In 1994, a nationwide study conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services found that “black children were more likely to be taken from their homes than white children, even when the type and severity of the alleged abuse were the same.” The numbers from that study are staggering, revealing a pattern of state-sponsored racial discrimination that, for years, has divided black families, targeting single mothers in poor, urban areas. “Among families in which a report of abuse or neglect turned out to have been unsubstantiated by a court, 43 percent of black children but only 15 percent of white children had been removed from their homes,” the New York Review of Books reported in 2012.
That pattern of racial discrimination within the foster care system is by no means a relic of a recent past, but as the New York Times reported on Friday, the foster care system in New York City is still used to surveil and “punish parents who have few resources.” The Times reports:
[The Administration for Children’s Services] requests for removals filed in family court rose 40 percent in the first quarter of 2017, to 730 from 519, compared with the same period last year, according to figures obtained by The New York Times.
Those numbers overwhelming represent women of color, particularly mothers raising their children in poverty. Lawyers for the “predominantly poor black and Hispanic women” targeted by the agency call the practice “Jane Crow.”
The Times profiles a handful of black women whose children were taken from them for what are at best minor infractions and temporarily placed in the foster care system. Maisha Joefield’s daughter was taken from her after the child slipped out the house while Joefield was taking a bath; another woman’s children were removed after she left her six-year-old daughter alone in her apartment while seeking help for a medical emergency, and Bernadette Charles had her four sons removed after a landlord called Children’s Services after Charles reported the landlord for failing to repair the apartment.
The practice effectively criminalizes poverty since middle-class and wealthy mothers would never face these scenarios (poor living conditions; inability afford a cell phone). As for cases like Joefield’s, a child slipping out the house would “for most parents” be treated as “panic-inducing, but hardly insurmountable, hiccup in the long trial of raising a child.” A lawyer for the Brooklyn Defender Services put it plainly:
There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”
According to the Times, “Jane Crow” practices are particularly noticeable after a very public failure of Children’s Services. The report speculates that two high-profile cases could “describe the pattern now.” But the use of foster care as a means to punish the largely black and Latina women forced to raise their children in economically depressed circumstances is a sad regularity in New York City’s history.
The effects of removing children from their homes can be devastating, even if the child is temporarily removed, and leave families bound to a system they should never have been in in the first place. Joefield told the Times that her daughter’s four days in foster care left her daughter “second-guessing if she did something wrong, if I was mad at her.”