Anita Yandle | Parallel Ordeals Designed to Maintain a Racial Hierarchy

By Anita Yandle

On February 25, 2021, I walked the familiar path from my apartment on the border of Morningside Heights and West Harlem to the 125th Street subway stop. Each time, I walk past the same flimsy wall guarding construction next to the City MD. I do not know when I first noticed the posters from the group called Abolish NYC ACS (Administration of Children’s Services), but I do recall wanting to take a picture of them each time I passed; I had never seen anything so clearly state a position I had developed over the years, in part due to my own experiences with the violence of state policing of families and children. The posters read, “they separate children at the border of Harlem too” and “some cops are called caseworkers” (capitalization and punctuation in original). The logos and hashtags were quickly ripped off and in time, some of the posters were ripped down in whole. Given the busyness of the sidewalk and the narrowness of the scaffolding, however, I had never had the chance to stop long enough to capture those that remained. It was serendipitous, then, that I finally had time and space to take a photograph of the signs on the very morning of the “Abolish Family Policing” seminar and presentation. The posters captured by my phone camera unexpectedly became the introduction to that day’s discussion and the image for that seminar’s homepage.

In introducing the discussion, Professor Bernard Harcourt said the poster was a “brutal reminder of the family regulation ordeal.” (Ordeal is the correct word here, and purposely chosen: “I don’t want to say ‘system’ because that gives it too much coherence, when in fact we’re dealing with an ordeal: a medieval inquisitorial ordeal that surrounds us as we speak.”) There are two themes from the pair of posters that resonated with the discussion: First, that family separation is not an exceptional occurrence at the U.S.-Mexico border that occurred solely during the Trump Administration, but an everyday occurrence that is prevalent particularly in communities of color throughout the country; and second, that family policing is directly and inextricably related to the aspects of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance that abolitionists traditionally discuss.

Thankfully, a true artist, Tymber Hudson, kicked off the rest of event with more inspiring and impressive art. Hudson is a storyteller, multidisciplinary artist, and activist. They work to center, uplift, and empower Black queer communities in the abolition of traumatizing and oppressive systems, especially as related to family regulation. Hudson began with a spoken word presentation that would be difficult to capture with any justice in a blog post. The presentation covered their evolution from trying to fit in with their white friends as a teenager to learning about safety and self-love while sharing a kitchen with one Miss V., who helped Hudson learn to shirk society’s ideas of who they are or should be. Hudson noted that while they were the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was shot, they did not know about him at the time, and when they learned about him, they asked, “What did he do?” That mindset dissipated over the years, but echoes the same thoughts many people have about families under regulation and policing. Their evolution has led to two equally important elements in their art: Self-celebration and celebration of others. In celebrating others, Hudson launched their project called the Garden of Vitality. Created in collaboration with the support of Fonda Shen and Julia Udell at the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, the photo series highlights “brilliant Black and LGBTQ+ folk who have been impacted by the family regulation system.” Each person in the Garden is featured surrounded by a striped backdrop that would resemble a cell if not for its rainbow coloring, which is further covered with flowers, a pipe cleaner rainbow, and a small sign that states, “We will love & protect each other.” Hudson explained that the online platform celebrates Black and queer people who have been impacted by family regulation. The Garden thus far is composed of people Hudson has known over the years through advocating together for change and creating a community that celebrates and finds joy together. The project will continue to expand, with the hope of featuring 100 individuals by the end of the calendar year. Through both spoken word and visual art, Hudson set a tone of hope and joy for the seminar, leading to not just a critique of family policing but also visions for the future.

Visions for the future also require an analysis of what exactly needs to change and why. Leading that part of the seminar was Professor Dorothy Roberts, who works at the intersection of health, social justice, crime and punishment, and bioethics, especially as those impact women, Black women, African Americans, and children. Professor Roberts is completing a new book on the abolition of family policing. Family policing and regulation is truly not a singular system, she explained, as it includes foster care, juvenile justice, mental healthcare, and more. Each of these elements interacts with the others.

