How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time

Four Generations In

June 29, 2022 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 1 Episode 2
Four Generations In
How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
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How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
Four Generations In
Jun 29, 2022 Season 1 Episode 2
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

More than half of Black children experience a child welfare investigation by their eighteenth birthday– almost twice the prevalence for white children. 

April Lee knows the family surveillance system well. More than eight  years ago, April’s three children were removed from her home. Among her family, friends, and community, most people have been through the child welfare system as parents, children, or oftentimes both. Now, she’s using her lived experience to help Black and Brown parents reunite with their children and ultimately end the trauma of family separation. April shares the obstacles parents must overcome to avoid losing their children forever and why she believes child welfare cannot meet its own standard of safety for children. 

Guest: April Lee (@AprilLee215) is the Director of Client Voice at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. 

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected. 

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Molly Pollak. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

More than half of Black children experience a child welfare investigation by their eighteenth birthday– almost twice the prevalence for white children. 

April Lee knows the family surveillance system well. More than eight  years ago, April’s three children were removed from her home. Among her family, friends, and community, most people have been through the child welfare system as parents, children, or oftentimes both. Now, she’s using her lived experience to help Black and Brown parents reunite with their children and ultimately end the trauma of family separation. April shares the obstacles parents must overcome to avoid losing their children forever and why she believes child welfare cannot meet its own standard of safety for children. 

Guest: April Lee (@AprilLee215) is the Director of Client Voice at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. 

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected. 

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Molly Pollak. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Kee Tobar (00:05):

Hello everyone, and welcome to How Is That Legal, the podcast where we break down examples of systemic racial inequity in the law and policy, and talk to experts whose stories of injustice will make you ask how in the world is that legal?

Kee Tobar (00:20):

I'm your host Kee Tobar. I'm a legal aid attorney, history enthusiast, and chief equity and inclusion officer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. Last week, I spoke with professor Dorothy Roberts about the racialized history of the child welfare system, and the terror it inflicts on black children, their families, and especially black mothers. Today I'm continuing that discussion with my colleague, April Lee.

Kee Tobar (00:44):

April is a director of Client Voice, at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. And she is also a mother with lived experience in the child welfare system. At CLS, April works to strengthen client services by incorporating the voices of lived experience at every level of advocacy. And she also serves as a peer parent advocate for parents involved with the child welfare system, which April calls the family regulation system. Outside of CLS, April is a writer and poet who has performed her work on many stages throughout Philadelphia and abroad.

Kee Tobar (01:17):

During our conversation, April walks through the trauma of child removal from the moment of separation, to countless obstacles that parents must overcome to reunify with their children, to the harm that sticks with children, even after coming home or aging out of foster care. I'm especially grateful to April for sharing what it felt like to be torn apart from her three children and using her experience to inspire parents to keep fighting for their families. As I listened to April, I heard parts of my own story, and so many times our dialogue brought me back to the central question of this podcast, How Is That Legal?

Kee Tobar (02:02):

Welcome, April Lee, to the show. I know you from being a colleague at Community Legal Services. First, can you share information about your background and your work with the audience who may not be aware of who you are?

April Lee (02:14):

Hi guys, I'm April Lee. I have a unique background. I'm a person with lived experience cross systems. I've been through the child welfare system or family regulation system. Personally had my three children removed. I've been in the treatment system, also the carceral system.

Kee Tobar (02:38):

You named those things, but also can you just name what is your position at CLS currently?

April Lee (02:43):

I'm a director of client voice, also a peer parent advocate. I kind of wear two titles right now. I pretty much help parents navigate the complex child welfare system.

Kee Tobar (02:58):

Got it. So you started at CLS as a peer parent advocate. Can you explain more thoroughly what their role is and what that work looks like?

April Lee (03:08):

A big part of my role is to help parents bridge the resources, more importantly, not face defeat. The system is hard on an individual person. It's hard on parents. When you have your children removed, it's a type of trauma that comes with that, that you can't think straight. You have someone coming in and telling you all of these things that you have to do, and that can be traumatizing to any individual.

