By Katie Gibson
“A romantic fervor drives…children to crime; they project themselves into the most magnificent, daring, and ultimately dangerous lives. I am acting as their translator because they have the right to any language that will allow them to venture…where? you might ask. I don’t know. Neither do they, however precise their fantasies, but it’s nowhere you’d call home…The only way the great and the honest can hope to preserve any moral beauty is by refusing any pity to the children who reject pity…I’ve made my decision: I’m on the side of crime. And I’ll help these children, not to return to your houses, your factories, your schools, your laws, and your sacraments, but to steal them all.” – Jean Genet, The Criminal Child
In the last several years, calls to abolish the American child welfare system have gained national attention, in part due to the publication of sociologist and legal scholar Dorothy Roberts’ book Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. The book popularized the term “family policing,” referring to the state’s routine practice of surveilling and regulating poor families through mandated reporting, child welfare investigations, and child removal. For family policing abolitionists, the term “child welfare” is a misnomer for a system that criminalizes poverty instead of remedying it, routinely destroying families and disproportionately affecting Black Americans.
The aim of abolishing family policing has recently gained widespread attention, largely due to the grassroots work of system-affected parents, foster care “alumni,” and allied lawyers, social workers, and journalists. Among these groups are the Texas-based upEND Movement, the New York-based JMACforFamilies, and the Movement for Family Power. As the names and maxims of these organizations indicate, family policing abolitionists tend to hold up the family as an ideal, appealing to the commonsense that families are the natural and rightful source of love and care. This sentiment is clearly articulated by Roberts herself, who stated in Torn Apart: “The family is a critical social institution that serves as a caring shield around its members to protect them from the totalitarian dictates of government officials.[i] Families pass on the cultural norms, moral values, and political commitments of groups within a society. Families prepare children for participating in the economic, political, and social life of the various communities they will be part of as adults.”[ii]
Roberts frames the destruction of familial bonds, particularly between Black mothers and their children, as a central function of the American child welfare system. As she illustrates, child welfare systems, work-first welfare policies, welfare retrenchment, and carceral expansion have worked in tandem to systematically surveil, criminalize, displace, and traumatize generations of Black mothers and their children. Roberts argues that the origins of child welfare can be traced back to violent family separations at auction blocks during chattel slavery, and she has painstakingly charted this violent historical throughline from her first book, Killing the Black Body,[iii] to her most recent book, Torn Apart. What Roberts has achieved throughout her career is a kind of haunting—again and again, she presents us with the figures of Black women who, throughout American history, have been exploited for the various forms of labor their bodies could do: not only manual labor but also, often simultaneously, reproductive and maternal labor.
The figure of the Black mother is thus rightfully at the center of debates about the American child welfare system, due in no small part to the discursive groundwork Roberts has laid. But while her earlier work very clearly illustrated the links between racial capitalism and the regulation of Black (reproductive) labor, these links are no longer visible in much of the discourse surrounding the abolition of family policing. Instead, there is a tendency to naturalize motherhood and the mother-child bond rather than question how and amongst whom the labor of mothering can and should be distributed.[iv] In turn, there seems to be little room among family policing abolitionists for such unruly subjects as youth who see their families not as the balm for their pain but as the cause of it, or queer and trans youth who run away from home and don’t look back, or youth experiencing mental illness or addiction who need help that families can’t provide.
For instance, in the handful of pages in Torn Apart that are devoted to “runaways” (youth in state guardianship who run away from foster homes, group homes, and residential centers), Roberts asserts that these youth are virtually all running away from the state in search of their biological family members. Roberts and other activists are largely silent regarding cases in which children run not to but away from their mothers, or in which women themselves run from motherhood, in part because these runaways complicate an abolitionist narrative that so fervently insists the family is an indispensable (and seemingly unimpeachable) social institution. Runaways require us to think about the limits of family and about other forms of collective care that are necessary for human flourishing. Instead of assuming we know where the runaway can and should end up, we should put this willful, straying figure at the center of family policing abolitionism, alongside Black mothers: the child who doesn’t run to their parent, but runs instead to a sibling, a friend, or to no one at all; the mother who refuses motherhood; the young person who never stops running. Can we be more capacious in how we imagine the set of possible landing points for runaways (be they errant moms or willful children) beyond the “return home” promised by child welfare and, more recently, by the movement to abolish family policing? Keeping runaways at the heart of the movement reminds us of this abolitionist imperative—to envision freedom not as one path leading interminably to one particular end but as countless diversions from the worlds we’re born into.
