Between April and June 2018, under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, more than 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Bi-partisan resistance and public outcry was strong and immediate. As historians and those aware of adoption history well know, the separation and removal of children from their families and networks of kin have incredibly deep, racialized, and problematic roots in U.S. history.
In May 2018, both Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House chief of staff John Kelly made direct links between the administration’s border separations and the United States’ domestic foster care system. As Nielsen expressed, “Operationally, [the current immigration policy is] no different than what we do every day in every part of the United States when an adult of a family commits a crime.” As Kelly expressed, “The children will be taken care of – put into foster care or whatever.”
As of June 23, 2018, West Michigan adoption agency Bethany Christian Services had placed 81 border-separated children into foster care. Only after intense public protest did the administration begin to arrange a process of reunification. As of July 26, 2018, a reunification process was still not in place and a surplus of evidence was uncovered to show how U.S. government officials’ coercive practices placed additional legal barriers between migrant parents and their children. By September 30, 2018, more than 1,600 migrant children had been “shipped from shelters to West Texas” in order to deal with the large number of children separated from their parents. And as of October 12, 2018, the Trump administration was brainstorming different legal options to better enforce family separations at the border.
In the first quarter of 2017, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services requests-for-child-removal, to be placed into foster care, saw a 40% increase from 2016. These numbers, and the raced criminalization of the children’s mothers, primarily poor black or Hispanic women, have led some to label this systematized child removal “Jane Crow.”
Since the 1980s, and continuing today, it is common rhetoric to cite the disproportionate number of African American children “languishing” unadoptable, in U.S. foster care. This rhetoric is often accompanied by an explicit pro-adoption agenda, whether critiquing society’s low number of transracial adoptions or calling on the black community to adopt at greater numbers. As Dr. Stacey Patton expresses, “The presumption is that more Black people need to become foster and adoptive parents. What is rarely acknowledged is Black people do foster and adopt Black children.
The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act is hailed by special-needs-adoption advocates as a landmark piece of legislation that reduced the population of special-needs-foster-care children by supporting their permanent placements into adoptive families. P.L. 96-272 defined special needs children as having:
a specific factor or condition (such as his ethnic background, age, or membership in a minority or sibling group, or the presence of factors such as medical conditions or physical, mental, or emotional handicaps) because of which it is reasonable to conclude that such child cannot be placed with adoptive parents without providing adoption assistance [emphasis added].
But as an April 1984 U.S. Human Development Services (HDS) report found: “The black community is adopting children from the public welfare agencies at a rate 4.5 times greater than the white or Hispanic community when family composition, income, and age are the same” [emphasis added]. In this way, the “problem” of black children in American foster care was not that of “unadoptability,” but of the sheer number of those children located in the foster care system. As this article illuminates, while the total number of black children in American foster care fluctuates over time, post-1961, this number has consistently evidenced a problematic and disproportionate population of resident black youth, as compared to the national population of black children.
Progressive Era Reforms and Racialized Standards of Family Preservation
U.S. slavery was a race-based political-economic system wherein white planters’ power to separate black children from their black mothers played a critical role. The subversiveness of the current foster system, wherein white institutions separate black children from their black mothers and propagate that these children be raised in white families, is in its successful framing of black family separation as a righteous and ethical practice. By mapping African Americans’ participation through the rise and transformation of child and family welfare policies, from the Progressive Era and New Deal through World War II, the 1980s, Clinton-era, and today, this article exposes U.S. foster care policy rationales in black “children’s best interests” as simply myths. Instead, the surveillance, discipline and breakdown of black families has been the ultimate consequence of these policies, if not the explicit and underlying goal.
The “scientific” methods of social diagnosis instituted during the Progressive Era, to pathologize and judge black parents, have since expanded to encompass the United States’ Hispanic populations. The increased racial codification of blackness with criminality (at the intersections of class and gender) to penalize poor, African American mothers as unfit, now intersects with the legislative and welfare policy discourses that justify the taking of Latin American immigrants’ children, depending on their residency status. As in the U.S. federal government’s history of separating indigenous children from their networks of kin, the racial geopolitics governing black and Latinx child separation is rationalized, in part, by the white supremacist policing of U.S. national belonging. While incredibly resilient, these targeted populations’ lesser privilege due to race, class, gender, language, and immigrant status, make recourse to these unfair and unethical practices of family breakdown more difficult to achieve. Ultimately, these systems of child removal work to further disenfranchise America’s “undesirable” and thus undeserving communities—economically, politically, and culturally.