April Lee (03:41):

So when parents come in and I get on a case, I'm walking with them from start to finish. I'm going to try my darnedest not to allow you to hit that defeat part, but also have all those resources that a family need to never come back into the system again. So I wear a whole lot of different hats from sometimes big mama, sometimes big sis or auntie or... I wear a whole lot of different hats. So it's hard to kind of put my position in one role. I'm a fake attorney sometimes. I'm a-

Kee Tobar (04:21):

Not a fake attorney, but a very valued consultant.

April Lee (04:25):

Yes. Right, right. Good clarification. No, but we learn.

Kee Tobar (04:31):


April Lee (04:31):

And I sit under attorneys, so I have to understand the ins and outs of the laws and what's actually happening in these family's lives. So I have to consult with my client and tell them what they're facing, but also, can stop some of the harms that's coming their way as well.

Kee Tobar (04:50):

All right. So part of what you were saying, you said from start to finish. And I think it's actually really important for people to recognize what that means, because I don't think people have a real understanding of what the child welfare system is actually like. I talked about a lot of the theory and policy perspective from Professor Roberts, but if you could just ground it in, what does start to finish mean? When you are first forced into this system, from a parenting perspective, what does that look like? What does that process look like?

April Lee (05:33):

It looks like an individual person coming into your home and saying, "I'm going to check your house right now. I'm going to go into your bed. I'm going to open your refrigerator. I'm going to check your cabinets. I'm going to do background checks and clearances on your entire family. I'm going to tell you what the standard of parenting is."

April Lee (05:56):

From that start, and if the agency or whatever agency that's investigating you at that time, deemed that you're an "unfit parent"... Sorry, guys, that you can't see my air quotes, because I just had to emphasize the air quotes on that one. If they deem that you're a unfit parent or find that you neglected or abused your child, now your child in turn is separated. So from the moment of that separation, you have objectives to meet. You have someone that might be actually younger than you, in my case, that comes and say, "You need to do what I say." And if you get angry as a parent, then you need anger management. How dare you feel some type of way that your children just got removed out your home. You don't deserve to be angry. We're protecting them from you. So you're really judged, and based on how you respond, how you act, your trauma responses, at multiple levels.

April Lee (07:02):

And then you are hit with sometimes cookie cutter solutions, that one size fit all. Hey, if you're a parent that's using a substance, I want you to go and seek treatment. I want you to do IOP, which is intensive outpatient. At the same time, I want you to get a job. At the same time, I want you to maintain a home. At the same time, I make you go down the street, get these parenting classes. Don't ask for too much. But at the same time, if you get angry, let's add anger management on top of that, let's add trauma therapy on top of that, while you're trying to deal with the removal of your children.

April Lee (07:44):

So a lot of people, most, myself included, when my children got taken, that was my identity. I jumped off the ledge. I wasn't that parent that, let me get myself together and fight. I had literally lost my entire identity. There was no point to live at that point, and it took me an entire year to gather the strength to want to live again, let alone fight. But these are the things that people don't see on a normal basis, because the world or society tells you that most children that's taken from their parents, are due to this extreme abuse. They have to be the neglecting their children. They have to be severely abusing their children. And that's just not the case for myself, and a lot of the parents we serve.

Kee Tobar (08:38):

I don't think that people understand how often there are interactions with certain communities connected to the child welfare system. And it doesn't mean that you have to have done this egregious thing. You don't even have to have been the one who did the egregious thing, if there was an egregious thing that happened, for your whole family to be intertwined in the system. And so I guess the question I have for you is, at any point in your life, whether that was in your professional life, or your personal life, recently, or in the past, did you have an experience where you're... Can you give us an example of you had an experience where you're like, how is that legal?

April Lee (09:16):

All the time, both personally and professionally. You have children separated from mom that got hurt while they was with dad, and they don't even live in the same home. And you say, well, why do mom have to go through two years of services in order to get her child back that nothing happened in her care? I think about that from my childhood. I grew up in the war on drugs, the crack baby rhetoric. My mother was a crack addict, and I often sit there and think, the way that she was treated, versus the way that I was treated, because I was an opiate addict. The two completely different responses, because two completely different communities. I think, no offense, that we benefited by proxy to the opioid epidemic.

