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This Former Child Welfare Investigator Says Family Policing Must Be Abolished

Alan J. Dettlaff once worked for Child Protective Services. What he saw made him realize the system should be abolished.

Horrifying racial and class injustices lie at the heart of contemporary child welfare policies in the United States, as Alan J. Dettlaff demonstrates in his recently released book, Confronting the Racist Legacy of the American Child Welfare System: The Case for Abolition.

Among the most shocking is this: Half of all Black children will be subject to a Child Protective Services (CPS) investigation by their 18th birthday.

“Today’s separations occur under a facade of benevolence,” Dettlaff writes, “a myth that has been perpetuated over decades by those in power, that family separations are necessary to save the most vulnerable children” from abuse and neglect.

Dettlaff’s masterful analysis shatters this mythology. Along the way, he debunks the many dehumanizing ideas that undergird white supremacy, notions that were initially promoted by supporters of chattel slavery: that Black people do not value their children; that they are less thoughtful and reflective than White people; that they do not grieve the loss of kin; and that unbridled lust makes fidelity impossible for both Black men and Black women.

“Each of these ideas formed the origins of the narratives that were used by the state over decades to justify intrusive state intervention into the lives of Black families,” Dettlaff concludes.

In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Dettlaff speaks with reporter Eleanor J. Bader about the child welfare abolition movement and the harms of family separation.

Eleanor J. Bader: Although you are now a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, you once worked for Child Protective Services. What motivated you to work for CPS?

Alan J. Dettlaff: I’d been an education major and then a special education major in college, but I was pretty aimless until I saw a story on the TV news about CPS. A local reporter had shadowed a CPS worker and then done a day-in-the-life story about this work. It was a lightbulb moment for me. I wanted to do good and help people and thought being a CPS worker would be a way to do that. I grew up in Chicago, but when my mom got a job in Fort Worth, Texas, I moved with her. I was 22 and started attending Texas Christian University (TCU). TCU had a Bachelor of Social Work program, and students had to do fieldwork to complete their degrees. I did mine at CPS in Fort Worth and then went to work for them after I graduated in 1995. I worked at CPS for six years. I did investigations for five years and then supervised a unit of investigators.

I thought I was helping children and families for the entire time I worked there.

What led to your change of heart?

Most of the CPS workers were, like me, young and inexperienced. The training we received and the culture of the agency promoted child removals. The idea that taking a child from the family was harmful or traumatic was never mentioned. We were taught to see removals as a way to protect children. We were trained to see parents as inherently bad, not as people who might need some help.

Many of the cases that we handled came from ZIP code 76103, a poor Black neighborhood on the east side of Fort Worth. We’d get a complaint, read it, and even before we investigated, we’d assume that we’d be returning with somebody’s child. We were schooled in racist stereotypes and these biases — that the area was dangerous and that these parents were incompetent, neglectful or abusive — influenced our perceptions. As caseworkers, we bought into the idea that these children needed saving and we were the ones to save them.

I left CPS in 2001. I got my master’s in social work in 1999 and completed a Ph.D. at the University of Texas-Arlington in 2001. I left after I got a job teaching child welfare policy at Texas Christian, my undergraduate alma mater, and have been in academia ever since.

As for my change of heart, in 2005, the Texas Senate passed SB 6. The bill required the Department of Family and Protective Services to develop an initiative to study the racial disproportionality of child welfare removals. At that point, 60 percent of child removals in the state involved households with an annual income below $10,000, the majority of them Black. The bill ordered CPS to develop a plan to address this.

I was on a state evaluation team that brought a team from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to do a three-day training on racism. The training was eye-opening for me. I got to thinking back on my experiences at CPS and began to recognize the historical trauma that has been inflicted on Black families since slavery that continues today through child removals and family separations.

I saw that when I worked for CPS no one ever questioned disproportionality. We never asked why so many poor children and Black children were put into foster care. I had never before considered the harm these removals had caused.

In retrospect, I saw that many children were being removed even though there was no actual evidence of harm being done to them. For the first time, I understood the damage removals caused and understood my complicity in this damage. This changed the trajectory of my career. I started to study how racial bias impacts child welfare policy. Then, in 2018, I got to hear Angela Davis speak and came to the conclusion that reforming the child welfare system can’t work. I’ve been on committee after committee, but nothing ever changed. I concluded that the only way to end the harm was to do something different and stop removing Black children from their families. This led me to become an abolitionist.