Upon convening the 1909 White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children, President Theodore Roosevelt declared, “Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization. Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.” This “home life,” the conference’s central theme, was not idealized as in a stranger’s home, but in the home of the birth family. Roosevelt elaborated:
Surely poverty alone should not disrupt the home… above all, deserving mothers… should be given such aid as may be necessary to enable them to maintain suitable homes for the rearing of their children. The widowed or deserted mother, if a good woman… willing to work and to do her best, should ordinarily be helped in such fashion as will enable her to bring up her children herself in their natural home [emphasis added].
This “help” was specifically addressed by Hon. Julian W. Mack, of Chicago, Illinois: “[If the mother] is supplied with the money to keep her child in her own home, it is in that case particularly that we are going to save not only the child but the mother too – the mother possibly from a life of immorality.”
The Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) institutionalized the professionalization of child and social welfare vocations. Founded on gendered notions of family life that positioned mothers as central caregivers, welfare and social reform movements emerged as professional and political spaces for female leadership, and have historically maintained parallel foci on women and children.
The 1909 White House Conference, attended by leading child welfare reformers, not only solidified the goal of family preservation within mainstream rhetoric, but illuminated the expanding role of the state, and the collaboration between state and private agencies, in regulating child welfare. By 1912, the U.S. federal Children’s Bureau was established, headed by Julia C. Lathrop, former resident of Hull-House, a leading social welfare institution. In 1919, the Bureau organized the first national conference on child welfare standards.
The legacy of U.S. slavery and Reconstruction was that Jim Crow Era-Progressive child welfare reforms introduced new technologies for African American exclusion. The 1909 White House Conference defined family preservation as: “Home care. – Children of worthy parents or deserving mothers should… be kept with their parents at home.” Mothers’ pensions emerged following the declaration that “poverty alone should not disrupt the home [and that] deserving mothers… should be given… aid.” Within white supremacist, racialized standards of family preservation, however, black mothers were deemed undeserving and systematically excluded.
This exclusion was most obvious in the American South. For example, throughout the Progressive Era, while African Americans made up more than 21% of Houston, Texas’s population (and were one of the poorest populations in the nation), black parents were not eligible for pension benefits. Between 1926 to 1928, when African Americans comprised 29% of North Carolina’s population, only 2% received any pension benefits.
In the 1930s, states expanded mothers’ pensions through the Social Security Act-Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) provision, in what is now commonly known as “welfare.” Using racially coded language to make “immoral” and “unsuitable” unwed mothers ineligible, Mississippi and Florida withheld ADC benefits from more than 10,000 African American children. Without federal aid, white southerners could more easily retain black mothers and their children in low paying wage economies, which included child care labor in white households. These regulations meant that black women were not the recipients of ADC benefits in any notable number prior to the 1950s. Black families were also excluded from the early orphanage system. A July 1984 HDS Report highlighted: “In 1945, only 17 percent of children in foster care were minorities. By 1982, the figure had risen to 47 percent.”
Post-World War II Foster Care and Adoption
In 1951, 1952, and 1953, 111 black couples expressed interest in domestic adoption with the Pittsburgh Family and Children’s Service, but only 20 children were placed into adoptive homes. While black families expressed interest to adopt, African Americans often failed to meet the financial or “cultural” criteria set forth by child welfare standards that favored white, middle-class couples. Ignoring the political, social, and economic realities that led black families to earn less money, forced more black women to enter the workforce, or created different family cultures, child welfare standards used these discrepancies to deem black families unworthy of adoption. Beyond the outright rejection of black parents, early negative interactions between white social workers and African American prospective adoptive parents also led applicants to withdraw their applications. As child welfare researcher David Fanshel noted, these finding reflected how “[s]ocial agency practice in adoption has its roots in work with white couples.”
In 1953, the National Urban League enacted its Foster Care and Adoptions Project. Throughout the 1950s, the domestic adoption of black children by African American parents was a priority on its national agenda. Greater attempts by African American prospective adoptive parents did not result in a greater number of domestic adoptions: “For every [black] child placed in 1953, four couples were seen; whereas in 1954, a year of much promotional activity, seven couples were seen for every child placed.”
