Academia is a space for immense learning and knowledge building. It is a place where ideas are crafted into resolutions for some of the world’s greatest concerns. Yet, because of its potential to do good, we often overlook academia’s complicity and collaboration in harmful research projects and practices.
The “Ivory Tower” has notably harmed Black and Indigenous folks historically and in the present context. This is exemplified in its past complicity and collaboration with violent theft, slavery, racism,murder and its current perpetuation of policing and the carceral state. Policing not only refers to the prison industrial complex but includes the violent separation of families within the foster care industrial complex and the so-called child welfare system. To this, academia is no stranger.
In the 1960s, Dr. Henry Kempe’s research on the “Battered-Child Syndrome” was highly publicized and utilized in the media, academia and practice. This academic paper contributed to the pathologizing of youth who experienced physical abuse and sparked an era of increased fear over child safety. This contributed to the ideology of “Child Protection,” a system through which millions of children and their families are surveilled today. In subsequent years, amendments were made to the Social Security Act, mandatory reporting laws were enacted, and the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act were passed.
People impacted by the system are the last people who should be left out of such significant decision-making processes.
Families, especially Black families, became more scrutinized and separated by the government and state. This continued through the late 1980s and early 1990s, simultaneous to the rampant incarceration and murders of Black folks by police, and the forceful separation of Black families. During this time, academics continued to study the link between substance use and “child well-being,” making assumptions about Black parenting and the homes of Black families. These academic papers were used and continue to be used as resources for children’s social workers.
A paper cited as a resource for child welfare workers argued for standardized risk assessment models that include domestic violence history and victimization of parents. Additionally, they added that service delivery in the homes and neighborhoods would “facilitate outreach and promote internalization of new behaviors.” Moreover, another resource article aimed to “develop a picture of the home environments of children of crack-addicted mothers.” Variables and outcomes were described as depression, physical neglect and “chaotic child-rearing environments.” It is clear that academia and the family policing system have a complex history.
To this day we still see research that pathologizes families and youth impacted by the child welfare system. Many in academia stand by and consent to the proliferation of surveillance through big data. We offer up remedies of automating decision-making processes, an effort that potentially shuffles youth between subjective case worker decision-making and falsely proclaimed “neutral” computer-based decision-assisting systems.
As academics, we must critically examine the ways in which we engage with and practice child welfare research. There are various ways in which our decision making, and ideologies impact the system and impact youth and families.
We must consider the implications of our relationships with various funding sources like governmental and federal agencies. Funding sources can be the same institutions that surveil and harm our families through the family policing system. Funding for research directly impacts what, whom and why we conduct our research. To combat this, it is important to take note of whom we are asking for money and to seek funding toward abolition of the child welfare system and alternate paths of healing for our communities and families.
Moreover, we must acknowledge our privileges within the Ivory Tower, and how academic gatekeeping perpetuates the notion of whose voice matters and what we count as qualifications to enter the space of formalized education. As a graduate student pursuing my doctoral degree, I was and continue to be offered space in rooms where critical and massive decisions are made that directly impact millions of people in the family policing system. These rooms consistently leave out community members who were impacted by this system. These privileged doorways, accessible only to academics and politicians, should not continue to be normalized.
People impacted by the system are the last people who should be left out of such significant decision-making processes. Nevertheless, regardless of being given the status of “academic,” there are still abysmal percentages of Black students who are accepted into undergraduate, graduate and faculty positions.
The lack of representation reduces the opportunity for our research to be uplifted in this space. This is a transformation that all academic institutions can address immediately.
This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.