On Wednesday, September 27, 2023, CFCC hosted an important day-long symposium focused on The Harm of Removal to Children, Parents, and Communities at the University of Baltimore School of Law. This blog is one in a series of four posts about the CFCC 2023 Symposium.
The afternoon Red Table Talk, “Removal through Our Eyes,” featured experts with lived experience engaged in an authentic discussion about the harm of removal as experienced by children and families today via placement in foster care and juvenile detention. The Table Talk featured Michael Davis-Thomas, Tony Lodge, Robyn Wind Tiger, Christina Simmons, and Shemia Dillard, who each shared their experiences and insights related to removal and family separation.
The panelists spoke about the consequences of removal that haven’t received enough attention. For example, Wind Tiger, who lives on the Muskogee Creek reservation, shared how removing Indian children from federally recognized tribes not only jeopardizes the existence of the 500+ different tribes, but it also makes it more difficult for tribal treaties to be acknowledged and for tribes to apply for different federal programs.
Drawing from his own journey through higher education, Lodge, who worked his way through college after aging out of foster care, spoke on the economic impact of removal on children, highlighting how many children who experience removal also face educational struggles due to a lack of educational resources. For many, these struggles lead to the wealth gap they experience as adults.
It is not uncommon for removals to impact multiple generations within a family. Dillard, a former system-involved individual, shared about the intergenerational harm of removals that exist for her as she recently learned that her mother, from whom she was separated, was also separated from her own mother as a child. Dillard then had a son while she was a teenager in foster care, and her son was taken from her. The multigenerational impact of removal results in children being raised by people or institutions that aren’t able to nurture them in the ways that they need. For example, Dillard shared how when she was placed in foster care, she did not get the care she needed for her hair. Dillard explained that the system is doing what it is designed to do, “separate and cause destruction.”
Removing children from their families can have devastating effects on all involved. Simmons, a mother of six who navigated the system after her children were taken into foster care, shared how her children being separated from her led to a general decline for her and her children. Their grades suffered; her health suffered; her eldest son, who has special needs and is non-verbal, didn’t have a caregiver who knew what he needed. Simmons successfully fought tooth and nail to have her children returned to her. She now works alongside parents who are in the same situation. If they need beds or jackets, Simmons helps meet their practical needs so families can be supported and remain together. “Poverty is not neglect, and we just have to get folks to embrace that.”
If children must be removed from their parents, extended family should be considered as possible placements. Davis-Thomas, who spent 11 years in the Michigan child welfare system, shared that his safety necessitated that he was removed from his immediate family, but that he wasn’t given the option to be placed with extended family members. Davis-Thomas and Sixto Cancel, the symposium keynote speaker, both shared the experience of not being placed with family members who lived nearby. Davis-Thomas had a cousin who had fostered many children and adopted two children as well, but that cousin wasn’t allowed to be a placement option for Davis-Thomas. He reflected on how being separated from family impacted his identity development and isolated him from various family traditions.
Different approaches, when utilized, can help families safely remain together and avoid the need for removal. When asked what steps they would recommend to help families remain together, the panelists presented myriad recommendations. Wind Tiger shared how cultural humility and trust are key ingredients in facilitating communication between caseworkers and family members that could prevent removal. Family members often know what the child and parent need, but there is a lack of trust that is bi-directional and based on a lack of cultural understanding and historical trauma.
Simmons echoed the need for an unbiased approach to responding to allegations of maltreatment. Simmons called for a change in attitude about parents and an increased readiness to work with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other kin when an investigation really needs to happen. Removing children to place them with strangers is hurtful. “It impacts those children for the rest of their lives.”
Focused training of caseworkers could help improve relationships between parents and caseworkers. Dillard called for a new curriculum for caseworkers that would instill understanding and empathy in caseworkers who don’t have children and aren’t from the communities that they’re working in. The curriculum she envisions would help prevent caseworkers from misinterpreting and mischaracterizing the situations between children and their parents. From personal experience, this made Dillard feel like the caseworker was intent on portraying her negatively and that the caseworker didn’t appreciate the long-term consequences of that mischaracterization.
Lodge called for increased screening of people that children are being placed with when they must be removed for their safety. He also called for more support and resources for families that are working to reunify. In his experience going into foster care the second time, many of his foster brothers struggled with substance use disorders when they attempted to reunify with their families. Receiving additional support would have made the reunifications more successful. Lodge also urged that closer attention be made to the child’s development and education when they are reunifying. Wind-Tiger called for an empowerment of communities, so that parents and families can access the education and resources they need to meet their children’s needs.
Davis-Thomas encouraged foster parents to provide material supports for the families in their communities that are struggling. He shared how families in his community used to drop off grape jam and canned food, even when they didn’t have an abundance of food themselves. Davis-Thomas also reflected on a story from the prior night’s Book Talk about foster parents who considered themselves as coaches and mentors to help parents get their children back.
Simmons closed the Table Talk by calling for attention to building trust-based relationships that focus on helping families and communities meet their own basic needs. By working in communities with our families, folks can become part of a community. “Everybody can do a little. Nobody has to do it all, but everybody can do a little bit of something.”