The Trauma of Removal and Child Welfare Involvement
The disproportionate investigation and removal of Black children cause tremendous trauma and harm to both children and parents. For most children, entry into the child welfare system is unexpected, shocking, and traumatic. Children are taken from their homes by strangers to a new and unfamiliar place, often a group home or sometimes even an office. In the process, they may be separated from their siblings and their belongings, and they may even be strip-searched. Separating children from their families breaks a critical source of attachment. The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that family separation “can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.” Parents too experience harm and trauma from such separation.
Many children also experience harm within the child welfare system. There is substantial evidence that children are actually more likely to be abused while in foster care than in the general population. Children in foster care are also at increased risk for mental health disorders, are more likely to be overprescribed psychotropic medication, and are at increased risk for exposure to sex trafficking. The long-term outcome for children aging out of foster care is similarly poor. Children who have been in foster care are at increased risk for criminal justice involvement, less educational achievement, higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and higher risk of future homelessness.
Despite these severe and well-documented harms, the U.S. child welfare system and legal system rarely consider the harm of removal. Only a handful of jurisdictions in the U.S. even require courts and judges to incorporate this inquiry into their decisions on removal into state custody.
What Is the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination?
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is a body of independent human rights experts responsible for monitoring and ensuring the implementation of a human rights treaty—the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). The United States signed ICERD in 1966 and the Senate ratified the treaty in 1994.
By signing and ratifying ICERD, state parties agree to pursue “eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms.” The treaty requires that a participating government must not practice racial discrimination in public institutions, and must review existing policies and “amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination.”
It is important to note that, under ICERD, the standard for measuring racial discrimination is “disparate impact.” In other words, it does not matter whether the intention of a particular law, policy, or practice is racial animus. If a racial or ethnic minority is disproportionately affected, the state party must take steps to review and address the harm.
Under the agreed-upon terms of the treaty, each participating state comes up for review every four years. The U.S. came up for review in 2022. As part of that review process, the U.S. State Department submits a detailed report describing what steps it is taking to combat racial discrimination in a variety of forms and how it believes the U.S. is complying with its obligations under the convention. This starts an interactive review process, which includes an oral hearing before the CERD’s members and culminates in a written set of recommendations provided to the U.S. government.
The review process is also an opportunity for nonprofits and other civil society advocates to provide additional information to the UN committee, bolstering or countering information provided by the state.
The committee had previously addressed concerns regarding the removal of Indigenous children into the child welfare system and had also expressed concern about the separation of migrant children from their parents at the southern border. These concerns are serious and ongoing, but the committee had unfortunately never reviewed or addressed the reality that similar separations and harm are also faced by Black families forced into the child welfare system.
We felt that it was important that the committee understand the deep racial discrimination that has permeated the child welfare system, both historically and into the present. In May 2022, Children’s Rights, in partnership with the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, wrote a letter asking the committee to add racial discrimination against Black children in child welfare to the topics it would review—which it did. In July, we together drafted a report, endorsed by over 30 advocates and civil rights organizations, detailing the history of discrimination in child welfare and asking the UN committee to hold the U.S. accountable for its failure to adequately address or remedy these harms. We were honored to join our fellow advocates on that powerful report.
We felt that acknowledgment of this issue was so important that we took our cause to the committee itself—traveling to the review session held at the Palace of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Together with fellow advocates, attorney Angela Burton, Joyce McMillan from JMacforFamilies, and Hina Naveed from Human Rights Watch, we walked below the famous row of flags representing all 193 UN member states, and testified to the CERD about the discrimination and harms experienced by Black children and families in the U.S. child welfare system.
What Did the United Nations Committee Have to Say?
Speaking to U.S. officials gathered in the UN building, the committee for the first time addressed racism against Black children and families as part of its review of the United States’ treaty obligations under ICERD.
At a public hearing, Biden administration officials were asked to explain what steps they are taking to combat discrimination in child welfare and were asked to address specific laws, including CAPTA, the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, and the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which perpetuate harm against Black families. While the U.S. representative, speaking on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, acknowledged ongoing racism in child welfare, she did not address specific racist laws and policies, nor answer what the U.S. government is doing to course-correct.
Following the review session, the CERD released a detailed set of findings and recommendations—setting out areas of concern it believes violate the human rights obligations set forth in the ICERD treaty. The committee specifically expressed its concern “at the disproportionate number of children of racial and ethnic minorities removed from their families and placed in foster care” and noted that “families of racial and ethnic minorities are subjected to disproportionately high levels of surveillance and investigation and are less likely to be reunified with their children.”
To address these violations, the committee recommended that the government
take all appropriate measures to eliminate racial discrimination in the child welfare system, including by amending or repealing laws, policies and practices that have a disparate impact on families of racial and ethnic minorities, such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the Adoption and Safe Families Act and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act.
The committee encouraged the administration to “hold hearings, including Congressional hearings, to hear from families who are affected by the child welfare system.”
What Comes Next?
Public acknowledgement of the discriminatory harms perpetrated by the child welfare system is long overdue. Twenty years after the publication of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, in which legal scholar Dorothy Roberts detailed and exposed this issue, awareness of racial discrimination in child welfare is finally gaining increased momentum. For example, both the American Bar Association and the New York State Bar Association have recently released reports acknowledging systemic racism in child welfare and calling for change.
However, it is significant that a United Nation’s human rights body, one charged with reviewing and addressing racial discrimination, has chosen to weigh in on this issue. It allows us to call this problem what it is—a human rights violation.
The weight of that term is appropriate here. The language of human rights speaks to the “inherent dignity, and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” In the current U.S. child welfare system, government power is wielded disproportionately and discriminatorily against Black and minority families, intrudes into the private lives of families, penalizes poverty, and causes irreparable trauma and harm to children, families, and communities. Such a system violates these basic human rights.
The language of human rights also allows us to discuss child welfare discrimination using standards and vocabulary more directly able to address these concerns. For example, the disparate impact standard and the right to family integrity are concepts more fully fleshed out under international standards but still struggling to find their footing in domestic jurisprudence.
The CERD review process is meant to be a dialogue and a temperature check. How is the United States doing on key issues of racial discrimination and where does it need to do better? The committee’s answer as to discrimination in child welfare is now clear—the U.S. needs to do a whole lot better.
An immediate first step is for the Biden administration to listen to the committee’s concerns and deliver a concrete plan to hear public testimony from families and others directly impacted and to aggressively restructure and repeal harmful laws and policies. If the administration really wants to commit to fighting for racial justice, as it claims, that must include dismantling the racist structures that underlie the current child welfare system.
The CERD review process happens on a four-year cycle, so in four years the U.S. government will again have to report to the UN committee on its progress and what steps it has taken to address racial discrimination in child welfare. Advocates must seize this opportunity to hold our government accountable. For families in the system, four years is far too long. For the U.S., the clock is ticking.