The Family is a State Institution
What would family policing abolitionism look like if it were to recognize the family as an invention of the capitalist state rather than its precursor or alternative? Family abolitionists question the family’s assumed role as an essential (and pre-societal) social unit. One of the earliest articulations of family abolitionist thought, made by Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, was a critique of marriage as a legal arrangement in which women (and the children they produce and raise) are their husband’s property, and in which inheritance passes along the patriarchal line. As generations of feminists fought for equal rights for women and challenged the heteronormativity of the familial form, some deepened their commitment to family life while others committed to its abolition. But though family abolitionism gained some traction amongst feminists in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the assumption that the bourgeois, nuclear family had lost its former eminence led to the virtual abandonment of family abolitionism, even among the most radical feminists.
However, as argued by Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh, hold-outs for family abolition who wrote The Anti-Social Family amidst the intensifying neoliberalism of the 1980s, the family continues to play a significant role in reproducing social stratification and structuring opportunity throughout the life-course. As these scholars and activists point out, while the state may regulate and police families, it also holds up the family as an essential and ideal form through which to enact not only care but also social control. The family form is imposed through laws that determine social obligations based not on social rights and public goods but instead on legally documented and enforced marital, biological, and genetic bonds of inheritance and custody. The state perpetuates the primacy of the family as a social institution to excuse its disinvestment in public services, and widespread acceptance and naturalization of family ideology has produced a society that has almost completely privatized care. As Barrett and McIntosh put it:
“The world around the family is not a pre-existing harsh climate against which the family offers protection and warmth. It is as if the family had drawn comfort and security into itself and left the outside world bereft. As a bastion against a bleak society it has made that society bleak. It is indeed a major agency for caring, but in monopolizing care it has made it harder to undertake other forms of care… Caring, sharing and loving would be more widespread if the family did not claim them for its own.”[v]
From this perspective, it’s not just the state that regulates families; families also regulate themselves, through daily acts of exclusion and inclusion that circumscribe the nature and extent of care, sometimes in ways that are just as brutal as the state’s enforcements of its boundaries. Despite the role of the family in creating the conditions of abandonment experienced by youth in foster care, youth experiencing mental illness or addiction, and queer youth, families are often cast as antidotes and alternatives to the state. It is becoming increasingly common among liberal and leftist activists to critique the state for the ways it polices poor, Black, and Indigenous families. Family policing abolitionists are making the long overdue case that the child welfare system is perniciously entangled with other carceral state systems like immigration enforcement and the criminal punishment system.[vi] But what is often left out of these narratives is that the family itself is a state institution, and it functions as a part of, not an externality to, carceral systems.
This becomes particularly clear when we shift our focus from the experiences of parents affected by the child welfare system to the experiences of children who become wards of the state. When people imagine the state, they often imagine bureaucrats and the national and institutional borders they police and enforce, and it is at these junctures that the state’s power over children and their biological caregivers is most stark. But, as the history of child welfare shows, families also enact consequential, life-defining, and often traumatic forms of exclusion, which wards of the state know all too well. Youth in foster care are not only separated from families but are also routinely expelled and excluded from them, a fact that is reflected in the long pattern of displacement, imprisonment, and exploitation experienced by the orphans-turned-“delinquents” of American history.[vii] In the U.S., failure or refusal to be incorporated into a family most often means being labeled dangerous or mentally ill and puts one in grave danger of incarceration and homelessness. For many people who have lived through foster care or adoption, it’s clear that the family is both a form of captivity and a catalyst for fugitivity. To understand why this is the case, we have to understand the fundamental premise of family policy in the U.S.: that children are property rather than rights-bearing citizens.
