Alan Dettlaff began his career in social work as a child welfare investigator. So how did he reach the conclusion that social workers must refuse to cooperate with the system altogether? Well, he tried to reduce racial disproportionality within child welfare and foster care for years.
In this episode, Dr. Dettlaff shares his research on the unique harms that the family policing system imposes on Black, Latine, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ families, and he breaks down the carceral logic that drives the state to remove children from their parents. Finally, he lays out specific ways policymakers can shift power and resources to families.
Guest: Alan Dettlaff (@AlanDettlaff) is Dean of the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston. Dr. Dettlaff’s work focuses on addressing and eliminating the impacts of structural and institutional racism on Black children and other children of color impacted by child welfare system intervention.
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? 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. Today, I'll be talking with Dr. Alan Dettlaff about the unique challenges that Latine families face in a child welfare system. The carceral treatment of youth in foster care and you guessed it abolition. We also discussed how the system pushes LGBTQ+ youth in and out of homelessness, which is an issue near and dear to my own heart.
Kee Tobar (00:47):
Alan Dettlaff is dean of the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston and the inaugural Maconda Brown O'Connor Endowed Dean's Chair. Prior to entering academia, Dr. Dettlaff worked in the child welfare system as a case worker and an administrator. Dr. Dettlaff's work focuses on addressing and eliminating the impacts of structural and institutional racism on Black children and other children of color impacted by child welfare system intervention. He is co-founder of the upEND movement, a collaborative movement that seeks to end the involuntary separation of children from their parents through abolition of foster care and the child welfare system. Here we go.
Kee Tobar (01:30):
Welcome Dr. Alan Dettlaff to the show. This is the third and final episode of our arc on child welfare or what some call family policing or family surveillance. And I know I still have so much to learn. But before we jump in, could you quickly introduce yourself and share some of your background with the audience?
Alan Dettlaff (01:49):
Sure. Well, first thanks very much for inviting me to be on this show, I've really been looking forward to it. My name is Alan Dettlaff, my current job is dean of the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston, I've been dean here for seven years now. But I started my career as a social worker working in the child protective services system in Fort Worth, Texas. And this was in the mid 1990s. I actually went into social work because I wanted to work for child protective services. Worked for that system for about six years and my last year in the system, I was a supervisor, so I supervised a unit of investigators. And the whole time that I was in that system, I worked on the investigations end. So I was responsible for investigating cases of abuse and neglect and responsible for separating children from their families.
Alan Dettlaff (02:41):
It wasn't until after I left the system, that I started to really understand the harm that results from separating children from their families, when I became involved in the state's efforts to address what the state was calling or is still calling racial disproportionality, which is the overrepresentation of Black children in the system. As I became more involved in that work, I came to understand how harmful family separation is, how that's disproportionately done to Black families and my complicity in that harm, learning about that. When I went into academia, then I studied for many years, issues of race and racism and how that manifests in child welfare systems. I've done some work related to immigrant families in the system, some work related to LGBTQ families, but most of my research has focused on addressing institutional, structural racism within the child welfare system, and then trying to develop strategies to address that.
Kee Tobar (03:34):
Thank you so much for that. So the name of this show is How is That Legal. Alan, can you tell us about a time in your research or experience related to child welfare system that shocked you and made you ask how is that legal?
Alan Dettlaff (03:52):
There are many, but I can think of one that's particularly relevant now because it's related to legislation that's being promoted and it's related to the issue of, or the fact that when parents become involved or when a family becomes involved in a child protective services investigation, there's no requirement by child protective services workers to give any equivalent of a Miranda warnings to parents before they engage in an investigation. So right now there's no requirement by any state to give parents information about their rights before talking to the child protective services worker. There's no requirement for states, for the workers to inform the parents that they don't have to let their child be interviewed by them, which they don't have to. There's no requirement that the worker informs the parents that they don't have to let them in their home. Those are all parents right, but the state doesn't have the responsibility to inform them about that.
