Family Separation in the Foster Care System: Supporting BIPOC Children’s Ecosystem

By: Dr. Valerie D. Jackson


September 28, 2023, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families released a revised rule that addresses a longstanding inequity faced by relatives and kin caregivers and the children they care for in foster care.

 The revised rule, for the first time, explicitly allows states to use kinship specific commonsense foster care licensing standards. There will be many discussions within Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Department of Health and Human Services Administration regarding new standards for Texas formal Kinship Caregivers that are eligible for the home licensing process. Monarch Family Services team has an abundance of insight on standards that are reasonable for these families and maintain the goal of keeping children safe in kinship care. Regarding engaging in best practices, MFS has the competency to inform the child welfare community of professionals on culturally sensitive practice models for overcoming service hesitancy in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) families.  

History of Family Separation in the BIPOC Cultures

The problem that this narrative addresses—the separation of BIPOC children from their families—is both timely and lies at the root of multiple negative health outcomes for these children, their families, and their communities. The separation of a child from their family is highly disruptive and one that is by definition a traumatic, adverse childhood experience (Hughes et al., 2017). Nevertheless, this traumatic episode is one that happens every day in America, where in 2020 there were more than 400,000 children living in foster care. The burden of family separation and the associated trauma is not shared equally; BIPOC communities are disproportionately represented. In 2018, Black children made up a little less than 14% of the population, but almost 23% of the children in foster care. The ratio for Native Americans was even starker at 1% of the population versus 2.4% of children in care (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2021). Systemic racism in the foster care system transmutes the trauma of a single family’s separation into a persistent structural disparity. Moreover, foster care family separation is intertwined with America’s historical legacy of family separation, whether against indigenous communities (e.g., Native American Residential Boarding Schools), African Americans (e.g., slavery), or immigrants (e.g., separation at the border).

The removal of children from their families has been a central tool used by the US Government and allied private actors to eliminate Native American nations and expedite the settler colonial expropriation of Indigenous land and resources (Burt, 1986; Williams, 1986). In the 19th century, the US government began a large-scale policy of building and operating off-reservation residential boarding schools where thousands of Native children were taken from their families and sent away to residential schools with the explicit aim of erasing indigenous cultural practices and conforming Native children toward white Christian values with an emphasis on industrial training (Wilkinson & Biggs, 1977; R. Cross, 1999). Sending the children to boarding schools functioned as a military tool through family separation to weaken Native American military power from retaliating (Crofoot & Harris, 2021). This forced separation and conversion of Native American children through boarding schools has resulted in severe economic, social, and psychological harm to ingenious communities (Cunneen & Tauri, 2019). An assimilationist program known as The Indian Adoptions Project by the Child Welfare League of America placed thousands of Native children in non-native, predominantly white, adoptive homes far away from their home of origin between 1958 and the mid-1970s (Crofoot & Harris, 2012). This campaign resulted in the mass removal of Native children from their families and attempted to disconnect a generation of Indigenous children from their homes, and culture, and even perpetuated negative stereotypes against their native parents (Jacobs, 2014). During that time, the Association of American Indian Affairs concluded that between 25% – 35% of all American Indians were placed out of home, mainly with non-native families (Ninety-fifth Congress, 1977). 

            Today, indigenous people suffer from intergenerational trauma rooted in the forced removal and assimilation of indigenous children by Child Protective Services through adoptions by non-native families (Czyzewski, 2011; Cross, 2021; Evans-Campbell 2008; Evans-Campbell et al. 2012). This trauma has been empirically linked to PTSD, depression, and substance use in indigenous people for several generations (T. L. Cross, 2021). Research shows that Indigenous children and youth have higher rates of kinship placement than their peers and are less likely to use trial home visits or reunify with family compared to white children (Rocha, T. & Edward, F., 2021). Decreasing family reunification, Child Welfare laws such as the Child in Need of Assistance Act and the Adoption and Safe Families Act have restrained goals outlined in the Indian Child Welfare Act by decreasing the allotted time parents have to reunify, moving quickly to terminate parental rights, and prioritizing adoption by non-native or unrelated families.