April Lee (10:25):

It wasn't intentionally, okay, black people are going to get more services. No, you still see that, to this day, that it's harder for a black person who smoked crack, even now, to enter into treatment versus a white person who does heroin. And you constantly see that. That generational piece of being pulled into child welfare, me as a child, me as an adult, you see this constantly over and over again. And Dorothy Roberts said it best one time. If this is working, why are we four generations in? If this is working, why are our children still being harmed? If you're actually helping that family, you helped that grandmom, and now her grandchild is in the system. And then her great grandchild is in the system. How did you help? And we have to really look at that.

April Lee (11:26):

I ask myself day to day, constantly, how is this legal to take our children, to treat our children as if... Well, let me break it down for the audience. You have a carceral system, so to speak, in the foster care system. I visit my child two years straight, every Sunday, armed guards, agency workers around, that's going to watch you at this table that you're supposed to interact with your children and say that this is a family setting. We know that that is not.

Kee Tobar (12:16):


April Lee (12:18):

The correlation between the prison systems, you have a set day to visit. Same thing. The parents have a set day. You have a set time to visit. Same thing. You have COs and everyone surrounding you, watching you to make sure that you don't have any interactions with the person that's sitting on the other side of the table. Same thing. You have to get a bring down order to get your child. You got to call in 24 hours ahead of time so they can bring your child to you. And it's the same exact thing.

April Lee (12:53):

And if we are looking at that and seeing how we're setting our families up, families just like mine. I told you I had to gather my internal strength just to be able to go through that as a person. I say, how is it legal that I have to prove to you that I love the child that I birthed through me. This child who I did not physically abuse. This child who I did not neglect. And have this, children being taken because I would be considered transient. They use that word in legal texts. Although a lot of these things I've learned through my position, because I didn't put a name to it. I just lived it. And as I gathered my learning, I said, "Well, how is it legal that I just learned my rights two years after my children were removed." I had to take a class to learn. And as I was taking the class, the facilitator, and I look at her, I'm like, "What? You mean to tell me I had rights all this time." You be here to tell me there was something I actually could do.

April Lee (14:23):

And those are the things that's not said, they're not coming to your home and telling you, "Hey, you have rights. Hey, we can't forcibly remove your children if it's not a real safety threat." Let's define safety. They're not telling us that. And if you don't know, and that's for any anybody that's listening, if you don't know the pain of missing your child, the pain of those sleepless nights, or my daughter being around the corner from me and never able to walk up to the gate while she's in school to hug my child, all because I got raped.

April Lee (15:13):

All because I had this traumatic experience that no one wanted to look at and they say, "Okay, well she's self-medicating and let's look at what just happened to this woman. Let's look at that she was," talking about my myself, "a youth ministry leader. Let's look at that she was already big in her community. Let's look at that she volunteered at all her children's school. Let's look at how many teenagers that she took in her home from her community." They didn't see any of that. When they walked through they seen me as a junkie, as someone that they needed to protect my children from, instead of seeing me as this woman who you know, months prior just got raped.

Kee Tobar (15:59):


April Lee (15:59):

How is that legal?

Kee Tobar (16:04):

It's devastating to hear that story and then see the similarities in people that I'm close with, and also my life experiences, how it just continues to be played out and the responses also continue to play out and also the outcomes continue to play out. And so when you said, if it's working so well, we're protecting children, we're protecting the child's welfare as we say that we are, then why are we fourth generation, third generation in? And I wanted to give you the John Legend church hands and say that [inaudible 00:16:44], because that was part of the question, the statements that when I spoke to Professor Dorothy Roberts about her new book, Torn Apart, How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, where she argues that the child welfare system is designed to punish black families and April you've called for the abolishing of the adoption and safe families act, which we'll discuss later. For listeners who aren't familiar with the system, can you give us actually your opinion on whether the system effectively protects children?

