Iván-Nicholas Cisneros | Racist Urbanisms, or Notes on Why Family Policing Must be Abolished

By Iván-Nicholas Cisneros

Within the streets of New York City, posted along a temporary dark-green coated plywood wall, presumably erected as a barrier between a construction site and pedestrian flow, three wheat paste posters communicate urgent messages concerning family policing and child welfare strategies actively being deployed within the United States.[1] These weathered and semi-torn posters utilize white-toned Times New Roman letters centrally placed on a black background framed by a white margin. The visual quality is striking, perhaps indicative of an intentionality heightening the seriousness of the state of affairs. Yet absent of any signs or symbols associating these posters to an author or movement, it is impossible to discern whether the visual impact produced by this play on black and white alludes to the racial dialectic that continues to inform the overarching social organization of this country.

The first poster announces, “they separate children at the Harlem Border too”, while the second broadcasts an equally poignant message, “some cops are called caseworkers.”[2] The third poster, sitting beneath the second, identifiable through the seven letters that remain on what remains of it, repeats the message of the first. Family separation in Harlem and caseworkers as police – these are but two of myriad ideas examined in Abolition 10/13 where Professors Dorothy Roberts and Bernard Harcourt explore abolishing family policing practices in the United States through a discussion concerning the disproportionate impacts these practices, which Professor Roberts stresses are “obviously racist,” have on Black families and their communities.[3] In building a case for the abolition of family policing, and the urgent need to imagine alternative equitable child welfare strategies that enfranchise, as opposed to current iterations that disenfranchise families and children, I would like to contemplate two aspects concerning family policing. Namely, punitive approaches of child protective services, a government apparatus for family policing, and the disproportionate statistical makeup of socio-economically disadvantaged Black families as well as Black children in regard to child welfare investigations and mandated family separations.

An Extension of the Carceral State

Child protective services must be viewed as an extension of the carceral state. It is a political procedure which Professor Roberts describes as a punitive regulatory system of oppression, terror, and surveillance.[4] One component of this punitive apparatus is comprised by child welfare investigations, which can be initiated after someone, such as a relative, neighbor, or teacher contacts local child protective services, law enforcement agencies, or child abuse hotlines to report suspected instances of child maltreatment or neglect. As part of these investigations, state agents may forcibly enter the home of the child or children in question. A troubling trend exists amongst families targeted by state agents, chiefly that these families, often lacking sufficient education, do not understand that they have a constitutional Fourth Amendment right to deny state agents without warrants entry into their homes.[5] According to Roberts, these families, even when they desire resisting compliance, due to an overwhelming fear of state agents, or even preconceived fears of having their children forcibly taken from them, is enough to extinguish said desire to resist.[6]

During these investigations, which may become extremely intrusive, caseworkers representing child protective services, sometimes anticipating a need to take children away from their families, are often accompanied by police officers into these homes. According to Roberts, the more intrusive investigations involve the strip search and interrogation of children.[7] During these investigations, state agents may resort to intimidating parents with baseless threats of child removal, termination of parental rights, or even arrest and imprisonment for non-compliance.[8] Roberts observes “the whole system is based on threatening to take children away.”[9] Alarmingly, these invasive family policing maneuvers will subject approximately thirty-seven percent of US children to a child welfare investigation before the age of eighteen.[10] Additionally, Roberts has identified several troubling occurrences which have transpired during these child welfare investigations. There is the case of Sourette Alwysh, a Haitian immigrant who was arrested when police found her living with her five-year-old son in a foreclosed building that lacked electricity or running water.[11] The case of Sidelina Zuniga, a Mexican immigrant who was arrested after having left her ten and four-year-old children at home for an hour and a half in order to pick up groceries for the family.[12] The messages communicated by the aforementioned posters, “they separate children at the Harlem Border too” and “some cops are called caseworkers,” take on new meaning.

