Editor: Jennifer Perry, Producers: Jennifer Perry, Zoe Stahl

“Once they see that you’ve done anything, you’re just automatically bad,” said Jeanette Vega, training director and parent advocate at Rise, a publication dedicated to helping parents share stories of their time in the child welfare system. “Children want to go home, children love their parents, parents love their children.”

Vega was speaking on a panel about the child welfare system, an under-covered, broken system that disproportionately targets black and brown women to the point that it’s been called “Jane Crow.” Also on the panel, held at the Wing in Manhattan and moderated by me as a follow-up to Jezebel’s collaboration with Rise, was Mary Anne Mendenhall, supervising attorney at the Bronx Defenders, and the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar, with an introduction from director of Rise, Nora McCarthy.

Outside the child welfare system, we’re exposed to coverage that is predominantly focused on the most tragic cases, the ones where grave mistakes are made, or where case workers didn’t intervene and a child died at the hands of an abusive parent. But the reality is that the vast majority of child welfare investigations and removals are based on what is termed “neglect,” or a by-product of poverty (for instance, a mother leaving a child unattended to make a job interview). As it is, child welfare case workers often separate families as a first line of action, instead of other interventions that could keep children with their parents.

In New York City, one in five children will come to the attention of the child welfare system in some form, and most from just a few neighborhoods. And even when children do return home (over half of children in foster care return to their parents), the experience can have a lasting effect on the child’s development and mental health—not to mention the parent’s.

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In August, MacFarquhar published, “When Should a Child Be Taken From His Parents?” an in-depth investigation of New York City’s family court, which followed Mendenhall and one of her clients, Mercedes, a mother of four who became inextricably tangled in a system working against her after a fairly routine accident: In 2009, Mercedes says her 11-month-old pulled a hot curling iron off the bathroom sink after Mercedes had momentarily left the bathroom. MacFarquhar wrote:

The next day, at her cousin’s house, she saw that the burns had blistered, and announced that she was going to take Leslie to the E.R., but her aunt told her, Do not go to the E.R. If they see those burns, child services will take your kids. So she didn’t. The next day, she went to her mother’s house. She and her mother started fighting, as they usually did, and she left the apartment with Leslie and sat with her outside. It was a warm night. She saw two women she didn’t know walk past her and into the building. Her mother called her phone and told her to come upstairs. The two women were in her mother’s apartment; they told her they were from A.C.S., and had come to see what happened to the baby.

The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) argued in court that Mercedes had intentionally burned her daughter, and put the children in foster care.

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This sort of situation, the panelists said, routinely happens in impoverished, mostly black and brown communities in New York, and cities across the country. These families are torn apart for incidents that, in a white, middle-class area, would be treated as upsetting, but understandable hurdles of parenting.

“I do not see a lot of child abuse, believe it or not,” Mendenhall said. “What we do see mostly is the result of poverty. We see things that are symptomatic to parental isolation, social stressors. The way that these things get written up in 12-point Courier font on a petition, they’re termed neglect.”

“The Constitution, the law, New York state law, social policy, social services research, biology, all the -ologies,” she continued, “Everyone believes in a room where people are talking about these things, that removal of a child from her home should be a thing of last resort, only in the most drastic cases.” But that’s not so.

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Vega is also a parent who had her son taken away by ACS, which she wrote about, after she hit him with a belt—which is how she was raised, and, she says, all she ever knew: She was 19 years old and raising her first child alone. Today, Vega is an advocate, spreading awareness that separating families causes far greater trauma than training parents better disciplinary techniques.

“I kept saying I am not an angry person—I’m angry at the situation that I’m in,” Vega said after detailing the multiple anger management courses she had taken in an attempt to get her son back. “There was always something about why my son couldn’t come home to me. It just make me angrier and angrier, and the system kept saying, why are you so angry?

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To change the system, the panelists agreed, requires a combination of altering the structure of how these cases get dealt with, as well as how child welfare issues get reported.

“When we listen to reporting in the media that tends to be pro-removal of children,” Mendenhall said, “parents are bad, black mothers are bad, and you’re reading that more than you think, pay attention and listen to it, and recognize the historical origins of that in this country. The quickness with which white women have told black and brown women that this is how you parent.”

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“We have to think more critically when you see reporting about, oh, this ACS caseworker let a child die. Don’t report that. It’s not true. Nobody lets a child die. What it does is it fuels this fire, that the safe thing to do is to cover my own keister. That is, unfortunately, the way so many decisions are made in this system.”

MacFarquhar agreed: “The media could be part of the solution by giving the other side of it, and showing people how to understand what is, in fact, going on—how most cases are neglect, how most cases are not the kind of things they’ve been reading about.”

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She quoted an effective adage used by the Bronx Defenders: that the child welfare system has become for black women what the criminal justice system is for black men.

Vega mentioned the reception to her article when it was published on Jezebel: “The comments were very hurtful. I told Nora [McCarthy], I wanna quit! I’m done! I just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.”

“[The Rise team said] this is not who you are anymore, you made a mistake and you overcame it,” she continued. “This is why you’re working in the system, to open the mind of all these people who do not understand how conflicting having a case is, or the complexity that comes with being affected by the child welfare system. I think what we’re doing is trying to open up the minds of people who are not affected themselves on just how different things are, and people are different but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad.”

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But not having the tools to be better parents often translates directly to “bad.” “What I see is a system that sets people up for failure,” observed Joyce McMillan, director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project, who read from a statement that she had given at City Hall in response to ACS’s request for more funds.

She also pushed beyond the simplistic savior narrative of ACS, asking for a bigger picture of what happens after a child is placed. “ACS holds press conferences to talk about children who died at the hands of their parents or their parents’ significant others,” she said. “But where are the statistics for the children who die in their care? For the children who are raped in their care? For the children who are beaten in their care? Why don’t we have those statistics?”