April Lee (17:21):

They can't guarantee our children's safety. You can't guarantee that my child isn't going to hop from home to home, foster home to foster home, congregate care, group homes. You can't guarantee that my child won't age out of the system, forever a legal orphan. You can't guarantee none of that. But you hold me to a standard that you can't hold yourself to, meaning the system. All the time. I see children that are abused. My children are home now. Thank God. But the deficits is very real. The harm and the trauma of separation is still alive in my home. And you're talking about five years later.

April Lee (18:07):

I'm still having to go to therapy appointments and all of this. I'm still having this conversation with my daughter who believes, because someone told her, I abandoned her. The system tells our children that your mom, your dad didn't want to fight for you, when it was the system that wasn't designed to fight for us not fighting. They can't guarantee our children's safety.

Kee Tobar (18:37):


April Lee (18:37):

They have not.

Kee Tobar (18:39):

And then also there's data, earlier data though, connecting sex trafficking, the higher rates, children go missing in the system.

April Lee (18:51):

All the time.

Kee Tobar (18:53):

Or before I worked at CLS as an attorney, I was attorney at juvenile law center, and one of the things that I worked on were the homeless youth count. I did a survey and the amount of youth who were experiencing houselessness, who were from the system was a third of them. And then the other third was from the juvenile justice system. And generally there was interplay between folks who had experience in the child welfare system and the juvenile justice system. And so that's not a coincidence not saying that is an intended outcome at all, but saying, these are the outcomes. This is what's happening. And so when you just explicitly asked that question or made that statement of, you're holding me to this standard that the system can't meet itself. I think that was just like...

April Lee (19:48):


Kee Tobar (19:48):

And I want to talk about neglect. We talked about this. You mentioned it earlier. I know from working at CLS that many of our clients whose kids go into the child welfare system are cited for neglect and not physical or sexual abuse, but this is the same thing that happens nationally. Most of the children who enter the child welfare system are there for neglect. Can you give us examples or scenarios, not particular ones, but that can be possibly seen as neglect. What is the world of neglect? What are the options that are there that could be deemed neglect?

April Lee (20:29):

That list is long.

Kee Tobar (20:33):

I think it's important for people to know, though.

April Lee (20:33):

Absolutely. Once again, I told you, I've been investigated over 20 times since I had my first son at 15. So I've had quite a few investigations. None of them founded.

Kee Tobar (20:52):

Can you be clear with the audience about founded?

April Lee (20:55):

You have an investigation, say someone called it in. It can be pretty much anyone, mandated reporter, disgruntled ex, in my case, and they can make this phone call. They come out and investigate. They say, "Okay, the home don't have any food." And DHS will come out, or the city's agency will come out and investigate the food insecurity. And if they come in and they say, "Oh, well, there's food. Okay. We're going to close this out." It's unfounded. If they receive that same phone call and say, "There's a food insecurity. This home don't have any food. We think these children are hungry." They come out and realize that there isn't any food in the house, then that is founded. You see cases of neglect coming in because of things of poverty all the time. My answer to that, if it's a food insecurity, give them food. If there is a housing insecurity, like we know right now that 30% of children nationally can go home right now, if their parents had a house, nationally.

Kee Tobar (22:08):


April Lee (22:09):


Kee Tobar (22:12):

That was going to be my next question because I want to make sure that I get this particular statistic out there, that only... Or not only, but 16% of children who enter foster care are there because they were physically or sexually abused.

April Lee (22:28):


Kee Tobar (22:29):

Not 60.

April Lee (22:30):


Kee Tobar (22:30):

16%. So that means 84%, I'm a lawyer not a mathematician, are there for some other reason.

April Lee (22:42):


Kee Tobar (22:42):

And so I really appreciate that you immediately brought up the conflation between poverty and neglect and how they're not the same things.

April Lee (22:53):

They're not. But once again, it depends on maybe the worker, the judge, the attorney to advocate for that, or not advocate for that. Because you see it constantly. I've had cases where a family reunified then they say, "Oh, well mom don't have any food. So let's send this mass email and try to pull her back into court because she's low on food." And for me I'm like, "This don't make no sense." I'll go shopping right now before you spend thousands of dollars taking her back and forth to court because she have a food insecurity. So I did that and after I go shopping, make some stuff happen and like, "Oh, we could have gave her a gift card." I'm like, okay, why threaten to bring her back into court? Or why not look at that her family was separated. She just had all her family back and couldn't receive any benefits.

