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© Frank


Systems Built on Good Intentions are the Most Dangerous: Part 2

by Emma Ketteringham
August 20, 2020

This interview with Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, was conducted and condensed by franknews. Part one of this conversation on the child welfare system can be found here.

Emma | If you look at all of the systems that do harm, whether it's to poor communities or Black and brown communities, they are all designed by people who will not be subjected to these same systems.

Even well-intentioned people set about fixing what they perceive to be broken, fail to realize, it might not be broken, just different. And they fail to ask these families what it is that they need. The child welfare system is a very clear example of that dynamic. Obviously policing, incarceration, and education are as well.

At the end of the day, to truly address the inequities, white people have to let go of power. They have to back away and say, what is it that is really necessary to improve outcomes? We need to look to a real redistribution of resources rather than a web of social services that no one has even identified as wanted or needed.

frank | How do you see the fear to relinquish power play out structurally in the ACS?

ACS and most child protective services are very large, very well funded bureaucracies. You end up with a very fear-driven system where people are scared to not remove. What I have found over the years is that the case planners, the ones in the organization who are closest to the family, often call us and say, "I'm so glad you won that hearing to get the children home. Those children never should have been removed."

Sometimes the caseworkers recognize that their agency does harm, but it is like a machine that keeps operating the same way, despite all of the mounting evidence that their approach does serious harm to the children they purport to be saving.

It is really important for people to know all the outcomes for the kids who grow up in the foster system, because, as it turns out, the state does not make such a great parent. You've removed a child from what might have been a very imperfect situation, but where at least they had one adult in their life who loved them. Then you put them in a foster system where they can't even claim that. The outcomes are not good.

I was talking to a youth organizer out in San Francisco the other day and we were talking about how telling it is that the word” love” is hardly ever uttered in a family court courtroom. 

The concept of the importance of love is never raised. And yet love is what we are taking away from children when we separate them from their families. We know love is critical to a child’s self-esteem, and to their self-value. And no one ever talks about it. 

The law says nothing about the importance of love whether it's between a mother and child, father, and child or between siblings, even, and yet we all know that as humans having that in our life is critically important. And this is a system that makes decisions without even taking that into consideration. That is another reason why it is so far removed from what we really need.

The big hope is that we, as a country, actually examine what poses the most risk to our children. If we were to do that we would wake up to the fact that it's not, in fact, their parents that pose the greatest danger to children. One of the greatest dangers of this system is that everyone, every politician, every elected official, gets to pretend that we're spending resources and we're doing something about what poses risks to children. 

If we were really to examine what poses risk to children, it wouldn't, of course, be their parents. It would be failing schools. It would be dangerous neighborhoods. It would be the housing conditions that are deplorable and uninhabitable. It would be air. It would be water. These are the things the government needs to expend money on addressing.

Children in the Bronx have the highest rates of asthma. 

Why aren't we spending money, cleaning our air instead of taking them in the middle of the night to a children's center and putting them in a stranger's home because their mother uses marijuana?

It's a huge red herring that keeps us from addressing the inequities and racism that impacts children in this country. It makes everybody feel really good - especially white liberals - to think that we're doing something for the children by saving them, when, in fact, we're doing them direct harm, destroying communities, and doing nothing about the things that actually pose the greatest risk.

It's like driving a Prius.

(Laughs) Yeah. 

Another thing a lot of people don't know about - is that today's child protection foster system reflects its origins. 

One needs to go back into history and see when we started separating children from families and why. We have always used family separation as a method of control and as a tool to uphold white supremacy. We have always separated children from the families that were considered outsiders and threatening to people in power - the system has turned its eye on every population of new immigrants moving to urban areas, for example. We worried about the impact that these families would have on this country's values, so we started a practice of removing children from their parents. We then justified it by promulgating racist ideas that their parents were not suitable and were unfit to raise them. And when you look really carefully at the system of today, it's doing the same thing today.

 When you look at this system and you see that it is predominantly Black and brown children who are taken from their parents to be raised by the state, it is clear that only a system that holds little to zero regards for that child, that child's bond with their parent, and that parent's bond to that child, could ever do that. It would not happen to a family whose bonds are valued. 

I was always told to be wary of pity - that it skews our ability to see people clearly as individuals. I wonder if you think that this translates into adoption in the United States as well? 

Pity is a very dangerous motivator, especially, I think for, white women, because it means you're about to intervene or adjust something that you might not fully understand, or something that you're only seeing through your own lens. 

And you are usually not examining your motives for how you are seeking to hold onto power through your actions. And it's really dangerous. And I think this one of the primary motivators in the creation and operation of the whole child protective system. 

One thing I want to note about adoption is that in private adoptions there has been a move toward open adoptions. There's the recognition that even if you can't be raised by the person who gave birth to you, it might do harm to just legally cut that relationship off.  We are trying to push dynamic and flexible and creative family arrangements forward in the foster system, but of course, it is nowhere as welcome or as prevalent. 