Professor Harcourt notes these posters are “a brutal reminder … of the brutality and the violence of the family regulation ordeal.”[13] Drawing from the realities of family policing in the United States, Harcourt describes family policing as more a “medieval inquisitorial ordeal,” than a modern system for ensuring child welfare. As the posters remind us, the numerous instances of forced family separation produced by family policing renders family separation transpiring at various nodes along the US/México geopolitical border unexceptional,[14] insofar as the forced separation of families is not limited to undocumented families seeking refuge in the US, but documented and undocumented American families within the US as well. Professor Roberts draws from these posters as well when she mentions, “family separation happens in Harlem, it happens in communities all over the country.”[15] The child welfare system as a whole then, according to Roberts, “embodies a cruel paradox”.[16] It is an apparatus justified and promoted at local, state, and federal levels as a means for child welfare, yet paradoxically, it is a system that does not promote child safety through welfare strategies, but instead punishes countless families it mistakenly categorizes as deviant and unfit.[17] Moreover, child protective services and the foster care system share a similarity with prison and deportation systems to the extent that they overwhelmingly apply their punitive methods on people and neighborhoods most negatively impacted by the “evisceration of public resources.”[18]

As professor Roberts notes in Shattered Bonds,  in arguing too little is being done to protect children, attempts to justify and expand the punitive methods of child welfare agencies will cite rare and extreme cases of child abuse and neglect, many of which have been sensationalized by major news outlets.[19] Yet the overabundance of instances where child protection services, at times responding to false anonymous allegations, create unnecessary and traumatic hardships via forced separations in the forms of foster care placement and unjust termination of parental rights are typically met with public silence as much as they are ignored by media outlets.[20] Equally troubling, according to Roberts, the punitive nature of family policing enables the neoliberal state to absolve itself from developing actual child and family welfare infrastructures.[21] This format permits a governance approach pushing the state’s responsibility to ensure child safety and welfare onto the private sphere, such that every parent must figure how to finance and ensure their child’s wellbeing, even when it is evident that government assistance is direly needed. This enablement of the invisible hand to regulate child welfare is counterproductive. Family policing, through child protective services, instead of promoting the wellbeing of children, has led to a system that while on the surface seems to operate through checks and balances, instead is typical of the carceral state. Specific to this discussion, the state utilizes an inequitable punitive surveillance of the domestic sphere to recuse itself from providing an adequate social safety net for children and in doing so disproportionately harms certain ethno-racial groups over others.

Racist Urbanisms: Family Policing and the Targeting of Black families

Drawing from recent studies, and explicitly speaking to racist disparities and realities of family policing, Roberts observes Black families are “the most likely of any group to be torn apart by the system.”[22] She looks to the fact that Black children, despite making up less than one-fifth of US children, represent nearly half of the foster care population.[23] In other words, Black children are four times as likely than white children to be placed in foster care.[24]

Recent reports published by the city government of New York corroborate Robert’s argument. In these reports, East and Central Harlem together account for 45% of the total number of children within Manhattan that were active in the foster care system at the end of 2019.[25] In comparison, the Upper West Side accounted for 7%, while the Upper East Side (UES) accounted for 2.5%.[26] Statistically speaking, at that moment in time, the amount of children from Harlem in foster care was nineteen times that of UES children. Citywide, Black children (listed as African American in a report produced by the New School Center for New York City Affairs) comprised 52.8% of children in foster care, while Latino children comprised 27.2% and White children unsurprisingly only accounted for 5.5%.[27]

Child welfare investigations and foster care placements conducted in the same year demonstrate strong correlations between race, poverty levels, and targeted policing of Black families. In the UES, 9.6 child welfare investigations were conducted per every 1000 children, while in the same year, there were 0.41 foster care placements per every 1000 children living there.[28] Disturbingly, in East Harlem, the numbers dramatically jump to 80.2 child welfare investigations per every 1000 children, and 7.39 foster care placements per 1000 children in the upper Manhattan neighborhood.[29] It is important to note that the poverty index and ethno-racial demographics show strong correlations with this data. East Harlem, with a population almost entirely ethno-racially categorized as Black and Latino, had a poverty index of 31.1%, while UES with 73% of its population categorized as White, had a poverty index of 5.4% – meaning less than 6% of its residents lived with a yearly income below the poverty line.[30] In sum, families and children living in the UES, a predominantly white and affluent community, have a significantly lower probability of encountering family policing in the forms of child welfare investigations and foster care placements than would a child living the predominantly Black and Latino East Harlem.

