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For the past year I have been involved in several research projects that explore foster care, schooling and other systems that impact children and families. I have had the pleasure of being in interviews, focus groups and meetings with leaders across California. 

As I have been in this work for quite some time, many of the stories I have heard and conversations I have had the privilege to engage in are not necessarily new. But each has been a stark reminder that the foster care system has been intentionally built to marginalize and disenfranchise families, specifically Black families.

Kenyon Lee Whitman

I am having a hard time escaping a conversation I was in recently, one around parental rights. I was reminded of how parents involved in child welfare cases are not given a constitutional right to counsel, as there is in criminal proceedings. Many states fail to provide meaningful legal support to parents early in cases, when it could help the most, and parents are rarely afforded the resources to adhere to the required trainings or treatments to regain custody of their children.

The lack of quality representation is dangerous — some even say unlawful — given that many child removals are not because of heinous acts of abuse. Reports are often made because families are living in poverty, and they simply can’t afford to raise their children in a country that always seems to have money to supply weapons for war, but not money to supply basic needs for its citizenry. 

Thrusting parents into court without a good lawyer to help them navigate the bureaucratic system of child welfare is abhorrent, as false reports are made frequently. It was a false report that broke apart my family. I remember the day I was called to the office of my elementary school like it was yesterday. I didn’t know what was going on, I was scared, as cops and social workers talked to us like we were adults, splitting us up and interrogating us. My brother, sister and I were placed in the back of a police cruiser, and that was the last time we were all together. 

I never lived in the same house as my sister again; my brother and I lived in the same foster home for a handful of months. We were a family forever changed. As I got older, I began to understand more and ask questions, and demand that the system admit that the allegations against my father were not credible. It fell on deaf ears.

When we were removed from my father, he had no right to legal counsel. As a working class Black man, he couldn’t even afford one if he chose the private route. The idea that children can be taken away from the custody of their parents, without due process, continues to dumbfound me. Dependency court does not function fairly. A colleague of mine recently referred to it as the “wild west.”

I always knew my father had been railroaded by the court. What was even more painful, was the person who made the initial allegations called me to apologize that they had lied. I was about 16 years old, and at that point I had already been in foster care for about 10 years, a decade of a family torn apart, because of a lie. 

But it took more than one person to deny my family from being together. It took overly zealous social workers, apathetic administrators and a system that does not prioritize children and their families, especially when those families are Black.

I am not the only one who has been taken away from their families; more than 250,000 youth enter foster care each year, some not for the first time. Even if they were eventually reunited, the pain, trauma and the fear of children being removed haunts families. 

I understand we have a duty to protect children. But given the life outcomes former foster youth are subjected to, it is clear that the systems we have in place do not protect children either. I believe that legal counsel should be a right in any instance you have to appear in front of a legal body, but especially when your rights as a parent are on the line.

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