April Lee (23:59):

Or you see parents that's trying their hardest. And those are the heart wrenching cases for me. Because I feel it. If you live on minimum wage, if you live on minimum wage and you have three children, and that pay, if you were able to pay a babysitter, that would take up most of your check, let alone rent, supplies, children needs, and all of that. If I were to leave my 13 year old home with my nine year old and go to work, that is considered neglect. My children can be removed because I didn't have a babysitter. Those are the things that the public don't see. And I'm glad that you used those data points because media, normally push out the worst of the worst stories. Child died. And I get this sometimes when I'm advocating and I'm talking about these issues and I get the looks and sometimes the actual words, April must hate children. And I'm looking like, why? No child should be abused.

Kee Tobar (25:26):


April Lee (25:27):

But we're talking about 16% nationally. But what you're doing to the other 84% is inhumane.

Kee Tobar (25:36):

Right. Connected to that, I would like you to explicitly talk about what are some effective outreaches or programs that the child welfare system can deploy that would actually be effective in meeting the real needs of families and children? Because there are real needs there. No one is saying that there are not needs and there are not deficits sometimes, but what are some of those effective programs or outreaches that would do a better job?

April Lee (26:06):

I'm a little more cynical when it comes down to resources. For the simple fact, often what you see is individual bias that's blocking people from getting resources. So the resources are there in the community and you have smaller nonprofits that's doing the work already. That's doing actual housing workshops, that's doing job readiness, and that's clean slate, that's sealing records, that's trying to push you to your next phase in life, trying to allow you to get better. But within, if we're doing it within the child welfare system or the family regulation system, what you see is room for so much individual bias that if I don't like you because I don't like your personality, you're not going to get those resources.

April Lee (27:00):

Or if you don't meet... I was just having this conversation with my homie the other day. We're talking back and forth and I'm like, "I don't qualify for anything. I don't qualify for nothing." If I even need help, I'm not qualifying, but we're sitting there talking, and the gauge in order to receive resources is you have to be 200% below poverty or 150% below poverty. Why do a family have to be so impoverished to get a resource? So I'm not poor enough for you to help me to get a house?

April Lee (27:41):

But there are places and people that's already doing the work. I would like to see that outsourced from child welfare or family regulation, and above all the number one thing, which I'm going to say, and I will continue to say, parents need more than just one attorney. You need higher quality legal representation. Because you see these cases that come in and they don't have that representation. They don't have someone telling them their rights. They don't have someone walking with them. They don't have someone nipping certain things in the bud before it get too far. They don't have someone looking and scouring resources and trauma support from social workers. They don't have that. That's real, tangible supports that individual people need. If you want a community to be better, if you want this family to be better, if you want these children to be well, so to speak, you will build their community up around them. You can't say, as we see, same thing, a child can be separated for truancy.

Kee Tobar (29:01):


April Lee (29:02):

For not going to the school that's been completely disinvested, that has drugs and gang warring and everything else outside, and you tell me that you're going to take my child because my child is truant, but you can't even guarantee him to go into a safe school.

Kee Tobar (29:25):


April Lee (29:26):

You know. Yeah.

Kee Tobar (29:31):

What I'm hearing you say also is the thought about prevention as it relates to these resources. And you're saying like, okay, I have to be 200%, 150% below the poverty line to get any of these resources. And it's like, I'm not there yet. So you're kind of like basically forcing me to maybe get there.

April Lee (29:51):


Kee Tobar (29:52):

Because if I'm only making ends meet now, but I need these resources, what are the options here? And I'm not saying that people are actually trying to lose their job.

April Lee (30:06):

Listen, I've had someone tell someone, "Well you need to stop working then and get on welfare because you need to meet these objectives." But one of the objectives is to maintain a suitable housing and right, right, right.