This correlation matches observations from a qualitative study of Michigan’s child welfare system. Roberts observes this report concluded that many social workers would negatively describe Black families, mothers, and children in their reports, while failing to equitably asses their clients strengths and limitations in relationship to parental fitness and the ability to care for children.[31] She notes casefiles for Black parents included terms such as ‘angry,’ ‘aggressive,’ ‘hostile’, ‘incorrigible,’ and ‘loud,’ without further contextual elaboration.[32] This evidence tracks Robert’s analysis regarding negative, dangerous, and false stereotypes of black female criminality and irresponsibility (i.e. Black women as Jezebels, ‘Welfare Queens,’ rampant drug users) that have been utilized by child protective services and prisons to legitimize the immense harms these systems inflict on Black families and communities.[33]

Furthermore, in the same report, social workers often assumed Black parents had substance abuse problems while White parents were not subject to similar harmful preconceived notions. [34] Roberts notes, “a study of the intersection of race, poverty, and risk…concluded that the racial disparity occurred because it takes more risk of maltreatment for a white child to be placed in foster care compared to the risk for a Black child.”[35] Consequently, correlations between socio-economic, racial, and family policing demographics do not reveal levels of parental fitness, as much as they may reveal ways in which negative preconceived notions associated with ethnicity and race prevent child welfare caseworkers from objectively assessing parental fitness, giving leniency to White families while at the same time exhibiting greater unjustifiable scrutiny when evaluating Black families.

While detractors might be quick to assume correlation does not imply causation, existing bodies of peer-reviewed research—demonstrating explicit correlations linking ethno-racial makeup to social and environmental injustices visible in wage disparities, socio-economic circumstances, access to education, homes in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution—make the correlation and causation concerning structural racism abundantly clear. With these in mind, Robert’s argument regarding the objective of the child welfare system, not as one concerned with child welfare, but rather a system intent on regulating “economically and racially marginalized communities,” begins to signal how the disproportionate instances of Black families subject to child welfare investigations and family separations must not be understood as indicators of parental “unfitness” in Black communities, but rather comprehended as another instance of a governance model that continues to disproportionately harm and punish Black families and communities.

Instead of placing blame on Black families for these troubling statistics, Roberts contends family policing today is part of a larger terror and oppression-based governance that can be seen as a continuation of forced removals of Black, Indigenous, and Brown children from their families.[36] Nodes of this historical US lineage can be found in the forced placement of Indigenous children in American Indian schools as an instrument of tribal genocide, the control of emancipated Black children apprenticing for former white enslavers, the forced separation of enslaved mothers and children (who lawfully belonged to the mother’s enslaver, rather than the enslaved mother and/or father).[37] Historical examples of family separation as a means for punitive-based racial management within the United States are unfortunately seemingly endless.

Looking to these statistics, historical examples, and drawing from Robert’s notion of racial geography,[38] family policing thereby can and must be understood, as a spatialized practice of what I would like to describe as racist urbanisms. By this I mean the following: if we spatialize rates of child welfare investigations, foster care placements, and the ethno-racial designation of children subjected to these, with respect to neighborhoods of cities like Chicago and New York, cities where Black communities disproportionately make up a significant quantity of families subjected to child welfare investigations and mandated family separations, then the asymmetry of family policing and subsequent impacts on family as well as community development would render visible an undeniable urbanism shaped and informed by structural racism. It is a racist urbanism that painfully harkens to exclusionary redlining practices of recent past that denied historically marginalized ethno-racial groups, primarily Black and Latino families, the ability to engage in homeownership beyond specific predetermined zones of cities and towns. Like these redlining practices, which subsequently obstructed and stunted the abilities of historically marginalized communities to develop long-term asset building through home ownership, the racial disparity of family policing and the state sponsored disruption of families are symptoms of institutionalized discrimination. This discrimination, based on socio-economic condition coupled with constructed notions of race, sets historically marginalized communities – particularly Black communities – into a perpetual social, economic, and political state of precarity than hinders community formation and upward mobility.

