Sunday, October 4, 2009

Racism and Classism in Child Protective Services Investigations

On September 29, 2009, a woman posing as an immigration agent followed a mother, Maria Gurrolla, and her four-day-old infant from the local office of the Women, Infants and Children program and to a Wal-Mart. She then came to Gurrolla’s house, stabbed her four times, and kidnapped her baby. Gurrolla survived, and with the assistance of the FBI and local law enforcement her newborn was returned to her yesterday. Gurrolla’s troubles were not over, however, despite no indication that her family was in danger, Tennessee Department of Children’s Services removed her four children for “safety reasons.”

Low-income mothers, people of color, and immigrant persons are all vulnerable to governmental intrusion. Law enforcement agents are more suspicious of these groups, and many public benefits programs are contingent upon inspections that intrude into the recipients' homes. The intersection of all three identities exacerbates these vulnerabilities.

One underlying factor is the pervasive myth of the Black “welfare queen”; the idea that poor Black women, and other women of color, are the primary recipients of public assistance. In spite of numerous efforts to debunk this myth with census data indicating that children and white people are the primary recipients of public benefits, the myth persists. This myth, compounded by general racism and xenophobia, leaves immigrant women particularly susceptible to governmental intrusion.

It is unlikely that a white woman of any class would have fallen prey to the kidnapper in the Gurrolla matter because she probably would not have allowed a person claiming to be an immigration agent into her home. The kidnapper was able to take advantage of the mother’s constrained legal rights by utilizing the systemic governmental intrusion upon poor immigrant women of color.

Gurrolla appealed to the authorities, something that not all immigrants with potentially illegal status would do. Law enforcement authorities assisted her in finding her child, but meanwhile the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services made an assessment of her ability to parent her remaining children. Ironically, by exercising her parental rights, she subjected herself to the state’s scrutiny, leading to the suspension of her parental rights.

Gurrolla’s case is not unique to Tennessee. In the summer of 2008, I worked at Legal Services of Northern California’s Senior Legal Hotline Grandparent Project. My task was to assist grandparents in obtaining custody, adoption, or visitation of their grandchildren. The children were typically abused and under investigation by Sacramento’s Child Protective Services (CPS). I was perpetually confronted with CPS’s disparate responses to allegations of abuse. In my experience, white grandparents whose children were not receiving public assistance reported numerous instances of child abuse, often substantiated by the child’s school, to no avail. Black grandparents, in contrast, often came to me after CPS removed their grandchildren for a single, unsubstantiated allegation. That is not to say that CPS was always wrong in its responses. Underlying their responses, however, appeared to be an implicit belief that poor women of color are not good parents.

That summer a Sacramento Bee investigation revealed that “Sacramento County holds a dubious distinction among the state's largest counties: It has the highest rate of kids who are abused or neglected again within a year after contact with CPS.” Given the 271% increase in spending since 1996, lack of finances and high caseloads are not solely to blame. Instead, based upon my experience, I think social workers internalize systemic racism and classism. As a result, they reinforce these biases in their assessments.

It is still unclear why Gurrolla’s children were removed. What is clear, however, is that mothers in her situation are subject to significantly more scrutiny than white, middle-class mothers. There may be grounds to remove the children if they are being abused, but the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services should conscientiously assess whether they would remove these children from a white, middle-class mother in the same situation.

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