The Parental State and the Liberal Child
Because slavery and child welfare systems have both policed Black life through the regulation of Black reproduction and kinship, Dorothy Roberts asserts that chattel slavery is where the child welfare system’s true “origins” can be found. In her account, state laws that granted slaveowners, rather than Black parents, “legal claim to their children” are akin to contemporary laws that allow states to take a child from their parents. Yet this leaves unexamined how the family itself functioned as a property relation through which the American state justified slavery. The perpetuation of slavery required not just the separation of families but also (as Roberts has illustrated) their reproduction, which allowed slaveowners to claim the offspring of their slaves as their property. And when slavery ended, the extension of marriage and custody rights to former slaves were not purely emancipatory; in fact, they were more often used to justify the continued exploitation of former slaves and their children. For instance, the extension of marriage rights to African-Americans, while creating some legal and economic protections, also facilitated the policing of former slaves and their children “through the vigorous enforcement of laws regulating bigamy, adultery and child support requirements, deny[ing] widow’s pensions to women, and forc[ing] children into ‘apprenticeship’ labor.”[viii] Far from being a protector against the “totalitarian dictates of government officials,” the family is a key institution through which the U.S. has historically exploited and policed its citizens[ix].
Indeed, the family is essential to the core legal logic that links the array of child removal practices America has engaged in throughout its history: the logic of in loco parentis. According to the legal doctrine of in loco parentis, the state is “the central regulatory authority in the affairs of the child and the family [and is] authorized to intervene as an incubator, whenever either one fail[s], to promote the successful growth and delivery of embryonic citizens to the body politic,”[x] an arrangement which sociologist Geoff Ward refers to as the “parental state.” In the parental state, parents are legal “custodians” of their children, a term whose etymological roots bespeak the thin line between protecting and policing children.[xi] In loco parentis positions families as nested institutions within the broader state; like any other state institution, the government has the power to regulate families, not only through coercive and punitive methods when they are deemed as “failing” at their prescribed duties, but through the kinds of rewards and incentives afforded to families through tax codes and social programs.
The logic of in loco parentis has profound implications for all children born or living in the U.S., not just children in the foster care system. Children in the U.S. have minimal rights as citizens; legally, it is their custodian—be it a state guardian or a private citizen—who bears the rights (and obligations) to determine where, how, and with whom a child lives. For example, children have no right to shelter unless they live in a setting in which they are overseen by a custodian who is legally legitimate in the eyes of the parental state. For children in foster care, this means living in a foster home, kinship care, group home, residential care, or a detention center. In other words, being a “ward” of the state does not just mean removal from the biological family, as many family policing abolitionists emphasize. It means reincorporation into institutions sanctioned by the parental state, of which the family or “family-like settings” (those that most closely approximate the private nuclear household) are the most favored. Under the pretense of state benevolence, in loco parentis has justified numerous forms of state-sanctioned child displacement, not only of Black children, but also the forced removal of Indigenous children to boarding schools designed to socialize them into whiteness, the farming out of poor white children on orphan trains, and the current practice of family separation among migrants at the U.S. border.
As Madeline Lane-McKinley writes: “…The liberal idea of children seeks to make natural (but also to moralize) a property relation between child and parent…This logic of the parent-child property relation is why Jeff Sessions can speak of children like a bag of cocaine: ‘If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border’.”[xii] The long American tradition of the state using child removal to police and terrorize the adults who love them has led some to call for families to “tak[e] children back.”[xiii] This is reflected in many of the family policing abolition movement’s core policy proposals, which largely focus on protecting the rights of parents by repealing policies designed to criminalize and surveil them. Among the most popular of these changes are calls for the abolition of mandated reporting laws, the creation of Miranda rights for parents who come into contact with family policing authorities, and the repeal of timelines for the termination of parental rights after a child is removed from their custody.
