Today’s blog started with a news item. A Black couple traveling from Georgia to Chicago for the funeral of the mother’s uncle were stopped in Tennessee for having a “dark tint” on their vehicles windows and for “traveling in the left lane while not passing.” Yikes, I often drive in the left lane, feeling it is safer as cars in the right lane are exiting or entering. If a car approaches behind me, I move over to the right to allow them free space to go on ahead. Upon searching their vehicle a small amount of marijuana was found. Currently, recreational marijuana is now legal in 21 of the 50 United States – though not in the couple’s home state of Georgia or the state of Tennessee, where they were stopped.
The father was arrested and the mother followed with their 5 children to await his release on bond. During the time she was waiting, state officials arrived to take custody of the four children ages 2-7 and the couple’s four-month-old baby, who was still breastfeeding. The Tennessee’s Children’s Services Department (DCS) had received an incorrect report that both parents were arrested. Had that been the scenario, it would have required the involvement of DCS to ensure the children were cared for. An emergency custody petition was obtained based on the allegation that “the children were neglected and there was no ‘less drastic’ alternative to taking the children from their parents.”
Court records related to the removal show a state case worker brought in after the stop had “discovered only the father had been arrested.” Since then, the parents have been subject to multiple drug tests as they seek to reunite their family. Their children are in foster care and they travel frequently from Georgia to Tennessee to visit them. The children are incredibly distressed by the separation. Their mother says they “cry when she speaks to them on the phone, and grab onto her when she ends her visits with them.”
US child welfare services have a historical pattern of separating the children of Black and Indigenous families on the grounds of alleged neglect and abuse. Racist stereotyping influences the way child welfare workers and policymakers approach the investigations of families of color, finding that one in 10 Black children are forcibly removed from their families and put into foster care by the time they are adults. More than half of US Black children would face some form of a child welfare investigation by the time they are 18, while fewer than a third of white children would.
Tennessee’s DCS is not doing a good job taking care of the children they have already taken away from their families. Children are subjected to poor living conditions with some children sleeping in offices and staffing shortages. Millions of parents and caretakers who have been placed on state-run child abuse registries across the country. “Neglect” is often cited but it is a vague term for which there is no fixed legal definition. Being placed on a registry can cast a decades long shadow, ending careers, blocking the chance of getting hired for new jobs, and people of color (especially if they are living in poverty) are several times more likely to be placed on these registries and suffer the consequences. People can be placed on these registries on the sole judgment of a caseworker and a supervisor from a child protective services agency, without a judge or similarly impartial authority weighing the evidence.