Kee Tobar (30:23):

One of the things, as it relates to child welfare that I want to make sure that we get to, that when I heard about this, I was just, I don't want to be cliché and keep saying, how is that legal? But I literally was like, how is this legal? And that was the adoption and safe family's act.

April Lee (30:40):


Kee Tobar (30:40):

I did not understand. And as a person that, like I said, that had my own particular experiences with the system, I was dumbfounded. I did not understand. We mentioned it earlier, but can you talk to us about what it is and what its impact is on particular populations? And the first population I want to talk about is incarcerated parents.

April Lee (31:03):

Absolutely. So the adoption and safe family act was enacted in 1997, if I'm not mistaken. It gives a parent 15 months, 15 out of 22 months. From the moment your child is taken you're on a time clock. But also with, we call it ASFA. It's just shorthand for adoption and safe family act. But also it incentivizes foster care over reunification. And it sets up an hierarchy of what they consider permanency.

April Lee (31:42):

Now, for the audience, please don't try to Google permanency because it was a word that was created and made up. It was not a real word. They said, okay, we need to make up a word to figure out what we want. And they came up with permanency, which I often challenge that narrow notion, once again, that you can't guarantee permanency. You can't guarantee that my child will be suitable, safe, loving, and all of that for their lives and permanency in itself is something I wrestle with as far as, nothing is permanent in life. You're ever changing, ever flowing. Nobody can guarantee permanency. I can lose my job tomorrow after this podcast. I can a house fire and lose my home. So nothing is permanent. But this law created this hierarchy that if a parent cannot "successfully" air quotes guys, reunify with their child, then the next thing is adoption. That's the very next thing after reunification.

April Lee (33:04):

And if adoption is deemed unfit, then you can go to what is called guardianship, meaning with family.

Kee Tobar (33:14):

One second.

April Lee (33:15):

Go ahead. You had a thought.

Kee Tobar (33:16):


April Lee (33:18):

Is after-

Kee Tobar (33:18):

It's after adoption.

April Lee (33:19):

After adoption. Which why I fight so hard on this, one, we should just do away with the law. But for the people who think we shouldn't do away with the law, at the very least change the hierarchy.

Kee Tobar (33:39):


April Lee (33:40):

It's very near and dear. I get people like, "April, why are you constantly trying to get this law abolished? You got your children home." But there are thousands of families that don't get their children home. And what I want you guys to know about this law that it's not just terminating parental rights, it's terminating the grandparent's rights, the sibling rights. Once a child rights are terminated, they're completely severed from their family and from their community. And for incarcerated parents, say, if you have that 15 month timeline, and you don't have adequate representation. You can have a two year bid or a two year... What is it called?

Kee Tobar (34:34):


April Lee (34:35):

Sentence. Sorry guys, I'm still north Philly through and through. You can have a two year sentence that might end with your rights being terminated because you're in jail for two years. But once again, back to people not understanding and knowing their rights, no one is in the jails, in the prisons telling you that an incarcerated parent has the same exact rights as a parent that's not incarcerated. That they supposed to bring you your children, that they supposed to have these phone calls, that you supposed to be involved in the court proceedings and everything within your child's life and your child's case. But when people don't know their rights or don't have proper representation, then a lot of times it ends in termination.

April Lee (35:29):

I deal with these, not even these, because I am these parents. Forgive me. I deal with parents that go through that on a regular basis. And of course the disproportionality is real. What does the prison numbers look like when it comes down to black and brown families and black and brown men and black and brown women. If we know in this nation that 52% of all black children are going to be investigated, look at it. Who do you think these laws are affecting the most? And it's like, okay, no, but this is the argument. Because on the other side, no, but children are languishing in foster care. This is why ASFA was created because they're just sitting there with these, I told you the '90s, right, with these crack baby, you understand? With all this rhetoric that came along with this law.