Neglect is the greatest category for child welfare investigations amongst indigenous families. Compared to non-native families, Indigenous families experience higher substantiated cases of neglect, especially in single-parent households or when caregivers suffer from substance use disorders (Grinell Davis et al., 2022; Sinha et al., 2021). Native parents accused of neglect are often treated more punitively by agencies than non-native families with similar case backgrounds, resulting in greater rates of child removal, termination of parental rights, and fewer service referrals (Haight et al., 2018). However, it should not be ignored that cases of neglect are ultimately driven by poverty and thus Native American families would benefit from interventions targeting ‘distal’ or structural factors instead of individualizing blame onto families (Chase & Ullrich, 2022). Quantitative research has linked a wide range of factors to inequalities in child welfare outcomes for Native youth and families (Cross, 2021), including exposure to poverty, implicit or explicit bias of child welfare actors, improper housing, as well as lack of access to services, education, and other forms of capital, which creates a high risk of contact with the child welfare system (Feely & Bosk, 2021).

Research demonstrates that American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) children are more likely to be removed from the home, stay in out-of-home care longer, and experience more placement settings compared to white and non-native children (Martin & Connelly, 2015; Huggins-Hoyt et al., 2019; Macguire-Jack, Font, & Dillard, 2020; T. L. Cross, 2021; Harris, 2021; Sinha et al., 2021). Native youth are more likely to be placed in foster care compared to non-Native children when processed through agencies where more than 45% of investigations involve AIAN children. In many states throughout the U.S., Indigenous children are far more likely than their white peers to experience family separation. The Child welfare system can be viewed as a continuous institutional tool by US governments and private institutions to eliminate Native nations by destroying Native families.

The separation of families can be traced back to slavery, with millions of black people being forcefully separated from their families over the course of 250 years. From the history of slavery, it is taught and emphasized that families would remain together and that this made slavery in the United States unique. However, most enslaved people would experience being sold and separated from their families on average four to five times in their lifetime. Families two and three generations deep comprised of men, women, and children were separated and dispersed throughout the United States. For example, a husband and wife might be sold to one location, if lucky. However, siblings would be sold to a different part of the United States, and their children and parents would be sold and transported to another part of the United States, leaving the family scattered throughout the nation. Although it was common for enslaved people to be listed as a family unit or grouping at auctions, it was even more common for buyers to separate these families due to only purchasing specific slaves to suit their needs and priorities. Many enslave people would live in constant fear and anxiety that at any given moment, they could be separated from their loved ones. In Savannah, slaves would refer to the auction as the “weeping time,” because it was guaranteed that tears would be shed due to families being torn apart. Many of these separations would happen on plantations or farms, but also in marketplaces and on auction blocks.

            Estate divisions’ local sales and long-term hiring practices was one of the most common reasons for the disruption of families and family contact. Estate divisions occurred when a slave owner passed away and bequeathed his remaining slaves to his heirs or were sold off to pay any remaining debt he might have had. In some instances, following the slaveowner’s death, the heirs sold off the acquired enslaved individuals to avoid the responsibility associated with the maintenance and care costs of slave ownership, further separating members of the enslaved family. 

            One long-term hiring practice involved a slave owner “renting” or hiring out a slave to an individual for periods ranging cfrom one to 16 years. During this time slaves may or may not have been given the opportunity to see their family while hired out, therefore contributing to the weakening of familial bonds. In the early 19th century, manumission, the act of a slaveholder freeing a slave, contributed to the forcible separation of families. Virginia law demanded the removal of manumitted slaves from the State; therefore, for freed slaves with family members still in bondage, freedom came with a most painful price, and thus, freedom was bittersweet.  As a result of the separation, the freed and the enslaved tried desperately to keep track of each other and stay in contact with some even running away to find their loved ones. The “lucky” ones were granted their master’s permission to visit nearby family members for a weekend. Starting in 1865 up until 1903, free slaves would often post ads in newspapers and write letters seeking any clue regarding their individual family members whereabouts. 

Jenny Williams of the University of Virginia followed the journey of 334 slaves transported and sold through New Orleans between 1825 and 1848. She found that 65% of those slaves were transported with no family at all. Of the remaining slaves, another 65% were split up from their relatives once they reached New Orleans, and overall, 88% suffered separation from their immediate families.  In modern times, forced separation of family persists in institutional systems such as in the criminal justice and child welfare, specifically within families of color. 

The Term “Family Separation”

The term family separation became popular during Trump ‘s presidency, However, the separation of immigrant families has been a part of America’s history for a couple decades now. Since the late 19th century, the United States government has had a history of imprisoning immigrants not charged with any crimes but who entered the country illegally. In 1980 the imprisonment of migrant children who arrived in the US without a parent or caregiver reached a peak. Jenny Flores, a 15-year-old child from El Salvador, was apprehended and detained by the United States border officials in an old motel in California surrounded by barbed wire for two months while her undocumented mother fought for her release. During her detainment she was not allowed any communication with her parents and was regularly strip searched. This led to the lawsuit Flores vs Reno that resulted in the Flores Settlement Agreement in 1997. The Flores Settlement Agreement provides national minimum standards for the treatment and placement of immigrant children in the custody of the US Government. Despite the establishment of the Flores Settlement Agreement, family detention practices have increased since the 1980s, reaching their peak between the years of 2014 and 2016. An empirical study outlined the disturbing rise in family detention rates between 2001 and 2016 and concluded that the rate of family detention increased by 3,400% in the 15 years the study was conducted.

