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The 2020 uprisings against police brutality and state-sanctioned violence pushed more people to recognize how police forces disproportionately abuse and kill Black, Indigenous, and people of color. But policing by other branches of the state also extends to people’s homes. BIPOC families have been systematically torn apart under the guise of protecting children by the family regulation system, commonly known as the child welfare system or Child Protective Services (CPS), creating a climate of fear and erecting barriers that keep families apart.

Families have to navigate confusing and often contradictory systems that make it challenging to keep their families together and receive much needed support. Because the surveillance of parenting is interwoven into so many systems, anything from seeking shelter from intimate partner violence, getting treatment for substance use disorder, or even showing your home in the background of Zoom school can be fraught with fear. My colleagues at San Francisco General Hospital repeatedly hear from families that they are scared to access prenatal health care for fear of CPS getting involved.

This system has roots in our country’s deeply racist history, from tearing families apart during slavery to forcing Indigenous children into boarding schools. That historical trauma reverberates through the system today. In San Francisco, families with Black children are 12 times as likely as white ones to face allegations, 16 times as likely to have them substantiated, and 22 times as likely to be placed in foster care. Indigenous and Latinx families are also disproportionately impacted. The COVID-19 pandemic has put these inequities in sharp relief. In New York City, where 90% of children’s services cases involve Black and Latinx children, school personnel made more than 2,400 reports for child abuse and maltreatment in the first quarter of this school year as families balanced education and protecting their children from COVID. Just as violence against BIPOC by police has sparked a reimagining of public safety, we must envision a new system where families are supported, not policed.

Generations of families of color have fought for a family-oriented, equitable support system whose driving purpose is to keep families together. Even though the family regulation system most impacts those families, their voices are often left out of the conversation. In 2020, we took a step toward remedying that by holding the San Francisco BIPOC Family Justice Summit. We brought together leaders of color from health care, legal services, social services, and community organizations to identify barriers to keeping families together and envision a system that promotes dignity and healing. In a convening grounded in healing and cultural practices, we heard stories from people impacted by the system, explored its history, and envisioned a system that provides the support families need.

The Family Justice Summit Report offers concrete action recommendations for workers in the family regulation system, hospitals, schools, and elected officials and policymakers. It also details practical information for community members to understand how to navigate the current system in a way that best protects their families and communities. The report centers the knowledge and experiences of BIPOC communities and lists guidelines for intentional effort to undo racist practices and implement greater transparency and accountability. The wisdom of these BIPOC families can provide a model for reimagining how we support families across the country.

Our collective recommendations offer a path toward a system that supports rather than punishes. Workers in the family regulation system need to provide transparency and guide families with clarity on the steps to keep their families united and the realistic plans to get there. Schools should train people to recognize the difference between poverty and abuse and neglect and connect families with community resources. Policymakers need to ensure that people with lived experience in the system have a seat at the table. The report offers dozens of concrete actions that people involved in the system should take.

Advocates and workers within the system are doing what they can to stand in the way of the machine that rolls over these families. At San Francisco General Hospital, Team Lily is a multidisciplinary, wrap-around perinatal care team working with pregnant people facing significant barriers to care like homelessness, substance use disorders, or significant mental illness. The program works to build up pregnant people’s support prior to birth and help them achieve their parenting goals without CPS engagement. Rather than automatically referring cases to CPS after birth, care teams in the Family Birth Center have been using a new tool called a “family safety timeout” before any referral to CPS. This is a mandatory pause for teams to think about alternatives and strategies to support a parent or family. We hope it will help reduce the number of cases the hospital refers to CPS and offer additional support to our communities.

BIPOC communities in San Francisco and everywhere deserve a family-oriented support system with the goal of keeping families together. To truly allow families to thrive, the solutions can’t be empty promises. We must identify the root causes of these family separations rather than punishing people for experiencing poverty, intimate partner violence, housing instability, or addiction. Everyone with power within the family regulation system must listen to what communities of color need, dare to imagine, and work toward keeping families together. 

Cynthia Gutierrez (she/her/ella) is the Program Manager for Team Lily and HIVE at the University of California, San Francisco.