You’ve been instrumental in the upEND movement. What is upEND and what does it do?

The upEND movement launched in 2020. The goal is to raise awareness in academic spaces, especially in schools of social work, about the harms of family separation and child removals. We also try to impact social work curricula and educate the general public about foster care. We’re trying to shift perceptions about child removals and develop the political will to bring about change.

We’re teaching the history of child separation as an artifact of slavery. We’re also discussing the child separations that happened in Native communities and, more recently, at the U.S.-Mexico border after then-President Trump said that there would be zero tolerance of unlawful immigration. As you likely remember, Customs and Border Protection then began separating children from their parents. When “zero tolerance” was announced, there was outrage from pediatricians, psychologists, psychiatrists, and others who called family separations tantamount to torture. And while about 5,000 children were separated from their parents due to this horrible policy, every week in the U.S. approximately 3,000 children are removed from their families and placed in foster care. The myth of benevolence has convinced most people that this is okay, that these children need to be taken from their homes. In reality, about 70 percent of kids in foster care are there because of poverty, which masquerades as neglect, and not because of abuse. We are trying to break the disconnect, linking the outrage over family separations during slavery and the outrage that erupted over Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, and extend it to child removals today.

We also remind people that there has never been a time in American history when the government separated huge numbers of white children from their families.

I think it’s important not to idealize families. We know that abuse happens there. In addition, some families refuse to accept their children’s sexual preferences or gender identities and send them packing. How does an abolitionist framework address these issues?

We need to start by acknowledging what we should not do. We know that putting kids in foster care causes trauma. As we try to find solutions to eliminate unsafe environments and end mistreatment that results in trauma, we have to make sure that we don’t cause additional harm.

There are concrete things that we can do right now. We know that the majority of cases that end in child removal can be addressed by providing families with resources. The 70 percent of children who are in care because of “neglect” are victims of poverty; $31.4 billion is spent annually to remove children and keep them in foster care. This money should be redirected to families and communities. A basic annual income, affordable housing, accessible health care, free and accessible substance use treatment for those who want it, and jobs and educational programs can help reduce harmful situations.

We also know that when the child tax credit was extended in 2021 because of COVID, child poverty went down by half, to 5.2 percent. Since the credit was eliminated, child poverty has climbed to 12.4 percent. We need to stop thinking of things like this as temporary crisis management and demand that they be provided to all families in need.

These are concrete ways to protect children and families.

Are there any short-term policy changes that abolitionists support?

Yes. One priority is repealing the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) that has been in effect since 1974. We know that people who are mandated to report suspected child abuse and neglect have biases and are more likely to report Black families than white families.

We also support the provision of a universal basic income. In places where pilot programs that provide material resources have been tried, they significantly reduce contact with local CPS agencies. In this vein, we want the child tax credit restored, and support better and more widely available child care for working parents.

We also need to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997. ASFA allows parental rights to be terminated and children to be placed for adoption if they’ve been in care for 15 of the last 22 months. In some states, like Colorado, Expedited Permanency Planning allows kids under 6 to be adopted after 12 months in care. This policy permanently severs and destroys families, which is why we believe AFSA should be repealed.

Texas recently passed a number of bills to protect families that are threatened with child removals. It accomplished this due to support from conservative “parents’ rights” groups — the same groups that support book bans, organize against the teaching of accurate historical depictions of the U.S., and promote anti-trans legislation. First, can you describe the changes? Secondly, do you support these coalition efforts?

These changes are important. HB 730 requires CPS investigators to tell people their rights. HB 1087 orders CPS to do what they can — and document their efforts — to prevent child removals. SB 2120 mandates that the Texas Indigent Defense Commission provide free legal representation to low-income families, and HB 63 bars anonymous complaints from being filed with CPS.

Each of these bills was passed with significant support from Democrats and Republicans, which is important. Issues of … children’s safety are not partisan issues. They’re issues of justice and human dignity that all families deserve.

These changes will reduce harm. They’re significant policy wins.

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