Protecting parents from criminalization is a valuable abolitionist aim. However, a political movement in which children are passively “tak[en] back” by adults who lay claim to them based on biological or legal ties reproduces rather than challenges the core logic of parent-child property relations that is upheld in a parental state. Any true movement to abolish the carceral state has to not only seek the end of family policing but must also ultimately take on the legal structures that treat children as property, enforcing family affiliation and producing the forms of exploitation, abandonment, and criminalization experienced by orphans and runaways throughout U.S. history.
Replacing Custody with Children’s Rights
Custody laws not only punish parents for their (perceived or real) inability to care for children; they also criminalize children when they refuse the custodial arrangements that are made for them by the state. This is why children in foster care are routinely placed in prison-like settings after running away from foster homes, kinship care, or group homes, often having experienced abuse in these settings. Instead of granting children the right to safe and consistent shelter and a basic income, the state insists first and foremost that children must be overseen by a state-sanctioned guardian, even if that means forced confinement or placement with an abusive parent or institution.
Family policing abolitionists should work to un-do custody laws, which gravely limit children’s rights based on the premise that the adults in their lives can and will make decisions in their “best interests.” Custody laws devolve responsibility for upholding children’s best interests to individual families and custodial surrogates, denying the state’s obligation to promote the flourishing of all children while simultaneously punishing caregivers and children when custody arrangements fail. A society where children can be psychiatrically hospitalized and medicated against their own wills but have no right to adequate mental health services is not a society designed in the “best interests” of children. It’s a society designed around the fantasy and tyranny of family.
Family abolition, far from being about tearing any existing bonds apart, is based in the kind of love Sophie Lewis describes at the beginning of her treatise on family abolitionism: “to love a person is to struggle for their autonomy as well as for their immersion in care.”[xiv] Abolition will be achieved through the everyday practices of people invested in developing new forms of collective care and expanding existing communal projects. We will do so by advocating for laws that recognize children’s rights and human rights beyond the family, working to de-privatize care so that more and more people have ready access to care in all its forms, and enacting care in ways that show no special allegiance to biological relatedness or legal bonds. If what we ultimately want is a world without borders, a world without imprisonment, a world without policing, we have to bring abolition home.
[i] Roberts has more recently expressed subdued support of some aspects of family abolition, particularly the abolition of the nuclear family.
[ii] Roberts, Dorothy. Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Basic Books, 2022, p. 86.
[iii] Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Vintage, 1997.
[iv] Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, edited by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martins, and Mai’a Williams. PM Press, 2016.
[v] McIntosh, Mary, and Michèle Barrett. The Anti-social Family. Verso Books, 1982, p. 81-82.
[vi] Meiners, Erica R. For the Children?: Protecting Innocence in a Carceral State. University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
[vii] Holt, Marilyn Irvin. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.
Platt, Anthony M. The child savers: The invention of delinquency. University of Chicago Press, 1977.
[viii] Weeks, Kathi. “Abolition of the family: the most infamous feminist proposal.” Feminist Theory, 2021, p. 4.
[ix] King, Tiffany Lethabo. “Black ‘feminisms’ and pessimism: Abolishing Moynihan’s Negro family.” Theory & Event 21.1 (2018): 68-87.
[x] Ward, Geoff K. The black child-savers: Racial democracy and juvenile justice. University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 25.
[xi] custody (n.) mid-15c., “a keeping, a guarding, safe-keeping, protection, defense,” from Latin custodia “guarding, watching, keeping,” also “prison,” from custos (genitive custodis) “guardian, keeper, protector,” from PIE root *(s)keu- “to cover, conceal.” Meaning “restraint of liberty, confinement” is from 1580s.
[xii] Lane-McKinley. “The Idea of Children.” Blind Field: A Journal of Cultural Inquiry, 2018.
[xiii] Briggs, Laura. Taking Children: A History of American Terror. University of California Press, 2021.
[xiv] Lewis, Sophie. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. Verso Books, 2022.
Author bio: Katie Gibson is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago. As an ethnographer of youth-serving institutions, she has studied psychotropic drug use in Illinois’s foster care system, case managers’ interpretations of the federal mandate to ensure child “well-being,” and advocacy practices amongst a youth-led policy coalition in California. She is also a former ward of the state of New York.