Shattered Bonds, a groundbreaking prior book by Professor Roberts, documented the racial reality of family policing, a focus of the seminar and her presentation. Black children, she found, are four times more likely to be in foster care than their white peers. Indeed, she explained, if one did not know the ostensible purpose of family courts, they would have to conclude that such courts were specifically designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor Black families. Twenty years after the release of Shattered Bonds, the same remains true. Black families are still the targets of child “welfare” intervention; more than half of Black children in the United States will be subjected to a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation during their childhoods. More than half.

Family regulation is not racist out of happenstance, but design, and is a vital element of the prison industrial complex discussed at length in prior seminars in this series. Professor Roberts addressed Hudson’s earlier mention of Trayvon Martin by remarking that Hudson’s reaction (“What did he do?”) is the same question asked of families whose children are in foster care — and even of the children themselves. With that sentiment, “in a blink of an eye, the children now become seen as deviant and culpable, and that’s partly why there’s this back-and-forth between the juvenile justice system, the prison system, and the foster care system.” In addition, Professor Roberts highlighted the parallels between policing and family regulation: CPS intrudes into people’s homes without warrants and may return with police officers to forcibly remove children after intrusive investigations that may include strip-searching children, interrogating children apart from their parents, and interrogating and threatening parents. “The whole system is based on threatening to take children away,” she explained. Formal family separation is not the only kind, however. In addition to the 500,000 children in foster care, there are just as many children in a kind of “shadow” family separation based on threats, where child welfare agents tell families to split up or else CPS will impose an intrusive regulation on the family. This shadow ordeal may involve telling people to leave their homes, to put their children in the care of their friends or family, or impose some other regulation with the threat of CPS bringing the family to court. The family policing ordeal regulates and surveilles families both before and after they lose their children. Professor Roberts commented, “[T]he purpose of police and prisons and surveillance is to control and subjugate communities regardless of guilt or innocence. And similarly, we can apply the same analysis to family policing. […] The whole point of the child welfare system has always been to regulate economically and racially marginalized communities. That’s why there’s virtually no wealthy white people in the child welfare system.” In part because of this hyper-regulation of families of color, Black children are at a higher risk of never going home. Black children are also less likely to be adopted (discussed at further length later in this post), which means that they stay in foster care until they “age out.” When someone ages out, they are left without any resources, as the state seizes their assets in “compensation” for their years of care. As Professor Roberts succinctly said, the racialized family policing ordeal is “a system of oppression and terror.”

There is hope for change, however, as was the tone set by Hudson earlier in the evening. In particular, the family regulation and prison abolition movements can learn from each other. Professor Roberts shared that she became a family policing abolitionist after learning about the theory, practice, and inspiration of prison-industrial-complex abolition. “It became clear to me that the movement to abolish police, prisons, and surveillance was deeply connected to the need to abolish family policing.” She shared three themes from prison abolitionist philosophy (also discussed in her Harvard Law Review article “Abolition Constitutionalism”) that can guide family policing abolition: (1) Both carceral punishment and family policing can trace their origins to slavery and racial capitalism; (2) both function today to oppress Black and other politically marginalized people in order to maintain an evolving racial capitalist regime; and (3) abolitionists can imagine and build a more humane and democratic society without these ongoing oppressive ordeals. Tracing the criminal punishment system — including policing, prisons, capital punishment, surveillance — to racialized capital slavery is helpful in abolition, although not the only possible framework, she observed. Abolition is “not just about tearing down a system,” but about building a better world:

“Prisons will only cease to exist when the social, economic, and political conditions eliminate the need for them. Abolitionists are working toward a society where prisons are inconceivable.” (Quoting Mariame Kaba.) And that is true for the abolition of family policing, as well. I think it’s something a lot of people don’t understand and is a point of resistance to even thinking about abolishing the family policing system because their question is, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to all the abused and neglected children?’ Well, the main harms to children in America are not caused by their parents; they’re caused by the deep inequalities that exist in wealth, in incarceration, in healthcare, in stereotypes.

