After decades of advocacy by community and grassroots organizations, California is making significant strides toward criminal and juvenile justice. This past year, Los Angeles County’s new district attorney began working to end cash bail for misdemeanors, enact new sentencing policies, and stop the transfer of children to adult court. Meanwhile, a 2020 state law and a budget directive from the governor’s office have resulted in plans to close all three of California’s juvenile prisons by 2023.
These reforms recognize the need to address egregious racial disparities and the criminalization of poverty that are both hallmarks of these systems. Despite these efforts, a large gap will remain if we do not also take a critical look at how these same problems exist within our child welfare and foster care system—our family regulation system.
This system creates a broad web for government surveillance of and grievous harm to Black, Indigenous, and other families of color with little accountability.
L.A. County maintains the largest child welfare agency in the country, and alarming racial disparities exist within the family regulation system:
- Black children make up 27.8% of children in the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services’ (DCFS) custody, despite only making up 7.5% of children in the county.
- In 2018, Black children made up 15.9% of children in the Riverside County foster care system, despite making up only 5.3% of the county population.
- A staggering 58% of Black children in L.A. will be subjects of a DCFS investigation before they are 18.
- Despite laws adopted to explicitly protect Indigenous children from being removed from their families and communities, the proportion of Indigenous children in foster care is 2.6 times higher than their representation in the total child population.
- About half of all Indigenous children in California will experience a child welfare investigation before they are 18.
A broad definition of neglect frequently pulls in families struggling with houselessness, lack of childcare, or access to basic resources.
The family regulation system also impacts low-income families. A broad definition of neglect frequently pulls in families struggling with houselessness, lack of childcare, or access to basic resources. Instead of providing parents with the support necessary to raise their children, the system funds removing children and system-appointed caretakers. L.A. County refuses to help pay for services that parents are ordered to obtain by Child Protective Services, while paying foster care providers to care for children who are removed from their homes.
The United States has a long history of family separation. Beginning in the 1600s, during chattel slavery, family separation was a common condition of bondage used to threaten parents and prevent strong familial bonds. From the 1800s to 1900s, California’s Apprenticeship Laws incentivized the kidnapping of Indigenous children so they could be sold as indentured servants to white families, oftentimes also resulting in the murder of Indigenous parents seeking to protect them. During the same period, Indigenous children were also removed from their families and their reservations to be sent to boarding schools under genocidal assimilationist policies resulting in the systemic erasure of their culture through generations.
Today, the removal of Black and Indigenous children in our country and immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border is a continuation of this country’s family separation history.
Our family regulation system remains as entrenched and harmful as our criminal legal system, and, in fact, work in tandem. Many incarcerated and newly released parents struggle for years to reunify with their children to no avail. Children in foster care are frequently involved in the juvenile legal system that it is known as the “foster care-to-prison pipeline.” One study found that by age 17, over half of youth in foster care experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility.
It is time to reimagine child safety.
This week, the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition issued demands to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to take immediate action to protect families. Join the campaign to end law enforcement partnerships with DCFS.
ACLU Southern California
Ariana Rodriguez is policy counsel at the ACLU of Southern California and is based in the Inland Empire office.