New Hampshire Chapter Program Probes Racism in Family Separation Systems

By Alison Laurio

parents with young children

The NASW New Hampshire chapter’s May 4 symposium titled Getting to the Root: Dismantling Racism in Family Separation Systems was presented in partnership with the University of New Hampshire’s social work department, which provided some funding, said Lynn Stanley, NASW-New Hampshire’s executive director.

She said 600 people registered for the program, and more than 300 people “from all over the U.S.” took part in the live presentation. Those who missed the program can find it on NASW’s Social Work Online CE Institute and will be able to earn continuing education units, she said.

“There’s a higher percent of Black and Brown families involved with Child Protective Services,” Stanley said. “We’re a highly white state, and still we see racial disparities in our child welfare service.”

The program was a way for attendees to learn to look beyond their own cultural perspective and view things from a different vantage point, through an anti-racist lens, Stanley said. It’s about having a conversation in general within agencies, having discussions and changing the way we look at child protection.

The program included a presentation from Dorothy E. Roberts, an author, sociologist, law professor and social justice advocate who is the Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, George A. Weiss University Professor, and Inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights.

Roberts provided information about her recently published book, “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Could Build a Safer World.” Dr. Sherri Simmons-Horton, an expert in addressing racial inequities, was the presentation moderator and led the discussion.

Simmons-Horton, PhD, assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Social Work in Durham, said the topic is important “because it’s an issue, a pervasive family issue of the system that’s connected to other forms of oppression of Black (families) and other families of color. If you’re addressing racism, you’re also helping all kinds of social workers help families thrive.”

It’s important to help families involved in the system, and there also needs to be a high rate of involvement when they get out of family care, because the family can be less financially stable, “which doesn’t have the best outcomes,” Simmons-Horton said.

“And that’s one of the biggest reasons for removal, because of neglect. But it’s connected to poverty, which is not a reason to remove children. We need to preserve families, help them to get stable, because it’s best, not just for families of color but for all families.”

Simmons-Horton said she has seen a system where Black men and female children “are treated as property. I’ve seen adoptions and families acting surprised to be unable for their kids to return home.”

It’s the resources, or lack of resources, driving policies that “closely resemble treating children as property.” And that, added to the disproportional racial disparities with outcomes, is reminiscent of the institution of slavery, she said.

“If the family had resources, they could come out of poverty and it would help...” Simmons-Horton said. “Out-of-home placement is not a good policy. There’s not any policy that helps preserve families. We need a family-first policy. The inability to provide for a child, provide food and pay rent, those are societal factors. Why not redirect those same resources to families (so) families can keep their children? First, the outcomes would be better, and second, it helps people.”

The symposium aimed to provide content that would show historical context and the need for current policies that are more helpful, she added.

A panelist discussion, which followed Roberts’ presentation, included a historical view and what the system looks like now in the experience of those attending the program.

The panelists comprise “a diverse group,” Simmons-Horton said. “All had some negative and some positive experiences, and they used that platform to help other kids—(to) be a voice for them.”

One woman, who is in her late 50s, “was in the system and she also was in a relative’s home at one point,” Another was a man who had been adopted then ended up back in the system.

One person ran away from placement homes.

“It was a discussion from parents, a discussion from siblings, and some who did not know where their parents were, Simmons-Horton said. “They all had similarities, and each had a different perspective on it. But all things that happen within the system need to be changed for Black children. And all the stories speak to the fact they all would have been better off just staying at home.”

They were, however, resilient. One person who had been in the system as a child ended up working within the system as an adult. Another person works in an agency that helps others, and one does speaking engagements.

“They all have a giveback that they do,” Simmons-Horton said. “There is more awareness now, but it’s still going on. Students can glean from this, go into the field, look at families and see them through the lens of their strengths. They will be grateful that someone was listening.”

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