Ending family separation must, therefore, include addressing those structural harms instead of placing the burden on parents and determining better mechanisms for handling violence when it does occur. Abolition must not only address violence at the family and community levels, but violence perpetrated by structural inequalities and the state. Family policing is an element of carceral logic, “entangled with policing and courts,” and relies on the other as support and a fail-safe.

In designing a better world without family separation, the connection between family policing and the prison-industrial-complex cannot be overlooked. Professor Roberts shared with some exasperation that some people who support defunding the police have proposed reallocating funds to CPS. Such a move only defunds one kind of police, but not another. Moving funds to CPS would only lead to more brutal intrusion in Black and Indigenous communities. Police abolitionists cannot ignore that the ordeal of arrest and incarceration is so like the ordeal of home intrusion and family separation, she commented. Hudson agreed. They added that the two ordeals work in tandem to entrap children and to impact our lives in different ways — to the point where 80 percent of people in prisons have had experience in foster care. “If that doesn’t confirm that these two systems are interacting, that they are in cahoots, if you will, I don’t know what will,” Hudson remarked. Certainly, foster care makes youth more vulnerable to incarceration, pushing them into juvenile detention and prisons, Roberts confirmed. Even the terminology of “runaways” harkens back to slavery and the carceral state. Ending police violence includes ending family policing. Neither prisons nor policing address harms; they create them, instead. As Professor Harcourt said, “It’s ‘defund,’ not ‘refund.’” There will not be substantial change by shifting money around between two systems that “are parallel ordeals designed to maintain a racial hierarchy.”

Group discussion followed Professor Roberts’s presentation. Hudson noted that Black children are less likely to be adopted, stating that they themself were teased with the idea of adoption, particularly from a white family. However, they wound up in “a room with a bunch of other children that were lighter — most of them white — and I was consistently picked over. What does that do to a child? What does that do to a child when you tell them to get ready, we’re going to an adoption party and you know, potentially find a family and there’s 70 kids there and seven kids are left and they’re all Black and look like you?” The racism in family policing is not just at the moment of seizure of children, but in the determination of who can be adopted. Professor Roberts verified that transracial adoption is presented as a hope for Black children, which it neither should be nor is likely. Later in the group discussion, Professor Michael Wald brought up the concept of data prediction. There is some clear contention on the matter: Professor Harcourt declared, “What they’re predicting is your vulnerability of being profiled,” while Professor Wald responded that the data shows most people are low-risk and therefore predictive tools could be embraced as an instrument to close the system. Professor Roberts added that a low risk indication does not mean the state will not intervene in a family. Risk prediction tools, like those in the prison system, categorize people but do not end the carceral approach. Everyone — including “low risk” families — remain at risk of state intervention once they are in the system of policing and family separation. Like discussions of abolitionist-reforms and reformist-reforms in prison abolition, predictive tools raise the question of what changes bring the world closer to abolition and which do not. As Professor Roberts observed, there is a legitimate question of whether family policing abolitionists do not want any risk assessment tools at all, or whether while they are fighting to end their use, are willing to use a tool that may result in fewer children removed from their homes. However, she noted, in Prison by Any Other Name, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law discussed how such “kinder, gentler” carceral approaches often instead widen their scope, which is the same for risk assessment tools. The connection between family policing and prisons was clear, therefore, not just in the presentations, but in the discussion at the close of the event.

Abolishing prisons, policing, and surveillance must include abolishing family policing. Each is intertwined inextricably with the others and relies on the others for their support. Truly, families are separated at the U.S. border, at the border of Harlem, and in communities throughout the country. In the United States, the connection between the prison industrial complex and family policing can draw a direct line to racialized capitalism under slavery. As such, it is only fitting to end with Hudson’s observation at the end of the seminar: “The color of child welfare is Black, and I am the color of child welfare. And that’s not by coincidence. That’s intentional.”


Fonda Shen