Poor children and children of color were disproportionately represented in the postwar foster care system that developed to replace prewar orphanages. Policy changes soon transformed foster care into an explicitly punitive system that sought to discipline African Americans by taking their children, wherein the number of black foster children rose to startling and unprecedented numbers.
In 1960 the Louisiana legislature rescinded ADC benefits to approximately 23,000 African American children, citing claims of immorality against their mothers, whose allegedly “unsuitable homes” made them unfit to receive government funds. Similar policies followed in Michigan, Arkansas, and Virginia. In response, in January 1961, U.S. State Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Arthur Flemming “handed down a ruling on the ‘suitable home’ provision in which he held… that a State which failed to make adequate provision and cut off assistance to any one family would place all their funds in jeopardy.” Within this amendment, in order for a state to withhold ADC funds from a family, the claim of an “unsuitable home” would be accepted as legitimate only if circumstances were so dire that the child needed to be removed from the home.
Congress gave states until September 1, 1962, to comply with the Flemming ruling. In 1933, approximately 243,000 children lived in foster care. Following the Flemming ruling, an unprecedented 150,000 children, primarily African American, were removed from their families and placed into the system.
By 1977, 75% of federal funds were being used toward foster care versus AFDC (formerly AFC, renamed to Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1962) benefits toward family preservation. By the 1980s, the rhetoric of African American children “languishing” in foster care had solidified and black children were a central focus in the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272). In 1982, as recorded by the National Child Welfare Indicator Survey (Indicator Survey), black children constituted more than 25% of the foster care population, despite comprising only 14% of the nation’s youth—and this 25% was an undercount. As the Indicator Survey noted: “This was a national probability survey of 2010 counties. Eighty-one percent of the sample counties participated in this study… There is an apparent undercount of minority children due to the lack of participation of counties in two States with large numbers of minority children, particularly Black children.”
“Mothers, Babies and Crack”
In 1985, the racially-punitive foster care system became criminally encoded as black women were stereotyped as cocaine-using “crack mothers.” Beginning in 1985, due to suspicions of drug use, black women were disproportionally prosecuted, jailed, and lost their children to the foster care system, which doubled to more than 570,000 children by 2000. As Dorothy Roberts has detailed, while black minors constituted 15% of the U.S. youth population in 1986, they made up 35% of the foster care population. In 2000, black minors composed 42% of foster-care children, despite accounting for only 17% of the United States’ youth population.
Black children were included in all publicity surrounding the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272). As early as April 1983, Dorcas Hardy reported, “I am pleased to report an encouraging trend since the passage of [P.L. 96-272]: The foster care population is declining and the number of special needs adoptions increasing.” In 1984, child welfare professionals and special-needs-adoption advocates were more exact regarding the positive impacts of the law: “There was a 17% decrease in the number of children in foster care for the 31 States which were approved and only a one percent decrease for the 17 States without approval [as] compared with the 1980 study conducted by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).” Speaking to the national pro-adoption Reagan Era discourse, Congress “designated the week of November 24 through November 30, 1985, as “National Adoption Week” and authorized and requested the President to issue a proclamation in observance of this week.” In January 1986, Hardy recorded that Title IV-E of P.L. 96-272, focused on eligible special needs children, “[provided] approximately 16,000 children monthly with federal adoption subsidies administered through state programs.”
In reality, black children were excluded from the benefits of this watershed piece of legislation and political moment aimed to reduce the number of “special needs” children in foster care. This is because adoption was not the answer to the sheer quantity of black foster children. The unaddressed problem—the post-1961 punitive and racially motivated placement of African American children into foster care—had by 1984, institutionalized the removal of black children from their families as a legitimate form of child welfare. A government study determined that raising the standard of living for black families in America by providing state and federal assistance to African American single parents and families living in poverty would best decrease the number of black children residing in foster care. But post-1984, instead of taking steps to further support the preservation of black families, the 1985 criminalization of black mothers enacted further disciplinary surveillance, to streamline this punitive practice of foster care.
Clinton-Era Child Welfare-Adoption Politics
But the welfare system will not work when half of those on welfare are in a class of permanently dependent individuals, sometimes passing their dependency from generation to generation; the welfare system will not work when there are no responsibilities imposed on recipients to break the chain of dependency and when there are no provisions for the kind of education and support services which would enable them to do so [emphasis added].