Alan Dettlaff (04:54):
And I relate that to a time when I was working in the system, I worked in what's called an advocacy center, which means I was housed with members of the Fort Worth police department. And we would co-investigate cases often. And I remember very specifically, the police would always want me to interview parents in an investigation first, because I didn't have to give them any kind of warnings about how, what they said would be used against them. So the police always wanted me to interview parents first, before they were involved. Because they were afraid if they interviewed the parents and had to give them the Miranda warnings, then they wouldn't engage in a conversation.
Alan Dettlaff (05:36):
So what would happen is, they would get me to interview parents. If parents made any kind of disclosure about anything, those parents would write that down on an affidavit, and then that would become part of their record. And then because of the data sharing agreements that the child welfare system has with the police, the police automatically had access to that statement that the parents made, even though the police didn't get that statement. So how is that legal? How is it okay for parents to not be informed of any of their rights before engaging in that process? When it is a requirement in other in criminal investigations that parents are informed of their rights. And what's really interesting about this, is there has been recent legislation promoted, particularly in New York City, by Joyce McMillan, she has an organization, JMacForFamilies. To get Miranda warnings or the equivalent of Miranda warnings included as part of a child protective service investigation. And the New York City child welfare agency fought against that legislation. And ultimately that legislation didn't pass.
Alan Dettlaff (06:38):
So what does that tell you about the child welfare system? They actually fight against legislation that would require them to inform parents of their rights. So they know in order to do what they do, they basically have to shield parents' rights from them, because they're afraid if parents knew their rights, they wouldn't be able to do what they're doing.
Kee Tobar (06:58):
In our first two episodes, professor Dorothy Roberts and my colleague April Lee helped us understand some of what Black families experience when child welfare forcibly removes their children. I'm sure you'll have some additional insights, but I also wanted to talk to you about some of your research on Latine families in the system and LGBTQ youth in foster care. Let's focus a bit first on Latine families in the child welfare system. What are some of the challenges specifically those in the Latine community and how they encounter full family policing?
Alan Dettlaff (07:30):
Yeah. Well, there's many, but probably the most prominent one is issues related to families, immigration status that impacts some Latine families and in very unique ways. Both in terms of how some families may become involved in the system, as well as fears families have related to their immigration status once the child welfare system is involved with them. Several years ago, when there were large workforce raids that were being done, and parents were being detained by immigration authorities, we saw a time where many children were coming into foster care solely because their parents were being detained by immigration officials. So that's one unique way that, that happens. But also when parents become involved with the family policing system in any other way through the normal means of a hotline call, parents who have an undocumented immigration status have many justifiable concerns about how that status is going to be used against them.
Alan Dettlaff (08:34):
And depending on biases that different case workers may have, sometimes immigration statuses are divulged to other authorities and it could result in detention and deportation of parents. So what's done with information about families immigration status is certainly an issue that's a unique challenge for some Latine families. But beyond that, there is a lot of bias that exists both in the country, writ large, but also within many family policing systems towards undocumented family members. And sometimes that bias can play out in ways that are particularly punitive for families. So being aware of biases that may impact the decisions that are made. Bias obviously is something that impacts many children and families of color, Black children and families, indigenous children and families, but it impacts Latine families and unique ways related to their immigration status and perceptions about immigration status.
Alan Dettlaff (09:36):
Language access is an issue for some Latine families. Often what happens in family policing investigations is, if a parent speaks some amount of English, then the case worker just goes with that and continues having the conversation in English. Even if that parent may not prefer to be discussing what is a very important issue related to their child in English, they might prefer to have that conversation in their native language. But if they can speak any English at all, translation service or an interpreter typically isn't involved or requested. So language access is an issue. And then there are cultural differences in parenting styles, particularly again, among immigrant families. Many immigrant families that I worked with had different ideas about childcare, where often older children in the home would be responsible for the care of younger children.
Alan Dettlaff (10:33):
Depending on the jurisdiction, that may be a reportable offense on the part of a family, say if a 10 year old is caring for a two or three year old. I worked with many families where that was a normal cultural practice in someone's country of origin. But when they're here in the United States, it isn't. So there's different cultural differences like that, that could lead to someone becoming involved with the family policing system for something that within their culture was normal.
