Poverty Framed As Neglect

by Joyce McMillan
August 12, 2020

This interview with Joyce McMillan, former director of programming for the Child Welfare Organizing Project, was conducted and condensed by franknews

frank | How did you get involved in the child welfare system? 

Joyce | I was impacted by child welfare 21 years ago, and the experience was so horrific that here I am, this many years later, doing the work to make the changes. What I learned between then and now, is that once you are impacted by these systems, you are stuck. Recidivism happens, and it is no fault of your own. 

What does that system look like? How does that recidivism operate?

The system looks like abuse, trauma, disrespect, injustice, and profiling. 

The majority of people who come under the surveillance of the administration for the services here in New York because either shelters or school systems make a call to the ACS [New York City Administration for Children's Services]. You have to understand, even though this is not in the news, the Administration for Children's Services in New York has contracts with hospitals, and they have contracts with schools. The ACS will make schools aware when you have a prior case. That creates an environment where they are more susceptible to find you suspicious of anything. Shelters also make calls. I was living in a shelter 20 something years ago, and although my shelter, in particular, did not make those calls, the school system was aware that I was in a shelter.

Do you remember the Bloomberg stop-and-frisk? Everyone rallied around it as a policy that was going to get guns and drugs off of the streets. That didn't happen. What did happen is that people who fit a certain description were stopped, searched, fingerprinted, photographed, and thrown in jail. These people would have never come under the surveillance of the police if had there not been that stop-and-frisk model. It created a profile of people who should and would be stopped. Stop-and-frisk reinforced and strengthened racist practices - it did not reduce crime. Similarly, mandated reporting does not keep children safe, it profiles the parents.

Once the school system or the shelter system or any other system becomes aware of your history with ACS, then anything you do is suspect. One, because that's just how it is for people of color. And secondly, because there's a threat upon people who are mandated reporters. If you see something and you don't report it, you can lose your license and can be held responsible on a criminal level. And because the mandated reporting training is very vague, people often are not sure what they should and should not report. So they report everything, which brings more families under the surveillance of the family police. Anything that looks different than what they are used to or what they would do, becomes something to report.

Right now, you have these child welfare agents holding news conferences and talking about how the lack of children in school right now leads to low reporting and a lack of oversight by mandated reporters. They say that puts children in danger. 

That's a racist ideology to me. Look at who you are saying needs to be surveilled in order to be safe. 

And safety is not the issue for the separation in the first place, it is poverty framed as neglect.

Can you talk more about the role poverty plays?  

Most children, about 85% of children, are in the system for reasons related to poverty that is then framed as neglect. 

The family is lacking something, whether they're lacking a babysitter, childcare, food, or copays for medicine. To take a child out of the home because the family doesn't have enough food is just plain insanity to me, especially when you're going to pay how much to the foster family to take care of the child while traumatizing the child? The idea of protection is a falsehood. We are actually inflicting more harm than help on the child. Alienating a child from family because they are poor is just unnecessary trauma that this child and parent and family will forever live with.

What sort of situations have you seen that exemplify how poor people are targeted? 

I am working currently with a parent whose child was removed because she picked the child up from school consistently late every single day. And she did admit to me that it was every single day, and she did say it was consistent and was on average between 15 minutes to a half-hour. But that was because mom was working two jobs and really dependent on how transportation was running that day. And even with the two jobs, she could not afford to pay someone to pick up the child.

Ultimately she was left with the choice of not paying rent and feeding her children or continuing to pick the child up late. The school called ACS, and the repercussion was that ultimately the family was separated because ACS came to the school and mom wasn't there. She was charged with child abandonment. She “abandoned” the child at the school because she had not picked her child up at the scheduled time, and because this had happened over a course of a period of time. And so these are the stupid things that ACS does, right. Plain fucking stupid.

So now what? What happens after her kids are taken from her? 

Because she didn't know her rights, ACS asked her to take a drug test and she tested positive for marijuana, and so now she's completing her second drug treatment program. The children have been in foster care now for over two years and there's no end in sight because she's under ACS's surveillance. Meaning that now they are continuing to investigate and investigate her. They are following this lead and following that lead - everything becomes a problem. My mom used to say, “you turn a molehill into a mountain,” and that is exactly what happens with ACS. 

