The following article is an early release article from CR’s The Abolitionist Newspaper, Issue 39 on Reproductive Justice, printing in June 2023 issue. To support free subscriptions of the newspaper for imprisoned people, and to receive your own copy of the complete issue, subscribe today!

Fulfilling the Promise of Reproductive Justice: Abolition and the Family Regulation System

By Erin Miles Cloud and Lisa Sangoi of Movement for Family Power

We are mothers, daughters, amateur artists, lawyers, and activists. For the last five years, and during a time of political upheaval, we have been working together to grow a movement to abolish the family regulation system.  We are connected by a vision of safety beyond family policing and grounded by political framings taught to us by our sisters, mentors, and comrades. We believe the child welfare system, or more appropriately, family policing or the family regulation system (FRS), erodes reproductive freedom in the literal sense: its primary purpose is the surveillance, control, punishment, and destruction of Black caretakers and families. It also erodes reproductive freedom in the political sense when it engages in community surveillance, family separation, and family destruction. It does this for the same reason that the criminal legal system engages in policing, imprisonment, and the death penalty: to blame and punish those who suffer the most from structural harms for those harms. It fails to nurture freedom, but rather reproduces the harms of racial capitalism and neoliberalism.

Family policing is also politically under-interrogated. As abolitionists and radical nurturers, we know we must build a world that protects, not punishes. However, we can sometimes utilize “social services” or “social work” as proxy for systems of care when the radical roots of these practices have been stripped and replaced with carceral logics. The FRS punishes Black mamas (and in keeping with Black feminists we use the term mamas to encompass trans mamas, non-binary mamas, political mamas, and so forth) for living in poverty and for being Black. Its judgments, rooted in racism, classism, misogyny, ableism, and the logic of racial capitalism, attach little to no value to the work of caretaking and parenthood, blaming poor people for their poverty. The system tells parents they are responsible for the unacceptable living conditions that centuries of racial capitalism have created, taking their children away as punishment.

The FRS, a part of the prison industrial complex (PIC), was not designed to prevent harm and is unable to adequately address harm when it occurs. Like the rest of the PIC, family policing has built a financial empire regulating the bodies of marginalized people. Part of a $30 billion-a-year industry with the vast majority of its funding used for family separation, the FRS violently removes children from their families and forcibly places them with strangers. Only a small portion of the FRS budget is reserved for what we recognize as services to families, such as childcare vouchers or transit vouchers. Most of the budget goes towards classes that claim to “fix” perceived parental defects, i.e., parenting or anger management classes. Further, the whole service budget is tied to “mandated reporting”, turning even the possibility of helpful services into threatening traps.

The FRS is a troubling extension of the US’s long history of systematically removing children from the arms of their parents under the guise of charity and beneficence while actually exploiting marginalized people for wealth building and power maintenance. From the brutal practice of buying and selling children away from their parents during enslavement, to the orphan trains that called immigrants the “dangerous classes” and shipped them to white families, to the forced removal of tens of thousands Indigenous children to institutions to become “civilized”, those in power have always wielded control over those without through command over their children and reproduction. However, so long as family policing has existed, there have been nurturers sowing freedom, political mothers, mamas, and grandmamas who bore the brunt of family separation and were and are fighting both for their own families and our futures. 

We take, for example, the Native families who fought settler colonialism and child “welfare” assimilation projects. As early as the 1870s, white Protestant men sought to intern Native children in “boarding schools” that erased Native culture. Stories are told of families that camped outside these internment camps, hoping to be reunited with their children. Eventually, the government deemed these boarding schools too costly, and the work of stealing Native kids was officially transferred to the Child Welfare League of America, where caseworkers were instructed to take Native children and put them up for adoption as a more “cost-effective” assimilation strategy. By the 1970s, the family policing system was responsible for removing approximately one-third of Native children from their families.

In response to this devastation, Native grandmamas and mamas organized themselves, their community, and allies to end these practices. This groundswell of activism led to the passage of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a monumental legislative victory, which acknowledged the political sovereignty of Native nations and heightened legal protections for Native American families targeted by FRS agents. Unfortunately, these efforts are currently under attack by a powerful group of conservative forces, including the oil and natural gas lobby, the gambling lobby, state’s rights organizations, and white adoptive parents.  In a landmark case, Brackeen v. Haaland, these groups are attacking Native sovereignty by attacking ICWA. However, Native activists are resisting and nurturing a different future.  They have launched a robust campaign of defense, and are asking allies to use their public education tools to raise awareness of and support for ICWA.