Kee Tobar (10:58):
I want to tease out as it relates to the language translation, right? Because we spoke of it, but I want to be sure that the audience can understand why that is problematic. If we have the child translating for the parent who may or may not be understanding everything that's being stated.
Alan Dettlaff (11:25):
Mm-hmm. Yeah, well, it's particularly problematic when children are doing it, but it's because most of what they're going to be talking about is about them or about something happening in their family. But it's problematic for anyone to be used as an interpreter that isn't part of the workforce. Because you don't know that if the family policing case worker doesn't speak Spanish and they're relying on another family member or a neighbor or a friend to interpret, they don't know that the information is being translated to the family correctly, they don't know that the information is coming back to them correctly. And just given the stakes of these investigations, it's very important that information is being interpreted correctly.
Kee Tobar (12:12):
Thank you for clarifying that. I think that, that was really an important thing to tease out. Can you think of any particular child welfare laws or policies that have a disparately harmful impact on Latine families, even if they're race neutral on their faces?
Alan Dettlaff (12:28):
Absolutely. And ASFA is the primary one, the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Particularly in cases where parents are either detained or deported by immigration officials, I've seen many cases where parents are detained and particularly where parents are deported, that, that automatically becomes a termination case. The state makes no efforts to try to reunify parents with their children or reunify children with their parents when a parent is detained by immigration authorities, and particularly when a parent is deported. They don't have the means to do that, they don't know how to do that, they don't know how to engage with the parents if they're in another country, or if they're in a detention center.
Alan Dettlaff (13:10):
And in many cases, because of just blatant xenophobia, I've seen case workers think that it is in the child's best interest for a child to remain in the United States rather than being returned to a parent in another country. Even if there are no safety issues, there's no issues related to maltreatment, there's a bias towards being in the United States where case workers will think this child will have better opportunities here in the United States if they're adopted out, so we just need to proceed with this termination and get this child into a family in the United States. So ASFA definitely disproportionately harms Latine families, particularly, undocumented Latine families when there's an issue of either a detention or deportation.
Kee Tobar (13:56):
I think we've heard this over and over again from speaking with professor Roberts, and also speaking with April that, there's this systemic framework or understanding that disruption and detachment are somehow protection, right? That the best thing to do generally, is to detach or disrupt the family connection. And this child is better off somewhere else, other than with these people. And it's so, again, the moniker of child welfare under that framework is just so ironic to me.
Alan Dettlaff (14:34):
Yeah. And that's why we don't call it a child welfare system. That's why we call it a family policing system. Child welfare is language the state has given us to try to trick us all to think that the system is actually concerned about children's welfare. But when you look at their patterns of surveillance, regulation, punishment separation, you could see that this is a system that's basically a massive state system of social control. That's designed to control the behavior of Black and Brown families through this system of punishment, through the threat that their child can be taken from them at any moment, if they don't comply to exactly what the system is demanding.
Kee Tobar (15:12):
Agreed. Speaking of the border, we watched in horror as children were snatched from their parents at the border a few years ago. And for a moment at least, there seemed to be widespread consensus about the trauma of family separation. Do you think that, that awareness has spread to the family policing system at all?
Alan Dettlaff (15:33):
Unfortunately, no. But it's something that I talk about, or I try to talk about every time that I'm asked to speak. Because I really think if we can make those connections, that more people would understand how harmful this system is and why we need to work towards abolition. Like you said, there was wide national outrage a few years ago when we saw people, when we saw children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. What I hope that people will come to understand is that, the same harm and trauma that they saw on their TVs every night when children were separated is the exact same harm and trauma that children and parents are experiencing every day when their children are separated by the family policing system, it could be happening. It likely is happening right in their neighborhoods, down the street all the time, because that's the extent to which this system is embedded in many neighborhoods.
