July 26, 2017

‘It’s a Pivotal Time in Child Welfare’:

A Q&A with Parent Advocate Joyce McMillan


Kendra Hurley, a senior editor at the Center for New York City Affairs, talks to Joyce McMillan, director of programming and a parent advocate at the Child Welfare Organizing Project, which for years has spoken out about what they see as the inherent racism and destructiveness in child welfare systems. Here are excerpts from that interview.

You’ve contended for years that the child welfare system damages families of color. Now a New York Times article has echoed that. What was your reaction?

It was just like the Yankees had won! I’m just so excited about this moment. I think right now with movements like Black Lives Matter and the effort to close the City’s correctional facility on Rikers Island there’s a shift in America. The momentum from one movement can push the momentum of another. It’s a pivotal time in America and it’s a pivotal time in child welfare.

I think the shift started some time ago. It may or may not have begun with Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which argues that mass incarceration is designed to keep black people disenfranchised. But that book really made people take notice. Advocates of a number of movements were able to identify with that book and make parallels with the movements they were pushing.

When I read the book, it immediately spoke to my soul. I saw the parallels between Jim Crow and mass incarceration and also foster care. Everything in these systems tends to separate and break down families—and the family is the core of a person becoming who they are.

When it comes to the child welfare system, we spend money to take children out of homes and care of parents who the system deems unsafe. In doing so, children are made to transfer schools, doctors and everything they have been familiar with for a lifetime. All the research shows that most children in foster care transfer to multiple different foster homes during their time in the foster care system, compounding the emotional toll and trauma this disruption causes. Research also shows that many children are mistreated in the very homes they are placed in during this effort to keep them safe.

It seems to me that rather than fund a system that we know is harmful to children, families, and communities, we could continue to shift the spending to provide supports to all families, regardless of race and class, to ensure that families receive the supports they need to keep their children safe, healthy, and thriving at home.

What parts of that article were you most pleased to see discussed?

How black parents are being held to a level our white counterparts are not. For normal mishaps of taking care of a child, for a black family a criminal action gets added to it. In The New York Times story, a child wandered out of the house across the street to a place that was familiar to her, her grandmother’s house. Is that a good thing? Absolutely not. But how many white women are in a shopping mall and they don't have their child’s hand and the child wanders off, and no one calls child welfare, no one calls the police about it? That’s because there is a loud but silent narrative that says that mom is a good mom, something just went wrong in this one moment, but she's more than capable of taking care of this child.

But if a black woman was in this same mall, and this same thing happened, someone would say, ‘She doesn't know how to take care of her kids,’ and the outcome would be completely different.

What are some of the collateral consequences of being investigated by child welfare services?

You live with the trauma of the investigation and fear of removal. And that investigation changes the way a child sees her parents. Now you have to see your mom having to be nice to the people surveilling her and hold her head down, to not speak with a tone of frustration, not challenge.

If your case is founded—even if your children are not placed in foster care--it limits your employment.  Until your youngest child is 28, you can’t work with children. You can't be a school crossing guard. You can't be a cafeteria worker. These are minimum-paying jobs because a lot of people in the communities that are affected by child welfare don’t have degrees. They can only obtain minimal paying jobs and now many of these jobs are out of reach for them as well because of this case. So that removes many options to support your family and that puts your family at higher risk for recidivism.

When you have a mother who has a child who is in foster care or has been adopted, if she has another child, that child is at a greater risk of removal simply because her name is in the State Central Registry.

More generally, living with constant scrutiny prevents children from flourishing and reaching their full potential and causes many parents of color to raise their children out of fear not out of love. They love their children, but they know that to parent out of love is a luxury. That luxury means I can provide you room to make a mistake and we can rebound from that mistake. But that's not true in families of color. One mistake can cost us everything so we condition our children to be afraid of the world.

The foster care system has shifted over time to remove far fewer children and provide more supports for families in distress. Is this working as it should?

Fewer families being broken apart is a major improvement. I don’t want to understate that. In some cases, services have been put in place to offer greater supports to families who previously may have been broken apart. For others, the system has finally stopped removing children unnecessarily.

If, however, you are one of the families whose children is placed in care, in my opinion, what’s provided now is not true support. I work with quite a few parents who have children in foster care and they are told ‘You have to have therapy for this long, and a parenting class' and more. Some have had to leave their jobs because they couldn’t keep up with all the service requirements, not to mention maintaining their weekly visits with their children and the multitude of meetings and court dates they are mandated to attend. All they wanted was their child back, but to complete the services they had to quit their job to make time for them, and go further into poverty. Before ACS (the Administration for Children’s Services) came in they could keep the roof over their heads, the lights on, and get their kids clothing as needed, but now they can't even do that.

What’s your vision for reform?

Respect for all families, and for children to be kept safe at home with the proper supports rather than surveillance. Stop removing children unnecessarily from their homes. Don‘t look for problems, look for protective factors and build on them by providing in-the-home coaching that supports family bonds. And that coaching needs to be from people who are trained to understand racial disproportionality in the system, and who understand racism in America, and who have been trained by people like myself and through organizations like CWOP, people who understand this and who have lived this.  


Cover photo: Child Welfare Organizing Project.