In the fiscal year of 2013, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 21,553 unaccompanied children and 7,265 family units. In 2014, roughly 50,000 unaccompanied children and 52,000 family units were apprehended. With Trump taking presidency in 2016, an elicit strategy of criminalizing all migrants who crossed the border was born and as a result, CBP would remove any accompanying children from their parents and put the adults and children in separate detention facilities. Through these actions and policies of Trump’s administration, thousands of families were destroyed. The Secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly, confirmed that deterring migration into the US was the intended goal of taking children from their parents. By threatening the adults with prison, which would mean that they’ll be separated from their children and possibly lose their parental rights, the United States hoped to deter immigrants from trying to cross the border. For pregnant women who were held in United States Marshal Service Criminal Custody, giving birth meant automatic separation from their child. Since they were not U.S. citizens the government would not allow these mothers to stay with their newborns beyond 72 hours after birth.  If they could not find a documented relative in the US, they could possibly permanently loose custody of their child.  Many immigrant parents found themselves apprehended and in custody for entering the US illegally, they would be prosecuted, but usually given a sentence of time served of about 48 hours or less in jail. However, during the time that the parent was incarcerated, the child would be removed, flown across the country, and not returned to the parent even after the parent was released. 

From October 2017 to March 2018, more than 100 children younger than four were forcibly removed from their parents. Reports showed that during this operation, United States Customs and Border Protection separated nearly 1,800 families between October 2017 and February 2018. There were 2,342 children removed from their parents or caregivers between May 5th  and 9th 2018. There was a total of 5,636 child separations between July 1st, 2017, and January 20th, 2021. About 3,913 were related to the zero-tolerance policy or similar initiatives. Per the task force, there are still 1,841 children who have not been reunified with their parents, including 45 children who are currently in the process of reunification.

Family Separation Summary

Family separation has historically been harmful to BIPOC communities. There is an abundance of research findings that support the need to maintain the children’s connection to their family of origin. Cultural connectedness has received increasing empirical recognition for promoting mental health and wellbeing (Snowshoe et al., 2015). Child welfare practices should be culturally sensitive and build on the inherent strengths of extended families (Scannapieco & Hegar, 1995), opposed to separating the members and weakening the family. 

The Benefits of Kinship Care

Kinship Care is the most promising competing model to nonrelative foster care is kinship care, or the placement of children within their immediate family network. Compared to group homes and nonrelative placements that separate a child from their family, kinship care decreases disruption by increasing placement continuity—a key proxy for positive health and well-being outcomes among children in foster care (Winokur et al., 2014). In fact, recent meta-analyses and systematic literature reviews describe kinship care as an evidence-based practice, with numerous positive outcomes for children vis-à-vis placement continuity/stability, behavior and adaptability, mental health, general well-being, and connectedness (Hassall et al., 2021; Hegar & Scannapieco, 2017; Konijn et al., 2019; Winokur et al., 2018). Theoretically, it seems that kinship care fosters networked resilience. Children that remain within their kinship networks draw on a series of additional social, cultural, and psychological supports which promote resilience to the changes in their living situation. It has long been noted that kinship networks can ameliorate racial weathering (Geronimus, 1992, 2013) and that cultural continuity has major impacts on individual resilience and mental health outcomes such as suicide prevention (Fleming & Ledogar, 2008). Thus, research that can provide insights into increasing the use of kinship care or enhancing the efficacy of kinship care arrangements for improved support and outcomes (i.e., supported permanency) has the potential to have major upstream effects on BIPOC children in the foster care system, preventing or reducing a wide range of future risk factors.

It is our contention that understanding precisely this problem is of crucial importance to building racial equity into the foster care system as it transitions nationally to kinship-focused or kinship-first interventions. Whereas public attention today is often focused on either historical policy frameworks driving family separation (e.g., the 1965 Moynihan Report and African American families) or new and spectacular instances of this policy logic (e.g., the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance immigration policy that separated migrant parents and children at the border), the foster care system represents the largest ongoing vehicle for the separation of BIPOC families. 


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