Alan Dettlaff (16:31):
Family separation is incredibly traumatic and harmful to both children and parents. Regardless of how long that separation lasts. There are significant and lifelong effects of that. And if more people could understand how harmful that is, not even getting into how harmful foster care is and all of the horrible outcomes associated with foster care, but just the harm of family separation, I think we could start to shift some of the narrative related to the family policing system. The challenge is, awareness hasn't spread because the family policing system has been very effective in creating a myth that they're a needed helpful benevolent system. Most people don't realize that only 17% of children in foster care are in foster care because of what the state calls physical or sexual abuse.
Alan Dettlaff (17:21):
Up to 70% of children in foster care are in foster care solely because of issues of neglect, which is largely related to poverty. So what we have is a system that's taking children away from their parents because of largely poverty related concerns, and then placing those children in the home of strangers and then paying those strangers money to take care of someone else's children, when all those children's parents need is money. And the harm that goes along with that because of those separations is immense. But I don't think the general public, the awareness is there that, that's what the system is doing.
Kee Tobar (18:00):
As professor Dorothy Roberts notes, "There's a thin line between treating Black children as innocent victims in need of protection and treating them as delinquents in need of discipline." In fact, some children are literally housed in jail cells as what happened in Cook County, Illinois. Alan, could you please share some examples of how family policing is part of that carceral state?
Alan Dettlaff (18:25):
Yeah. I'm so glad you asked this because I think it would help for more and more people to understand how the family policing system really is part of the carceral state and operates in many ways, in exactly the same way that policing and prisons operate. And basically the family policing system is part of the carceral state because it's undergirded by the same carceral logic that's used by the criminal punishment system. When you really understand the family policing system and what it's doing, you see that it functions largely as a system of social control with significant power to surveil, regulate and punish families. And that's because of the logic or say the orientation that the system uses in terms of how it addresses social problems.
Alan Dettlaff (19:11):
So the logic is one that blames individuals for societal problems. Things like poverty, homelessness, joblessness. Rather than treating those problems as a societal concern, and then seeking remedies from the state, we blame individuals when they're poor or when they're houseless and we punish them by taking their children away or by locking them in prison. Because we place all of the burden for correcting those problems at individuals, if a parent is poor and can't meet their child's needs, we charge them with neglect and we take their children away. And the state, the government does this to distract us from the reality that this is a problem created by the government, not by individuals. That's what I think is the really key part of this.
Alan Dettlaff (19:56):
The presence of poverty is not just a societal failure, it's a government failure. The government has solutions to end poverty immediately if they choose to, but they choose not to because they don't have to. Because when we look at poverty and specifically the disproportionate levels of poverty that exist among Black families, what we should be saying, is this is a problem of the government, that the government needs to address. But we don't because of how the state has defined neglect. So rather than poverty of Black families being a problem of the government, it became a problem that the government could fix by taking Black children away from their parents. That's the solution now, rather than really addressing the poverty. So it's a logic of individualized blame, individualized punishment when any parent fails to reach the level of fitness that doesn't conform to this white middle class standard.
Alan Dettlaff (20:49):
So I often say the child welfare system is part of the carceral state because it's part of an institutional ecosystem that responds to societal problems by locking people in cages. Whether that cage is a jail cell, immigration detention, or a foster home.
Kee Tobar (21:07):
So before I became a, like I stated earlier, before I became the chief equity and inclusion officer, I was a juvenile justice attorney. So I don't actually think that I mentioned before, even before coming to community legal services, I focused on national juvenile justice and child welfare policy. And in that role, I saw how the system pushed young people across in between the child welfare system, the criminal legal system and the civil legal system and houselessness. And this cycle was particularly stark for LGBTQ+ youth. What does your research address about this brutal cycle, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth?
Alan Dettlaff (21:52):
Mm-hmm. Well, LGBTQ+ youth are a particularly vulnerable population generally in society. And specifically once they become involved in the family policing system. But it starts with the biases that exist in society. And because of that bias, we know that many LGBTQ+ youth are at increased risk of things like, mental health concerns, substance use, other challenges that result from the bias that they experience related to their sexual orientation or gender identity. We know that LGBTQ youth are also at very high risk of homelessness. And we often see LGBTQ youth enter foster care or become involved in the family policing systems specifically because they've been kicked out of their homes due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. And then, so what we have is we have a population of children who become involved in the system who in many cases already have a high level of need.