In order to construct alternative non-punitive child welfare strategies capable of adequately supporting the wellbeing of families and children, the need to abolish family policing is evident. Echoing Professor Robert’s view that ending racial discrimination in the child welfare system will require a confrontation with the system’s “racial bias and structural flaws,”[39] the success of a replacement strategy will be contingent not only on the abolition of family policing, but on abolishing manifold apparatuses deployed by this social construct of a carceral state we call our United States. Regardless of the existence or absence of an explicit or implicit racially based agenda, it is imperative we take these apparatuses, which implicitly reward whiteness through their disproportionate punishing of specific ethno-racial and socio-economic milieus, into forced obsolescence.

“The further course of cultural development seems to tend towards making the law no longer an expression of the will of a small community – a caste or a stratum of the population or a racial group – which in its turn, behaves like a violent individual towards other, and perhaps more numerous collections of people. The final outcome should be a rule of law to which all – except those who are not capable of entering a community – have contributed by a sacrifice of their instincts, and which leaves no one – again with the same exception – at the mercy of brute force.”[40]Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents


[1] Yandle, Anita. Untitled Photograph. 2020. in “Abolition 10/13: Abolish Family Policing.” Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. Columbia University Seminar. New York, 25 Feb 2021. Seminar.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Harcourt, Bernard, et al. “Abolition 10/13: Abolish Family Policing.” Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought. Columbia University Seminar. New York, 25 Feb 2021. Seminar.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic Books, 2001, 87.

[9] Harcourt.

[10] Edwards, Frank. “Family Surveillance: Police and the Reporting of Child Abuse and Neglect.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Vol. 5, No. 1, Feb 2019, 50-70.

[11] Roberts, Shattered Bonds, 78

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harcourt.

[14] Despite President Biden’s “Executive order on the Establishment of Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families” signed on 02 Feb 2021, at least 506 children of various nationalities continue to await reunification with their families. See also: Alvarez, Priscilla. “Lawyers make progress in locating parents from children split from families at the border, latest court filing says.” CNN Politics. 24 Feb 2021. Web.

[15] Harcourt.

[16] Roberts, Shattered Bonds, 91.

[17] Ibid., 87, 127.

[18] Roberts, Dorothy, “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers.” UCLA Law Review. Vol 59. Issue 6, 1478.

[19] Roberts, Shattered Bonds, VIII, 130.

[20] Ibid., VII-VIII, 130, 127-128.

[21] Roberts, “Prison, Foster Care,” 1477.

[22] Harcourt, Bernard, et al.

[23] Edwards, 51.

[24] Harcourt, Bernard, et al.

[25] “Children in Foster Care by Borough/CD of Foster Care Placement” City of New York. 2020. Web.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Watching the Numbers: A six-year statistical survey monitoring New York City’s child welfare system. The New School Center for New York City Affairs. City of New York. Dec 2019, Web, 03.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] “State of the City 2019: Upper East Side MN08.” New York University Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. 2021. Web. See also: “American Community Survey 1-year estimates.” Retrieved from Census Reporter Profile page for NYC-Manhattan Community District 8–Upper East Side PUMA, NY. Census Bureau. 2019. Web. See also: “How Is Poverty Measured?” University of Wisconsin-Madison Institute for Research on Poverty. 2021. Web.

[31] Roberts, “Prison, Foster Care,” 1486.

[32] Ibid., 1486.

[33] Ibid., 1492.

[34] Ibid., 1486.

[35] Ibid., 1486.

[36] Harcourt.

[37] Ibid. See also: Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage Books, 1999, 33-34.

[38] Roberts, “Prison, Foster Care,” 1487.,

[39] Roberts, Shattered Bonds, 92.

[40] Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1961, 49.

Fonda Shen