Another group of radical mothers were the mamas of theWelfare Rights movement–self-named welfare mothers. They eschewed the mainstream white feminist movement’s demand for entry into a workforce they were largely locked out of anyways, and to us, their movement seems to be a forerunner to the modern reproductive justice movement, centering the role of mothering and caretaking as a central politic and demanding the state’s unequivocal support for this. In the 1960s, these mamas demanded cash for caretaking, attacking racial capitalism’s invisiblization of care work. They received harassment, welfare raids, and their mothering was used as political fodder for segregationists. Specifically, as Black leaders started to chip away at political barriers to state resources, segregationists used racist tactics to divert resources away from Black caretakers by implementing “suitable home laws.” These laws argued that unwed mothers and “immoral” (i.e., non-white and non-Protestant) mothers should be excluded from public benefits. Mamas like Johnnie Tillmon and Annie Chambers organized and fought back against the denials, pointing to the enormous harm on their children.

As Black, poor, and Native mamas resisted, states started to enlist child welfare workers to conduct “suitability assessments.” This resulted in surveillance and child removals—not support. Legislators finally began to take notice (a huge feat by activists) and made small but significant concessions, including increasing legal protections for people who received welfare. However, they did not meet the overarching demands of Black mamas, and instead reinforced family policing. The compromise permitted states to withhold funds from “unfit” mamas, while providing “services” to “fix” the parents’ “defects”, or rather, symptoms of structural poverty, racism, sexism, heteronormativity and ableism. In the interim, the funds would flow to the child, monitored by the FRS. Over time, this grew to be a multi-billion-dollar federal funding stream for family policing, the only open-ended entitlement program that requires the separation of families.

Fortunately, a future where caretaking is visiblized and respected is being nurtured. Every Mother is a Working Mother Network, including DHS Give Us Back Our Children and DCFS Give Us Back Our Children, are organizations that have arisen from the welfare mothers movement. They are explicitly anti-capitalist and tie their anti-poverty work to ending family policing. So too do comrades in networks like Mother’s Outreach in DC. These radical mamas are building politics of universal income and caretaking that exist outside of the FRS and are explicitly working to break down the multi-billion-dollar entitlement program that upholds family separation in the US.

We know of these histories because of the Black and Brown feminist historians who have worked so hard to record and tell them but are otherwise largely left out of mainstream history books. Like any movement history, FRS resistance ebbs and flows, with peaks and valleys. It seems to us and many of our comrades that we are currently in a period of movement growth. We anticipate that much of the activism we and others are building now will need to be challenged and refined; however, we cannot overstate the thrill of being in this phase of movement building.

Movement for Family Power has had the enormous honor of being in community with, building with, and supporting the folks and organizations we mention below. Our goal here is to offer our insights into trends of work we are seeing and places readers can plug in to support. This list is not comprehensive.