April Lee (36:35):

You give a family 15 months. And in my case, and this is why I'm so connected to abolishing this law, it took me a year to become sane after my rape. Then it took me another year to go into treatment, to become physically and mentally well enough. If it wasn't for my family that said, "Absolutely not. I'm not, no, I don't want to adopt my sister's children. Get out my." If it wasn't for my family, I would have never seen my children again. And that's very real to me. And this is what you see constantly in my community. I'm one of 10 children, eight living. Four of us have been investigated and entered into the child welfare system, both as adults and as children. My neighborhood is pretty much nowhere that I can go, no group that I can go into where someone hasn't been affected or had their children removed, had their rights terminated, had their children abused in foster care or themselves been abused in foster care as children.

Kee Tobar (37:55):

Right. Got it. So we have been pining over all of the issues and the problems with the child welfare system in the macro. So I'd like to explicitly discuss abolition and discuss what you think abolition means in the child welfare context, but more specifically discuss whether you are an abolitionist or whether you see yourself as a reformist or do neither of those frameworks work for you?

April Lee (38:27):

I'm 100% a abolitionist. I am. I think we get a bad rap sometimes. Once again, I told you, some spaces I go into and they're like, "April must hate children." No, I just think there's a better way. I think we can protect the 16% without punishing the 84. I think that if we build up... this is the thing that we've always had, especially in our communities, especially in the black and brown communities, you have big mama down the street, you have aunties, uncles, you have family members that would take a child and say, you know what? Grandmom, "I'm keeping this child. Get yourself together. When you come back, get your child. Because I don't want to raise nobody else's children." We had that without being surveilled and policed.

Kee Tobar (39:19):

I think that's really important to talk about is those extended networks that we organically create. And I always think now, especially working in legal aid and understanding more about family law, when I think back to... Some of this, I shared in the book that I put out. But when I think back to my own childhood from age two to 12, I quasi lived with my godmother. There was no technical formal thing that said that I was under her guardianship, but my mother was navigating things and I lived with my godmother. And I think about the fact that I lived in Turrell, Arkansas and population 900. And furthermore Gilmore, Arkansas population 300, there wasn't the surveillance there. What if my circumstance happened in Philadelphia?

April Lee (40:19):


Kee Tobar (40:20):

Just thinking about the spatial differences, right? How is it that I can be in a similar situation as you, but because I live in this place in the south that is small and doesn't have the surveillance of the system, that one, I'm not getting the resources, but also two, I don't have the surveillance of the system and I'm able to do these organic connections with the community and our family work through what we work through and we're all right. But then if I live in Philadelphia, my family's not actually given that opportunity to do that.

Kee Tobar (40:55):

That blows my mind every time, that I'm having to see clients talk and I'm thinking about their situations and it's triggering my situation, and I'm just kind of like, it is sad that because of a regional difference, the outcomes, the response is different.

April Lee (41:16):

Joyce McMillan said it best. Surveillance is not support. Surveillance is not support. I believe in we can stop surveilling our families. We've been surviving. We have survived through the conditions that this very nation of ours put us in. We survived. In certain points, we thrive. In our communities, if giving, not even necessarily the resources, because yes, we fund conglomerate organizations without funding, the small grassroots organizations, that's actually doing the work. But if we was to step back and stop surveilling families like we did during the pandemic. Something happened. During the pandemic they had this messed up notion that children are being abused. There's no eyes on children. We need to get eyes on them. And you had all of these people and you had commercials, you see something, say something. Make this phone call. Because children are being abused. We don't have eyes on them. And what happened with families getting tangible supports, like the flow of cash that was going into a family that everyone's thinking outside of the box of how can we support this, and they didn't have eyes on them. Actually, what happened was abuse went down.

Kee Tobar (43:04):

Wow. That's magical. Who would've thought that would've actually happened?

April Lee (43:11):

Who would've thought? That surveillance was stressing people out.

Kee Tobar (43:14):

But that is connected to the non reformist reform. We had that conversation with Professor Roberts and we were saying, although, a person may be abolitionist, there are children in the system now. And so what are the things that we can do? What are the reforms that we can do that doesn't prolong the system, but that reduces some of the harm that the system is putting on to families now? In our best mind, one can think that people who are over a child welfare system also want to see less children in the system. For example, the department of human service themselves funds wraparound services for parents, which includes peer advocates. So regardless of the framework being used, whether it's abolition or reform, this seems to, the wraparound services at least, seems to be a step in the right direction. And what must the macro child welfare system do to continue in that right direction?