Alan Dettlaff (22:50):
And because of that, as well as because of bias among foster parents, it can be difficult to find, it can be very difficult to find affirming homes for LGBTQ+ youth. That combined with the high level of need that many LGBTQ youth have, means that LGBTQ youth are more likely to be placed in congregate care facilities, these residential homes. Which are horrible environments for youth to grow up in. So you see a disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth placed in these congregate care facilities, and then all of the associated problems that go along with those placements. Abuse, discrimination by staff members, abuse or discrimination by other residents of the facilities that could be particularly difficult for trans or gender queer youth when they're in these facilities, because they're often placed in the part of the facility, according to their sex as assigned at birth and not as their identity.
Alan Dettlaff (23:53):
So that can make it very challenging for a trans youth. And then what we see is, we see fights, we see violence, we see youth running away and that's when their behaviors become criminalized. And when they run away from placement, when they're in a fight with someone who's ridiculing them, discriminating against them, then the cops get involved, their behavior becomes criminalized, and that's when they become involved in the juvenile punishment system. And it just goes on and on from there.
Kee Tobar (24:24):
Yeah. So when I was a juvenile justice attorney, I was trying to coin this term out there, what I call the closet to poverty pipeline. And in that closet to poverty pipeline, there are stops and with different interactions with different systems. So the homeless services systems, which kind of filters into the juvenile punishment system, which then filters once you age out or a release without a proper plan back into those systems over and over again, ultimately leading to also economic harm and hardship and how that system goes on and on, especially for multiply marginalized young people. Just as the criminal legal system has the prison industrial complex, some argue that the family policing system has the foster industrial complex. Could you talk about how the child welfare system monetizes children once they are in foster care?
Alan Dettlaff (25:23):
Yeah. So a really great example of that is something that's been in the news recently, which has shown that state child welfare systems are literally stealing children's social security money or money that's owed to them by the state because of the death or disability of a parent, and then not telling them about it. So if a child has a parent who's deceased, they're entitled to survivor benefits, social security benefits of that parent. That money typically goes to a surviving parent or a guardian to care for that child. When a child is taken from their parents by the family policing system, there's been news stories recently that have exposed that the to welfare offer system is actually taking, rather than holding that money for children when they leave foster care, they're taking that money from children and not telling them about it.
Alan Dettlaff (26:18):
So they're literally stealing children's social security, survivor benefits and so how is that legal? That's a good question for your audience. How is it legal for the system to steal children's social security, survivor benefits and not even have to inform them? Not even tell them that they've been taking that money. But when we talk about the foster care industrial complex, that's just one example, but it's really a way similar to how the term, the prison industrial complex has been used. It's a way to describe that this is really an enormous web of services, government contracts, private industry contracts, that amount to billions and billions of dollars that support the maintenance of children in foster care in the same way that the prison industrial complex is organized. So there's this vast network of agencies, organizations, and individuals that are receiving money to care for children in foster care. And their continued receipt of that money is dependent on children being in foster care.
Alan Dettlaff (27:22):
If the population of children in foster care goes down, then the money that all of those systems and individuals goes down. So there's a financial incentive to maintain a high number of children in foster care because of all of the money that's going to this network of services, organizations and individuals. And then going back to ASFA and how harmful that is, The Adoption and Safe Families Act, states receive financial incentives to terminate parental rights and to adopt children out of foster care. For every child adopted from foster care over and above the number of children that were adopted in the prior fiscal year, the state receives more money from the government.
Alan Dettlaff (28:05):
So right now I believe the stipends are $5,000 for every child and $10,000 for every older child, so a child over the nine. So say if as a state, 10,000 children were adopted from foster care last year, if this year you adopt 11,000 children out of foster care, that's a thousand more children adopted, you get an extra $5,000 for every one of those 1000 children. So states get more money by terminating more parental rights and adopting children. If they reunify a child with their parents, they don't get anything. If they terminate parental rights and adopt them, they get money.
Kee Tobar (28:46):
Well, that's an incentivization, like this is incentivizing something.