– Bill Clinton, “Hearings on The Family Support Act of 1988,” 1990
Governor William J. Clinton’s 1990 remarks to Congress reflected the mainstream and political implications of the 1965 Moynihan Report and Progressive Era legacies of the “scientific” pathologization of the black family, foreshadowing 1990s welfare and adoption policies implemented under Clinton’s presidential tenure (1993-2001). Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, named the “fundamental problem” of African American poverty as “that of family structure.” He argued that black communities’ “tangle of pathology” wherein the “matriarchal pattern of so many Negro families [reinforced] itself over the generations” resulted in “most Negro youth… in danger of being caught up in [the] pathology that affects their world… Many of those who escape do so for one generation only: as things are now, their children may have to run the gauntlet all over again.” In order to “break” the alleged “chain of [welfare] dependency,” Clinton-era child welfare and adoption policies worked together to further weaken the hold of black mothers over their children, to facilitate their removal into foster care, and subsequent adoption.
In order to facilitate the transracial placement of black children into white foster and adoptive homes, the Multiethnic Placements Act of 1994 made it illegal to “categorically deny any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or foster parent, solely on the basis of the race, color, or national origin of the adoptive or foster parent, or the child, involved.” The act strengthened the powers of public and private institutions and weakened African American parent-rights.
In 1996, Congress passed the Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEPA, commonly referred to as Interethnic Provisions (IEP)) to revise the Multiethnic Placements Act. It strengthened the race-blind imperatives behind MEPA to make it simply illegal to “deny” a person the opportunity to adopt “on the basis of race.” Reminiscent of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272), IEPA provided elevated support to “special needs” children, a category which continued to include “minority groups.”
That same year, the Adoption Promotion and Stability Act (APSA) elevated IEPA to its own separate piece of legislation. President Clinton made a public and impassioned statement in support of APSA: “Today, families who seek to adopt children face significant barriers, including high adoption costs and outdated assumptions, the Administration is deeply committed to removing these barriers and making adoption easier.” Clinton emphasized, “The tax credit will alleviate a primary barrier to adoption and enable middle class families, for whom adoption may be too expensive, to adopt children.” Implicit in this legislation and presidential statement is the whole-hearted support of America’s deserving parents: white, middle class, prospective adoptive parents who deserve to adopt and raise a child to such a degree that the federal government will subsidize the making of their families. Absent in this discourse are these “adoptable” children’s original parents who were usually black members of the working class.
In 1996, AFDC ended. While the federal government was providing funds to middle class prospective adoptive parents, Congress reduced the welfare safety net available to poor parents and their children. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193) replaced AFDC with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Where AFDC had given families individualized monetary support, TANF’s block grant system provided smaller, time-limited, fixed-cash allowances conditional on employment stipulations. TANF’s language was racially coded to address, discipline, and reform black, unwed mothers—to “break the chain of dependency.”
Passed in 1997, the goal of AFSA was to promote the adoption of children in foster care. IEPA, APSA, and P.L.-104-193 provided financial incentives to (white) middle class prospective adoptive parents, to adopt, and (black) working class (pregnant) mothers, to give up their children. Under AFSA, the federal government authorized $20 million “for each of fiscal years 1990 through 2003” as “adoption incentive payments.”
New measures for State accountability required that states document their adoption promotion efforts and assess programs to measure the length of foster stays, placements, and number of adoptions. The policies did not assess family reunification or kinship care. Rather, the policies utilized time limits and financial resources to expedite the termination of birth parent rights.
Historical Legacies and the Twenty-First Century
The legacy of Progressive Era and New Deal child and family welfare policies, and postwar transformations, are normalized social and policy discourses that equate state intervention, child taking, and family disruption of African American families with “child welfare.” This article highlights the systematic injustices over multiple decades that promote transracial adoption as the solution to the disproportionate number of black children in U.S. foster care. At the same time, black families have been devalued.
In 2006, despite the slew of 1990s pro-adoption legislation, black children accounted for 32% of the foster care population, despite accounting for 15% of the national population. As a 2008 government report emphasized: “African American children were about three times as likely to be placed in foster care compared with White children in 2006, and African American children remained in foster care about 9 months longer as well. This disproportionality occurs despite the fact that national studies have shown that children suffer from abuse and neglect at the same rates regardless of their race or ethnicity. Although states vary considerably, data from nearly all states show some overrepresentation of African American children in foster care.