  • Participatory Defense and Outside Pressure to Family Police: Activists are putting a substantial amount of time and energy toward supporting parents in navigating FRS agencies and family courts and politicizing them to get involved in future organizing.  Operation STOP CPS, Family Reunification Equity and Empowerment, Family Justice Tribe, and Criminal Injustice Reform Network are four initiatives led by Black mamas who have been directly impacted by family policing. Resisting the FPS, they are getting kids home, putting the system on blast, and politicizing impacted parents and bringing them into the movement.
  • Miranda Rights for Families: The Parent Legislative Action Network is demanding the NY State Legislature pass a bill that requires family policing agents to read parents a Miranda-style warning when they want to begin investigating a family, and Family Matters Boston is working with Harvard Legal Aid to do know-your-rights trainings for parents. Scholar-activists like Julia Hernandez and Tarek Ismail are working to deepen thoughtful analysis around the possibilities and limitations of building out early defense and fourth amendment strategies.
  • Ending Mandated Reporting: An array of activists and organizations across the country are putting substantial energy into fighting family policing from the moment it comes into contact with families—contesting mandated reporting and empowering families right when FRS agents begin an investigation. Social workers such as Kamaria Excell, Jasmine Wali  (both of Just Making a Change for Families), and Nikita Rahman created a training for social work schools to turn mandated reporting into mandated supporting. Just Beginnings Collaborative and Shannon Perez-Darby are working to end child sexual violence by building safe spaces for young people to talk that are not mired by mandated reporting. We are also inspired by mandated reporters against mandated reporting, who are working vigorously to organize licensed social workers to lobby against mandated reporting requirements and troubleshoot alternative ways to address harm. Meanwhile, the REPEAL CAPTA campaign is working to dismantle the entire federal legal apparatus that incentivizes states to pass mandated reporting laws and increase funding to their family regulation systems.
  • End the Womb to Foster System Pipeline and Drug War: Movement for Family Power worked with Just Making a Change for Families, Bronx Defenders, and Drug Policy Alliance to start a campaign to challenge hospital drug testing of pregnant and birthing patients and reporting to family policing agencies. This campaign contains a legislative ask that medical care providers at least ask someone for their consent before they or their baby is drug tested, given the enormous risk for family separation. The bill itself is not abolitionist; however, the group worked to build political power and challenge the many misconceptions around pregnant people who use drugs. Similar campaigns are being led by Reimagine Child Safety Coalition and advocates in Maryland. These coalitions owe great respect and honor to the tremendous work of NarcoFeminism and Urban Survivor Union, radical drug-using mamas who have been organizing against family policing for decades.
  • Reclaiming the Narrative: For generations, the FRS has exerted an extraordinary amount of control over the public narrative, convincing society it is a system of support, not surveillance and control. Family courts are largely closed to the public, and families can face criminal sanction for speaking out against the injustices they experience. People impacted by family separation are nonetheless courageously challenging this public narrative through journalism, visual art, theater, and more. Mamas like Elizabeth Brico, Michelle Chan, and Latagia Copeland have written extensively to educate the public and expose the family regulation system. You Are Holding This Zine is a zine for and about fostered, adopted and trafficked people whose guiding principle is abolition. Liz Artistry has created infographic illustrations about the injustices of the FRS and how they intersect with different movements. Movement for Family Power has itself put significant effort into political and public education, and we invite readers to visit our social media.
  • Ending the Family Death Penalty: Mothers, in particular those impacted by imprisonment, are at the forefront of fighting a federal law called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which forces state child “welfare” agencies to permanently dissolve families if children are in the foster system for 15 of the last 22 months. This law has had a devastating impact on many groups of people, including imprisoned parents, and it has made the US a global leader in killing off families. A New Way of Life and the Repeal ASFA Campaign (started by Movement for Family Power and the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls) are two efforts with formerly imprisoned people in leadership who have a vision of ending the family death penalty.  

We have learned from movement teachers at AYNI institute that movements have different needs depending on the season. For at least the past five years, we have been building in the winter of our movement. There was deep isolation between activists, low public awareness or outrage about injustice, and very few resources for the fight against family policing. We believe we are seeing signs of spring. Activists are less isolated and in community with each other. Public awareness of family regulation system injustices is increasing rapidly. More resources are available to organizing efforts. AYNI Institute teaches us that as our movement moves through spring, we need to focus on bringing new people in, creating infrastructure for large movement coordination, and training each other. We also cannot confuse the spring of movement with the summer—a time for big political asks with a significant political base to hold those changes accountable.

While we are gaining momentum, we still have work to do. We need to continue building outside pressure and political analysis so that our policy goals can meet their radical potential. We need to be wary of legislative deals that do not have enough power to be upheld. This does not mean we should not work to build policy, but we need to harness the symbolic power of our wins in service of a broader strategic vision of a more radical policy agenda that we can achieve in the next twenty years. This means we need to work with people who both have the short-term energy and long-term vision to create a multi-faceted strategy to win.

We must also be kind to each other. As we break isolation and move into Spring, we can see each other’s flaws and strengths more clearly. We must build the strength to support conflict, as well as the endurance to keep our political visions intact. We are all connected by our commitment to the struggle for political freedom and the promise of a world free of policing. This means we cannot abandon our inner work or our political struggle. This also means that we should be using our knowledge of each other to build healthy coalitions and coordinated infrastructures. Often, we focus on the healing and interpersonal aspect of relational conflict, and while that is important, we can also use this information to help us build strategic coordination. We need everyone in our movement to find a healthy place to participate, and then we need to coordinate that participation in the direction of abolition. We will abolish family policing, and it will be with an effort, ethic, and ethos of radical caretaking and nurturing of each other, our families, our communities and our land. This is the promise of reproductive justice and the future we must build.

About the Authors:

  • Erin Miles Cloud is the co-director and co-founder of Movement for Family Power, an organization that works to end the policing and punishment of families by the foster system. She is a former family defense public defender. Baltimore born and Bronx living, she is Nora and Charlie’s mama.
  • Lisa Sangoi is a co-founder and co-director of Movement for Family Power. She is also Kavya’s mama.