Alan Dettlaff (28:51):
Kee Tobar (28:52):
Interesting policy choice. And I wanted to make sure that I pointed out as it relates to when you were bringing up with regard to social security, that's particularly egregious, especially when we think about aging out outcomes, right? When we see the steep drop off for youth who are aging out of the child welfare system and to not have that safety net that could have been there is just particularly egregious concerning that.
Alan Dettlaff (29:21):
Right with the high number of children who age out and go directly into homelessness, and this is a small number of children that are receiving these benefits. But even for those children, if they were to age out of foster care with this nest egg of funds that were owed to them, that were owed to them by the government because of a death or disability of their parent, that could make a huge difference in their lives. And the state is literally stealing that money from them.
Kee Tobar (29:44):
So Alan, you've journeyed from a child protective services investigator to an expert in racial disproportionality. And are now an abolitionist working to abolish the child welfare system and imagine and recreate the ways in which society supports children, families, and communities, and being safe and thriving. Can you share a bit about your evolution to becoming an abolitionist and why you believe reforms are no longer sufficient?
Alan Dettlaff (30:11):
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, it started with really coming to terms with my complicity in the harm that I cause to children and families. It wasn't until I left the system that I even heard the term racial disproportionality or knew about the overrepresentation of Black children in the system. It wasn't until I left the system that I started to learn about how harmful family separation and foster care is for children and families. And when I started to learn about that, I was able to think back on my own time in the system and think about how my own biases impact the decisions that I made. But also how biases across the agency impact the decisions that are made against Black children and families. I often tell a story about this neighborhood on the east side of Fort Worth, where we would get a lot of investigations. That was a predominantly if not exclusively, poor Black neighborhood.
Alan Dettlaff (31:06):
And I always remember it because it had streets with very specific names. So there was Avenue G, Avenue K, Avenue H, we would get investigations from there often. And when we would get a hotline report from that neighborhood, we, the investigators would say to ourselves, "We got to bring the car seat out on this one." Meaning that we were already deciding before we even went out to the house, that we were bringing someone's baby back with us. That's how rampant anti-Black bias is within the system. And I could say that I was a young 20 something with little life experience and little training. One, that's a terrible excuse, but two, there's no one else in the system who's correcting that. No one's stopping that kind of bias from happening.
Alan Dettlaff (31:53):
So, coming to terms with how my own bias impact the decisions that I made, and then thinking back to the reality that, of the probably hundreds of children that I removed from their parents, not once did any of those children say, "Thank you very much for removing me from my horrible, abusive parent." That never happened. And in fact, all children wanted to know was when they were going to go back. And I'm talking about cases in which there was harm too. These are not just poverty and neglect cases, cases where there was harm. All children wanted to know is when they were going to go back. So I came to understand eventually that, even though children may want that harm to stop, they love their parents and don't want to be separated from them. They want the harm to stop. They don't want to be taken away from their parents.
Alan Dettlaff (32:41):
So that led me on a journey where I started studying racism, racial disparities in the system. And I worked for many years similar to what I've heard Professor Roberts talk about often, many years thinking that the system can be reformed. So I spent probably 15 years working with state child welfare systems on reform efforts to try to reduce the number of children coming into care, or to try to reduce the number of Black children specifically coming into care.
Alan Dettlaff (33:11):
What I eventually realized is that the reason those reforms don't work is because they never address the underlying harm that the system causes. First, these reforms have been tried for 60 years now, and they've resulted in no substantive difference. So that tells you something about the reforms. But secondly, all reforms do is try to make the system a little bit nicer, a little bit less racist, but never really addressing the underlying problem. So as prison abolitionists often say, "Nicer friendlier cages are still cages." And that's basically the loop that the family policing system is in right now. And that's evidenced by their current initiative that they're really trumpeting to try to achieve racial equity. So the current director, Aysha Schomburg, is trying her initiative is racial equity. Every time you hear her speak, she talks about the need to create racial equity in the system.