So for example, we do have cases where someone cannot safely be or they don't want to be the full-time caretaker of their own child. In those situations, if our client wants us to, and usually they do, we fight for some room for them to have a relationship with their child. The same arguments supporting these kinds of arrangements in private adoptions also make sense here.

Why wouldn't children prefer their own childhood narrative to be - yeah, that's my mom, I can't live with her all the time because she's got X, Y, and Z going on, so I live over here, but, I see my mom, I have a relationship with my mom, and I know she loves me. Or even if a child rejects their mother, to do that on their own terms is her human right and should not be done for her, on her behalf, by a government that does not serve her interests equally. Flexible and open arrangements that put the children at the center are clearly the trend in private adoptions for a reason, but not in this system, which was, again, designed by people that have families that are not their own in mind.

There's a big concept in our system that drives everything and it is very detached from human experience, and that is permanency. The creators and drivers of the foster system believe that permanency - a final permanent, living, arrangement for a child, no matter what that is, is the most important thing for children and the system must move as quickly toward achieving that goal as possible. While the system technically prioritizes keeping children with their families of origin, the tension with achieving that goal is the system itself which is rushing toward permanency, no matter what it might be.  Looming over all of these cases is the Federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) which basically requires permanency to be achieved quickly or for children to be adopted. These timelines are out of whack with which the vast majority of families are facing in the system.  

So, if a child’s mother can't turn around her dependence on the use of an illegal drug in 15 months, that is it. The system rewards moving swiftly toward the adoption of her child if she fails within that short unrealistic time frame. If she fails to achieve that, then the state is encouraged through financial incentives created by ASFA to come in and terminate parental rights immediately so that we can achieve permanency for this child. That does not comport with the openness that is encouraged in the private adoption world and does not comport with what is in the best interest of children and families.  

And frankly, to be honest, it’s a farce. Even when the court terminates your parental rights and children are adopted away, children often find their way to their parents regardless. That is just an inevitability. I've had many, many 18-year-olds come into my office and say, “Hey, you're a public defender. You represent the parents. This is my mom's name. Did you represent her? What happened in my case? Why didn't she want me?” And I've ordered the records and gone over them with them and showed them the fight their mother put up for them and helped them to understand the narrative that was hidden from them in the name of their own happiness.

Understanding your own self worth is so tied to your parents, it feels so obvious and fundamental. 

But therein lies the cognitive dissonance of this system - I think this system believes that not all parents are worthy and believe that the parents before them are not to be valued. This is because of racism and our society’s belief that poverty reflects a personal fundamental flaw.  

That's the central problem. This system would not operate the way it does if we valued the families before it. 

People hold such misconceptions about the system. First and foremost they believe that all the parents in the system have abused their children and that all the children in foster care have been abused. That is a fundamental misconception that must be changed. And changing that misconception would not be enough. Because when you realize that the system plays a role in the distribution of power in our society and largely operates to uphold white supremacy, you realize that this is not a system that can be tinkered with or reformed. It is a system that must be abolished and replaced by a completely different approach to family poverty. 

The understanding of this system is just beginning. The world was horrified by its witness of the removal of children from their families on the border. It allowed people to see and hear and experience family separations viscerally. 

The next step is to interrogate whether or not they're doing those unnecessarily and traumatic separations in their own cities, counties, and states. Because that exact thing is happening when ACS intervenes. 

This is our chosen response to poverty. One of the most disappointing things about the reaction to what people saw on the border was the reaction of many privileged parents. Many immediately went to the place of believing that becoming a foster parent was the answer. As if that was better. As if that will save the children ripped from their parents’ arms. They believed that they were the best antidote. They think they'll just wrap their arms around those kids. But you cannot make up for that harm. And the only reason why you think you'd be an adequate substitute is that you're not seeing them the way you want your own family to be seen. Because you would never assume that some stranger could hug and comfort your child better than you, right.

I have been reading a lot about carceral feminism and really thinking about some of the most well-intentioned programs, the child protection system, of course, but even responses to domestic violence or other white identified social problems. And often what you see is that white women's answers and solutions that end up being really harmful to other communities in ways that they don’t think through.

It is interesting to contrast the traditional liberal ideal of interjecting and helping people, with the traditional conservative response of individual freedom in this system.

People say to me, “Like - what are you, a libertarian?” No. I think that we need to look at what role the government should play, not that the government should not play a role. I think we need to look primarily at the distribution of resources and power. 

We need more money, more support, and more care for people. And most importantly we need to ask communities what they need. We need to reimagine what support truly looks like. 

It requires a shift in political imagination. 

Exactly right. Just like people who are asking to defund and abolish the carceral system have asked us to reimagine what that could look like, we need to do the same with the current so-called child protection and the foster system. It’s cut from the same cloth. There is another way to imagine keeping children safe and with their families who love them too. And yes, it would require seismic change because it would really require us to really look at how resources are distributed amongst people, and who has what to help them raise healthy families.

There are so many well-intentioned people, even progressive people, people who are really almost considered radical in other areas, that just don't believe that this could be happening the way it is happening. But it is happening. 

And it is our responsibility to end it.