April Lee (44:20):

Absolutely. Absolutely. DHS actually funds my position and funds part of our unit, the family advocacy unit. That's what's needed, high quality legal representation. And that's going back to me telling you that a parent deserve more than just an attorney. We are often the first and last defense. A family goes up against a Goliath, a Goliath, and you have all these different players and everyone's looking at your deficits, what you can't do, what you can do. There's no one uplifting you and say, "Okay, well what is this family's strength?" And with higher quality legal representation ,we're looking at the strengths. We're putting together those cases. We're stopping it from getting to a point to where's even more harm is done.

April Lee (45:24):

So once again, if we can't invest directly into those type of supports, if we got to have a child welfare system, if we got to have this system that's here right now, fund representation. They shouldn't have to have an attorney, no offense to any of the attorneys, because I know you guys do strong work, but in actuality attorneys spend a lot of time in court, so you might not have time to pick up the phone for me. If you have five court cases that day in that room. You might not have time to listen while I'm going through my crisis. You might not have time to say it's okay, I'm going to come sit with you. It's okay. Let's figure this out. It's okay. Let's get you some bus passes and trans... you don't have that type of time as an attorney.

Kee Tobar (46:22):

The social work time.

April Lee (46:24):

Right. The social worker, the peer parent and good lawyers. I work with phenomenal, zealous. I didn't know what zealous advocacy was until I seen our attorneys in action. But you also see attorneys, it's like, "Oh, I'll meet you five minutes before court. Run it down to me real quick." And then they forget your name while they're fighting your case.

Kee Tobar (46:55):

And my last question, because I know I've had you for a while and I really appreciate you talking with me,

April Lee (47:00):


Kee Tobar (47:01):

I always like to end off on what can we do? In my conversation with Professor Roberts, we talked about ways policy makers can advocate for change in a child welfare system, but we know advocacy goes beyond policy makers, beyond attorneys, even beyond activists, what are ways that parents can advocate for themselves?

April Lee (47:24):

Mobilize. We have to come together. We have to collectively learn. Because like I said multiple times, so much of it is not understanding your rights, not understanding what you can and can't do, not having those proper supports. We have to come together.

April Lee (47:44):

People ask me that a lot, and I'm like, it's going to take us to help us, at the end of the day. Now granted, yeah, some politicians might jump on the bandwagon and great activists, I'm an activist myself or at least what I like to think. It's going to take us, because we've protested. We've marched. We've did all of these things, but you see, back to your point of that individual internal reflection, that no one looks at the unintended consequences that we suffer from. No one looks at what happens on the other end of that policy or how is it going to affect? How can we deal with... How can you create a policy about something as complicated as addiction without understanding the stigma that's connected to it, so some things are going to fail. It's going to take us to help us. And I truly believe that.

Kee Tobar (48:55):

I've learned so much from you. Thank you for giving me your time. I hope that the audience learns as much as I learned from you today. Keep doing what you do. We appreciate you at CLS. I'm sure the community appreciates you also.

April Lee (49:08):

Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Kee.

Kee Tobar (49:16):

That wraps up my conversation with CLS Director of Client Voice, an extraordinary advocate for families involved in the child welfare system, April Lee. There are so many important moments in today's episode, but one of the things that struck me most was when April shared Professor Roberts' pointed question. If the system is working, why are we four generations in? I hope that after listening to today's interview you have a better understanding of the kinds of support that will actually foster family wellbeing without removing children from the only homes they know.

Kee Tobar (49:48):

April can be found on her newly minted Twitter account @aprillee215, A-P-R-I-L-L-E-E-2-1-5. To contact Community Legal Services' family advocacy unit, you can call 215-981-3700. To make sure you don't miss next week's episode, be sure to subscribe to How Is That Legal wherever you get your podcasts.

Kee Tobar (50:17):

How Is That Legal is produced by Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our producer and editor, executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers, music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks Zakya Hall, Caitlin Nagel and Molly Pollak. I'm your host, Kee Tobar.