Alan Dettlaff (34:12):
And on its surface, racial equity makes sense. If disproportionality is a problem, then the solution to that is proportionality or proportional representation or racial equity. But if the system were to achieve racial equity, that still means that hundreds of thousands of children are taken away from their parents, they're just distributed equitably by race. And equitable harm is still harm. Like no system should be striving to distribute harm equitably to children. And that's the problem with the system, that it's fundamentally a system based on harm. And until they commit to stop doing that harm or until, no, let me take that back. Not until they commit to stop committing harm, because they're not going to do that. Until the public demands that they stop committing harm and works towards their abolition, they're going to continue doing it.
Kee Tobar (35:03):
It's so interesting to hear you break it down in that way. The equitable harm is still harm because, even in saying that, that means that equitable harm, like when you're talking about addressing equitable harm or equity in this sense equitable harm, is still presupposes the necessity of the system. Right? And so that's something that I understood, but even in you saying that, just kind of clarify or crystallizes that very point for me. So thank you for sharing your evolution. You helped found the upEND movement with the center for the study of social policy in the University of Houston graduate college of social work. Can you tell us a little more about that movement?
Alan Dettlaff (35:45):
Mm-hmm. Yeah, so the upEND movement was formed in 2020, but it had been kind of incubating for some time between me and colleagues from the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Where it started as an effort to try to revitalize the conversation about racial disproportionality in the system, which we felt had waned in recent years. We felt the problem was still there, but people weren't talking about it as much as they were in years past. Where there was a lot of effort being given to the system, a lot of philanthropic attention to the system to try to reduce disproportionality, that had stopped and we wanted to revitalize that. In our conversations about that, we eventually realized, as I know many professionals do, you've probably been in them. Where you realize you've been having the same conversation for 20 years and nothing ever changes. And why do you keep just trying to do the same things over and over?
Alan Dettlaff (36:43):
And that's when we realize that this, the harms to Black children and families at the hands of this system is never going to stop until the system is ended entirely. So the upEND movement is a movement that's specifically calling for abolition of the family policing system. And is not calling for a new system of any kind. What it's calling for is new ways of society caring for children, families, and communities. UpEND is part of a larger movement to abolish the child welfare system, we're just one element of that. There's many other organizations, JMacForFamilies, Movement for Family Power, RISE, there's many abolitionist focused organizations working for the same purpose to abolish the system. I would say upEND operates largely in an academic space in terms of creating academic conversations around this, particularly in schools of social work. Which I think is really important because of how synonymous social work is with this profession.
Alan Dettlaff (37:48):
So if we are able to reach social work professors and particularly social work students and explain to them the harms of the system and how we as social workers, if we're operating, according to our values, we should be working to abolish this system. One of my colleagues, Victoria Copeland calls this mass refusal, which is basically the idea that social workers need to recognize how harmful this system is and literally refuse to cooperate with the system anymore. Literally walk out and then work from the outside towards its abolition. And that is... So part of my role is to point out how inconsistent family policing work is with social work values. Our social work code of ethics says, "Social workers must take action against oppression, discrimination, racism, and inequities." It's the only place in the code of ethics that uses the word must.
Alan Dettlaff (38:47):
The family policing system is responsible for racism, oppression, discrimination, and inequities. If we are true to our values, we should not be working for that system, we should be working for its abolition. So that's what the upEND movement is trying to do, trying to get the social work profession, other academics on board and work towards abolition of the system.
Kee Tobar (39:08):
When you say new ways, can you give kind of some concrete examples of new ways of responding?
Alan Dettlaff (39:15):
Mm-hmm. A lot of this has to do with addressing material resources. Like we've talked about the fact that upwards of 70% of children are coming into foster care because of reasons largely related to poverty concerns. And there are solutions to poverty that could significantly limit the concerns that go along with poverty. There are things like universal basic income, child allowances, free universal healthcare, free universal mental healthcare, free and accessible substance use care for anyone who wants that care. Those are the kind of things that we could be providing that the state, the government could be providing and chooses not to. Those things are concrete solutions that would significantly address not just the poverty issues, but we also know that harm, physical abuse is very highly correlated with poverty because of the stress that goes along with poverty. And we know from research that just providing a small amount of material cash help to families reduces incidents of physical abuse in families.
