A gripping New York Times feature reveals that an insidious and disturbing pattern is taking place in New York City: Poor women, mostly black and Latina, are being disproportionately punished by the city’s foster care system.
New York’s foster care services have been notoriously troubled, as has the city’s overall child welfare system. But the Times story reveals the cruel ways that women of color have become specifically subjected to what they refer to “Jane Crow.” The anecdotes collected illuminate how various child service agencies compound legal and financial trouble upon vulnerable mothers, while exacting irreversible trauma on the children they’re supposed to protect.
The Times piece also adds another layer to our understanding of how racial discrimination manifests in the lives of young black and brown mothers. Like this WNYC story, which found that black mothers in New Jersey were four times more likely to be judged unfit to parent than their white peers.
We’ve collected some of the most eye opening passages below.
The piece begins with a young mother whose child was placed into foster care after her 5-year old child wandered out of her Brooklyn apartment while she was taking a bath. When the police got involved, the mother, Maisha Joefield, was removed from her home and charged with “endangering the welfare of a child.” Her daughter, Deja, was placed in foster care.
The numbers show that Joefield’s case is just one among hundreds. In fact, the number of removals requested by Children’s Services in NYC has increased sharply—about 40% higher—compared to last year.
According to Children’s Services, approximately 9,000 of New York City’s children are currently receiving foster care.
One public defender summed up why cases like Joefields’ are so troubling:
“These are the kinds of cases you hear attorneys screaming about in the hall,” said Scott Hechinger, a lawyer at Brooklyn Defender Services. “There’s this judgment that these mothers don’t have the ability to make decisions about their kids, and in that, society both infantilizes them and holds them to superhuman standards. In another community, your kid’s found outside looking for you because you’re in the bathtub, it’s ‘Oh, my God’” — a story to tell later, he said. “In a poor community, it’s called endangering the welfare of your child.”
While Deja was returned to her mother after four days, the effects of that initial incident lasted well past her return home.
The case stayed open for a year, during which she had to take parenting classes, and caseworkers regularly stopped by her apartment to do things like check her cupboards for adequate food supplies and inspect Deja’s body for bruises. “They asked me if I beat her,” Ms. Joefield said. “They’re putting me in this box of bad mothers.”
Her name remained on a state registry of child abusers for years, preventing Ms. Joefield, a former day care worker, from working with children. Most important, she said, speaking of Deja, the experience had “changed her.”
When her daughter came home, she said, “she was always second-guessing if she did something wrong, if I was mad at her,” she said.
The Times also chronicled the story of an unnamed woman who was arrested as she gave birth prematurely. Because she was several weeks ahead of her due date, she was unprepared.
Frightened, she called an ambulance. Then she realized her boyfriend, who was at nearby job-placement program and didn’t have a cellphone, would have no way of knowing if she went to the hospital. So she left her phone with her daughter, told her to stay in their apartment, and walked to the boyfriend’s training site, about eight blocks away.
Because she was having contractions, the walk to her boyfriend’s took about 40 minutes total. By the time the mother and her partner arrived back at the apartment, the ambulance—and the police—were waiting for her.
Once she had delivered, her feet were shackled and her hands cuffed to her bed, the records show. Her only reprieve: an officer agreed to take off the cuffs while she breast-fed her newborn son, she said. She was discharged from the hospital with a fever, breast pain, severe abdominal pain and instructions to take various medications. Officers took her from the hospital to criminal court, where, after waiting for hours, she was charged with endangering the welfare of her 6-year-old.
The article further illuminates how easy it is for protective services, supposedly designed to save children from neglect and abuse, to be weaponized against these mothers. Take the story of Bernadette Charles, who had to deal with an absentee landlord:
Charles ... in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, experienced problem after problem. A sluice of brown water came through the ceiling, ruining the suede couch she had just purchased on credit. Large rats took over the kitchen.
Charles’ breaking point came when she found black mold on her bathroom walls. Her landlord got his revenge by targeting her children:
Ms. Charles said that when her landlord learned she had complained to 311 about conditions, he punished her by calling Children’s Services. The agency worker arrived days later. The worker cited unsafe conditions, including roaches and dirty dishes in the sink. Despite noting that the couple’s four children were “clean and healthy,” the worker said they could not stay and removed the children. Ms. Charles remembers her youngest, who was 3 at the time, wailing as he was taken from the apartment.
The losses from these short term foster placements are easily compounded and long-lasting. Not only do these mothers have to cycle through various legal hoops and requirements like mandatory parenting classes, but their kids suffer profoundly from being taken away from their homes. A study from the University of California Davis found that children who go through multiple placements have a higher probability of needing mental health services later in life.
As the Times points out, they are also likely to suffer “higher delinquency rates, higher teen birthrates, lower earnings and a higher likelihood of going to prison as an adult.”
You can read more about America’s modern day “Jane Crow” here.