They align themselves with police tactics when they should be aligning themselves more closely to social work work tactics.

They call themselves child protection services, but, to be honest, the only thing I see them protecting children from is success. You don't have to take my word for it. Look at the outcomes.

What is the relationship like between parents and their children once they're separated? What's the contact level? 

They do everything possible to break the bond of the family. When a child is removed, they are not just separated from their parents, they're separated from their siblings, their aunts, their uncles, their cousins, their neighbors, their godparents, anyone, and everything that they have been familiar with. 

Every sensory detail in their body is touched by the removal and the placement into the new home. They may play different music. Ears. The sounds are different. Ears. What they see around them is different, including the colors that can often set one's mood.  Eyes. The smells, the type of food that's cooking, the seasoning that is being used is different. Nose. Every sense is touched. Including the material of the chairs, couch, and bed sheet. Touch. It's very traumatic. 

Families see their children once a week for two hours. And if you do the math on that for any idiot who thinks that would suffice, that's only four days out of the year. The math says two times 52 divided by 24 is four. How do you maintain a bond? How do you create a bond?

Are those visits supervised?

They are supervised much like the prison system. It's the same system. Someone once called it the fraternal twin. And it is. 

They both strip-search. They strip-search children under the guise of checking for marks and bruises, even though they are in the system for reasons related to neglect poverty. They're both separated from everything they know and love. They both change homes or cells regularly. They both use garbage bags or pillowcases to change their location. They both have set visit times on set visit days. They both have oversight during a visiting period. They both eat what it is they are served. They both have “responsibility” to admit on some level wrongdoing if you want to ever become unentangled. So any system built to actually protect children should in no way mimic, a system that tortures adults. It just makes no sense from the foundation.

When we look at the outcomes, it proves that these systems make no sense because the prison system does not rehabilitate, and the foster care system does not keep children safe. 

What the foster care system does is pipeline children from foster care into prison. Because you're more likely to be drug-addicted if you are in the foster system. Where are drugs going to lead you? Incarceration. You're more likely to be homeless if you are in the foster system. Where is homelessness going to lead you to? Incarceration. You're less likely to get a high school diploma. Where is a lack of education going to lead you? Imprisonment. Everything leads to imprisonment. They're saying that they are taking these children to protect them, but if you look at the outcomes, over 50% end up incarcerated. 

We talked to somebody recently about how law serves to regulate morality, and how there's a lot of people who can't afford to play by the rules that are set. How do you see this play out within this system of people being punished and their poverty is being interpreted as neglect...

Poverty is not being interpreted as neglect, it is a purposeful entanglement of the two. They are taking the two and acting as if they don't understand the difference. That's not an accident, it is purposeful. 

If you get a bunch of white men, Yale-educated, Harvard-educated, Cornell-educated, I'm sure they understand the difference between poverty and neglect, right? Especially since America has designed the failure of communities of color through district lines, redlining, and 60 cents on a dollar in employment fields. These work together to create the outcomes that we see now. They are not by accident. Let's not use language that would insinuate the possibility, because there's not even a possibility that this is by accident. This is called systemic racism.

Should the pressure to defund police systems and defund the prison system be tied to the push to defund the child-welfare system? 

Absolutely. We should not be funding any system that's creating poor outcomes. 

They tell children, you better behave. You better do your homework. You better this, you better that, because if you don't, they're building a prison for you, right? If you can't read at a certain level, by a certain age, there is a projection that is being done. They're using predictive analytics to make the assumption that that child will then be incarcerated by a certain time in their life, and they're building a prison for them. 

Do you not think when they put a child in foster care that they're not utilizing that same system to make the projections based on the outcomes that they've already seen through their process? So that means there's an awareness.

And if we know that children who can't read on grade level by sixth grade are more likely to be incarcerated, why are we building a prison instead of a reading program? Because the goal is to incarcerate.

It’s shocking that these very petty, petty things can have such intense and painful consequences. 

White America’s punishment of Black people has been very petty, since the time that we were supposed to be free from slavery. They were angry that we were technically no longer slaves, so they wrote into the constitution that we would be slaves if we were incarcerated. That created these petty crimes to incarcerate us and maintain a mass amount of slaves in this country, which is why there is no longer just incarceration, there is mass incarceration. 