Alan Dettlaff (40:26):
So it's not just about poverty, it really is about shifting resources. If we could start to reduce the hundreds of thousands of children who are being taken into foster care every year and take the billions of dollars that are going into the maintenance of foster care and redirect those funds to families and communities, we could get to the point where the need for a child welfare system is obsolete. That's what the goal of the upEND movement is and the larger abolitionist movement, which is really not just to end foster care, but it's to make the need for foster care obsolete. Because we've addressed the underlying conditions that currently create the need for foster care.
Kee Tobar (41:10):
Thank you. This has just been such an amazing conversation. So on this last question, because mostly what we've been talking about is from maybe, work that a scholar can do work, that policy agents can do work, that attorneys can do. But I always like to bring in work that the people themselves, the most affected, what is their work in all of this? So one of the things that really caught my attention about the upEND movement is your focus on shifting power to families and communities. Could you describe a world where this is actually the case and what would it take to get there?
Alan Dettlaff (41:47):
That's a really important question to think about how to get to that place because it comes with so much of what's been constructed over the years, about the way we think about families. We've talked before about how money goes to foster parents, strangers instead of families. In Texas, we give foster parents an average of about $900 a month to care for someone else's children. What would happen if we just gave that $900 a month to the parent who needs that money? That's in some ways what shifting power is about. But when I've given that example over the years in different conversations, people will say, "Well, how do we know that parents not going to use that money for drugs?" That's what people think about parents and that's specifically what people think about Black parents. How do we know the foster parent's not going to use that money for drugs?
Alan Dettlaff (42:44):
We don't know that, but we don't trust families to want what's best for their children. And we specifically don't trust Black families and even more specifically, Black mothers for wanting what's best for their children. So it starts with a societal shift in the way that we think about families. Right now, society is okay with their tax dollars being sent to strangers, to care for children. But they're not okay with that money going directly to parents, because of this bootstrap mentality, that poverty is parents' fault. So we have to start to shift that. But then beyond that, I think what shifting power really looks like is trusting families to know what's best for them. Think about the 17% of cases where harm has occurred, that children are in foster care because of some element of harm. Think about your family or for everyone listening, think about your family, think about your extended family, think about the network of people that you love.
Alan Dettlaff (43:46):
If a child in that network was harmed, what would you want to happen? Would you want that child taken away by the government and put in foster care? Or would you want to get together as a family and figure out what needs to happen to protect this child from future harm and to make sure it never happens again? That's what I think all families would want. And that's what I trust that all families would do if they didn't have a harmful racist, oppressive system intervening on their behalf. We need to trust families to want what's best for their children and in instances where harm occurs, we need to trust that families and communities will get together and provide the resources that they need to heal. That also comes with having access to the resources, which is where the financial piece comes to it. But that's what shifting power looks like, families and communities working together to address harm when harm occurs and prevent harm from occurring in the future.
Kee Tobar (44:47):
This has been a fabulous and informative conversation. Thank you so much for joining the show and hopefully the audience received as much information as I received and having this conversation. So again, thank you for joining the show.
Alan Dettlaff (45:01):
Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Kee Tobar (45:08):
Well, that was my interview with dean of the graduate college of social work at the University of Houston Alan Dettlaff. It's so powerful to hear from someone who was once complicit in the harms of the family policing system, describe their evolution to becoming an abolitionist. But also layout in clear and practical terms, how we as a society can change the ways we think about harm within families and create real support system for those families rather than punitive ones. You can stay connected to Dr. Dettlaff by following him on Twitter @AlanDettlaff, that's A-L-A-N D-E-T-T-L-A-F-F.
Kee Tobar (45:49):
Next week. We're launching our conversation series on housing call, the myth and broken promises of the American dream. To make sure you don't miss next week's episode, be sure to subscribe to How is That Legal, wherever you get your podcast. 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 to Zakya Hall, Caitlin Nagel and Molly Pollak. I'm your host Kee Tobar. Thanks for listening.