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The sky was overcast but the air was warm and the streets were awash with sunlight as protesters gathered in tank tops, shorts, and skirts to march through Brooklyn in the early summer of 2020. Many of them held cardboard signs scripted with black sharpie slogans: “Black families matter,” “Dismantle ACS,” “Support not surveillance,” “How do you spell racist? ACS,” and the now-famous battle cry, “Black Lives Matter.” Mouths and noses were covered by ear-loop masks and bandannas to protect against the threat of COVID-19, but even a pandemic was not going to keep them inside. An uprising had awakened across the nation; the systems that have been causing harm to Black and brown communities for decades were being called to a reckoning, and these protesters wanted to make sure their voices were heard, too. 

Unlike many of the larger civil rights protests of 2020, this one was not aimed at criminal law enforcement. Instead, this protest was decrying another system of policing, one that disproportionately targets Black mothers and which operates in the secrecy of closed courtrooms with the impunity afforded by vague laws, low evidentiary standards, and a poor public understanding of their function: child protective services (or, as organizer Joyce McMillan refers to them, “the family regulation system”). In New York City, this system comes under the moniker “Administration for Children’s Services” (ACS). 

“What we are really fighting for is awareness, because … we really don’t have a lot of awareness in society about what’s going on with parents who are involved with child protective services,” explained Angeline Montauban, an activist working with McMillan at Parents Legislative Action Network (PLAN), which was founded under the umbrella of McMillan’s advocacy organization JMacForFamilies.

“People assume these agencies are there to protect children, that these people are there to protect families, but that’s far from the reality,” said Montauban. ”The reality of children in foster care and the reality of children in the system is that the system has adverse effects on their lives.” 

“There is no way we think kidnapping kids is the way to protect them,” added McMillan. “We know a child needs stability and love; what’s the first thing [CPS agencies] take? Stability and love. How do you think that’s protection?” 

McMillan also organized the recent protest that convened in Harlem at the corner of 125th and 2nd Ave for Martin Luther King Day. McMillan pulled no punches while marketing the event; fliers announced “Fuck ACS” in stark white lettering against an all-black background, and a TikTok video for the event stated, “some cops are called caseworkers,” and “separating children from everyone and everything they love is not ‘protection,’ it’s torture.” McMillan and Montauban both spoke at the rally, alongside LGBTQ+ and racial justice activist, attorney, and author Andrea J. Ritchie. 

McMillan and Montauban know firsthand the damage these systems inflict under the guise of child protection. Montauban fought to regain custody of her son, now 8 years old, for five years after she sought help from Safe Horizon, a domestic violence hotline. Instead of providing her the resources she needed to escape a relationship that had turned violent, they referred her to ACS. McMillan, whose children are now adults, went through the ordeal of ACS intervention after a positive toxicology report placed her under suspicion. 

Both of these activists are Black women, making them part of a population that is disproportionately targeted for investigation, surveillance, and family separation by these government agencies. That systemic racism is one the core issues they are trying to bring to light at their protests.

“Why is separating families of color [seen as] a positive thing? … The child welfare component of America is designed to encapture Black people and poor people. We have to look at how it’s applied: The fact is that poverty is framed to be neglect, and who lives in poverty? Disproportionately people of color,” said McMillan, who went on to explain that classism, sexism, and racism are intertwined within the system, and that in some parts of the United States, poor white people have high child services involvement as well.  

But in New York City, where her protests are focused, only about 5% of children who were removed from their families in 2019 were white. More than 55% were Black, and 36.4% were Latino or Hispanic. In the entire state, Black children comprised more than 40% of the foster population, despite making up only 15% of the child population. White children, who accounted for 48% of the state child population, only represented about 24% of children in foster placements.

Dinah Ortiz, an AfroLatinx mother who had the rights to her now 18-year-old daughter terminated in the state of Florida when she was an infant, spent more than eight years working as a parent advocate for a defense agency in the Bronx. During that time, she says, she had just one white client who was poor and addicted to heroin. The rest of her clients were people of color, most of them Black, Indigenous, and Latinx. None of her clients hailed from Riverdale, the affluent section of the Bronx.

“The ones they are hurting are the most marginalized people, the most marginalized communities. This is not happening in affluent areas. Why is that? We need to have people really think about it, have people really ask these questions,” Ortiz urged. “Why is it that the stories you hear in the news are only about Black and brown children? Is it that white parents don’t hit their children, or affluent parents don’t beat their children? It can’t be that. Affluent parents don’t use drugs? It’s absolutely not that.”

Nationwide, about 75% of substantiated child maltreatment cases are for neglect, not abuse. Neglect is often code for poverty, meaning a family may be struggling to keep food in the refrigerator, obtain weather-appropriate clothing or licensed child care. It can also be used to mean that a parent has been caught with an illicit substance in their urine—whether or not they used it in the presence of their children—or that they have a substance use disorder,  which is a treatable medical condition. It is even known to be applied for something as simple as a messy home, or a student missing a few days of school.

New York City is not the only place where affected parents are organizing against CPS. Michelle Chan, a California mother who almost had rights to her son terminated a few years ago, has been staging protests in the Bay Area. Her latest was on Jan. 5, and had a turnout of about 75 protesters—but some of last year’s protests were staged against the backdrop of fire and ash as the California coast battled wildfires. 

When asked why she decided to protest under such harsh conditions, Chan replied, “Social justice doesn’t stop because buildings are closed. The clock isn’t stopping on anyone.” That clock is not a metaphor; a timeline set at the federal level by the Adoption and Safe Families Act demands that if states wish to keep their funding, they must terminate parents’ rights after children have been in foster care for 15 months, with some exceptions. Currently, the law does not contain an explicit exception for pandemic-related barriers, leaving that clock ticking for families separated during the pandemic. Under California law, cases involving children under the age of 3 can be terminated as quickly as six months after removal. And, like New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area foster system is plagued by racial disparities.

“In San Francisco, all the child protective services cases are pretty much concentrated in three neighborhoods … where the largest housing developments are, and where many of the Black and low-income people of color have gotten pushed out to,” said Chan, who is Chinese American.

At the MLK Day protest in New York, McMillan gathered near JMacForFamilies’ new billboard, which presides over the 125th block of Harlem until Jan. 25. Unveiled on Jan. 14, the simple, image-free design delivers a bold statement: “Some cops are called caseworkers.”

“I really want people to know that parents who come into contact with the child welfare system are human beings,” said Montauban. “We are human beings, we’re parents, we’re not bad people—we’re not even bad parents. We are people who really want to do the right thing, support our children, support our families, and have the government out of our lives.”

Elizabeth Brico is a journalism fellow with TalkPoverty where she covers economic justice, and a freelance writer whose work typically covers social justice, public health, and the ways in which they intersect.