They prepare children to be slaves while pushing them through the foster care system, by creating prisons instead of reading labs, It's all designed.

My question is, why would someone not want to defund these things? If you think about it from a human point of view, how is it even okay?

It's not even okay to hurt a dog. There are people who spend more time in jail for hurting a dog than for hurting a Black man or woman or child, right? Somehow Black people are not a living breathing thing, unless we are serving white people.

Think of the guy disinfecting the supermarket, sweeping the aisle. You got pissed at him disinfecting the aisle while you were trying to go shop. People would curse at him, report him to the supervisor. People did all types of little malicious nasty things because they're just fucking evil towards people who they think they are better than. And then all of a sudden the same dude becomes an essential worker, and it's "Oh my God, he's the one that's going to keep us safe. He's disinfecting. He's doing such a great job. It was spotless." Now all of a sudden, he fucking matters. Get outta here. Get out of my face with that. He always mattered, people chose to ignore that fact.

For many people and mostly white people, people only matter when they're serving a purpose for them. Not because they're a living breathing person. And so that's why white people have not taken responsibility for not acknowledging what has happened for generations. Suddenly, here's an uprising, and now it's cool to say that Black lives matter. Black lives didn't just begin to matter. 

Do you think Black mothers don't cry when the cops kill their son? Do you think Black siblings don't cry? Do you think Black mothers didn't cry when they snatch their babies during slavery? 

Or when husbands who couldn't see their wives? Or during all of the atrocities that have happened throughout the generations of us being in this damn country?  And then to tell us some dumb shit, like "go back to Africa." Go back to where you came from because guess what? You are not originally from America either.

And so what the fear factor is, I'm not sure, but if white people would get off of their bullshit, everybody could have a piece of the pie and everyone could live happily together. White people want to have billions and billions and billions and billions, and they'll sell kids, they'll sell their own fucking mother, they'll kill their granny for her insurance policy. That's white people shit. I'm not saying that Black people don't commit crimes. Black people commit crimes of survival. You're stupid to kill your neighbor and only get $15. But in the moment you thought you needed it. You can't justify it, but it's not based on greed. You kill your fucking grandmother for her insurance policy. Really? It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous. You jump off the roof because your stocks went down. That's a reason to commit suicide? Come on.

I also think we have a really hard time understanding, when you're separated from it, the feeling of desperation or acts of desperation. 

Exactly. We weren't allowed to leave anything on the back seat during childhood. Not even our toys. My dad was like, take it off the back seat before somebody breaks my window for that little bullshit.

Right. And it is not insinuating that people are bad, but that people are desperate - if I can’t put myself in that position to understand that, then I am missing the bigger picture. 

Right. That's a privileged point of view because we don't know what it is to lack, to not have to understand the motivation of someone who feels desperate.

Absolutely. Well thank you for your time, I have really appreciated having this conversation. If there is anything you want to add... 

I'll leave you with this. I taught a class at one of the Ivy League schools. I often lecture at some Ivy Leagues. One day a white student after my lecture said to me, “I am kind of sick and tired of Black people blaming us for their woes. You know? It's not our fault that you have a bunch of baby daddies or baby mamas. It's not our fault that you don't want to learn to read. That you refuse to go to school. It's not our fault that you don't want to go to work every day and you prefer to collect a welfare check.”

Literally. I was just like, is he really going there? It's like three or four Black students in the class, all white students and me. So the class was looking at me when he finished his little speech, and I was still in shock but I gathered my thoughts quickly. 

And I say, does anybody in here know what a landmark is? The class is looking at me like I am crazy. I'm just like, bear with me. I pick someone out and say, tell me what a landmark is. And they tell me what a landmark is - a building over 150 years ago that has a protective factor where you cannot even change a light switch in it without having written permission. Yes. That's a landmark. 150 years ago. Did you say 150 years ago? Yes. Who do you think built that building 150 years ago? A Black guy. Probably didn't get paid either. Guess what? Probably didn't have a high school diploma. Guess what? More than likely 99% chance he didn't have a higher education either. What does that tell you? It tells you we're not lazy. We've worked in this country for free for many fucking years. It tells you that we're not dumb because we didn't need a formal education to do it. You understand? It tells us that our work is solid because that building is still standing.