Since 2012, the U.S. foster population has steadily climbed so that 427,465 children resided in foster care in 2016. Within this five-year increase, African American children accounted for an average 24.2% of the total foster care population (and 14% of the national population); white children averaged 42.6% of the total foster care population (and 52% of the national population).
Between 2004 and 2016, the number of foster children who reunited with parent(s) or other living relatives declined from 54% to 51% and 12% to 7%, respectively. These declines support historian Laura Briggs’s cogent assessment that, alongside “adoption reform measures,” the 1990s elimination of “AFDC as a benefit to children… made it more difficult for children to use the most common exit from foster care: family reunification.” During this same time period, foster care adoptions, in general, increased from 18% to 23%. But for black foster children, their adoptions declined (or stayed the same) yearly, without exception, from 32% to 17%.
Since Trump’s “zero tolerance” began, scholars and community members have come together in resistance, and written on the many ways in which America’s practice of “separating children from their parents is not new.” Anthropologist Lauren Heidbrink and legal scholar Marcia Zug illuminate the intersections between U.S. unaccompanied minors, undocumented immigrants, and transnational adoption practice. And in particular, domestic and international adoptees, first/birth mothers, and critical adoption scholars have spoken poignantly to Trump’s current policy, contemporary adoption, and the country’s deep and painful history of child separation, particularly in the histories of indigenous and children of color. Kathryn Joyce spoke specifically to the migrant children’s placement into the U.S. foster care system. Depending on their length of stay, their residence could:
trigger a mechanism within the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act that was intended to keep children from languishing in foster care… The law provides that if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of 22 consecutive months, except in a case of relative foster care, child welfare agencies must stop working toward the goals of reunifying parents and instead, move to terminate parental rights and make the child available for adoption.
These scholars and community members’ assessments have proven predictive, as October 2018 news reports cite the increasing risk of border-separated children’s permanent adoption by U.S. citizens, despite the heartache and anguish expressed by the children’s living parents to reunite. As of October 8, 2018, an alleged 200 children who remained in “detention, shelters or foster care [were cited by U.S. officials as] not eligible for reunification or release.”
In April 2018, in my home state of Minnesota, plaintiff Dwight Mitchell, filed a federal lawsuit accusing “child protection workers of illegally removing African-American children from their parents.” As of November 2018, more than 8,500 people have signed onto Mitchell’s petition to Stop Child Protection Services (CPS) From Legally Kidnapping Children.
Placing the contemporary circumstances of South American child migrants, foster care, and adoption, within the much longer, and still ongoing practice of African American foster care, adoption, and child removal demonstrates that family separation is a long-standing practice in the United States with cultural, economic, and political angles. These interconnections, beyond highlighting broader historical and contemporary context, also bring to light the question: What child separations are visible in our current and historical landscape of U.S. parent rights, family separations and child placements? All families and children are deserving of intense social, cultural, and political attention to ensure parents’ right to parent and children’s rights to remain with their families of birth. But undoubtedly, some children, at different moments in time, occupy a more discernible grasp of the public’s imagination and focus.
Teacher Resources, Further Reading and Viewing:
- View lecture on The Progressive Era by historian Gary Gerstle (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History).
- Listen to “Justice, Not Pity: Julia Lathrop, First Chief of the U.S. Children’s Bureau,” Dr. Cecilia Tichi (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services).
- Read Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895).
- Read Jane Addams’s Twenty years at Hull-house: with Autobiographical Notes (1911).
- Read Mary E. Richmond’s Social Diagnosis (1917). Mary E. Richmond was the head of the Russel Sage Foundation’s Charity Organization Department. Her book, Social Diagnosis, was an early text in “scientific” versus individual charity and mapped out foundational criteria for the profession of social welfare to diagnose and rectify various social ills.
- Enslavement & The Underground Railroad (PBS).
- View lectures on The Reconstruction Era by historians Gregory Downs and Melvin Ely (C-Span).
- The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS).
- Read “Public Pensions to Widows,” National Conference of Charities and Corrections, Official Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, 1912.
- View New York Times Retro Report: Crack Babies: A Tale From the Drug Wars (NYTimes).
- “Mothers, Babies and Crack,” New York Times, May 14, 1989.
- Susan Chira, “Crack Babies Turn 5, and Schools Brace,” New York Times, May 25, 1990.