When Governor Greg Abbott directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate and potentially separate families for providing gender-affirming care to their children, he noted that this was “abuse” that required certain state workers to, in essence, snitch on these families. “Texas law imposes reporting requirements upon all licensed professionals who have direct contact with children who may be subject to such abuse, including doctors, nurses, and teachers, and provides criminal penalties for failure to report such child abuse,” Abbott wrote in his letter.
For some, this was the first time they encountered the harms of family policing. But these harms have been known to Black families for decades. The national outrage over this directive brought new awareness to the harms of this system. This also brought new awareness to the power of the state to weaponize mandatory reporting laws against certain families or communities based on the whim of those in power.
As a profession, social workers are called to challenge injustice and oppression. This value, which has been enshrined in the National Association of Social Work’s Code of Ethics since its earliest origins, fundamentally distinguishes social work from other professions. This commitment was strengthened in 2021, when revisions to the code of ethics added new language: “Social workers must take action against oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities.” This became the only phrase in the code of ethics using the word must. Yet throughout its history, the profession of social work has been deeply embedded in the systems that are directly responsible for perpetuating oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities — among them prisons, policing, and child welfare. Although our collaboration with these systems has been called into question recently, social work has remained steadfast in its commitment to them.
Throughout its history, the profession of social work has been deeply embedded in the systems that are directly responsible for perpetuating oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities — among them prisons, policing, and child welfare. Although our collaboration with these systems has been called into question recently, social work has remained steadfast in its commitment to them.
This is most explicit in the profession’s commitment to the child welfare system. Although the child welfare system is viewed by many as a benevolent system that protects vulnerable children from harm, this perception is far from the reality of the outcomes the system produces. In reality, the child welfare system is a vast system of social control with significant power to surveil and punish families. Every year, the child welfare system forcibly separates hundreds of thousands of children from their families for reasons largely related to poverty. Rather than protecting children from harm, nearly 70% of children in foster care are seized from their parents due to a vague and expansive category referred to as neglect, broadly defined as a failure to provide for basic needs that may include food, clothing, education, and shelter. Yet rather than providing aid to families who are unable to meet these needs, parents are charged with neglect and their children are taken from them.
The harm that results from these separations is immense. An abundance of research shows that forcibly separating children from their parents results in significant and lifelong trauma, regardless of how long the separation lasts. This is true when parents are incarcerated, when children are separated by immigration authorities, and when children are forcibly taken by state child welfare systems. Beyond the trauma of family separation, the harm associated with placement in foster care continues as children are sent to live with strangers and receive little to no information on when or if they will return home. As a result, children who spend time in foster care experience severe hardships as adults including poverty, houselessness, joblessness, substance use, mental health concerns, and involvement in the criminal punishment system. The state is well aware of these outcomes. And the state is aware these outcomes occur disproportionately for Black children.
For more than 60 years, since the earliest origins of the modern child welfare system, the surveillance and separation of families by the state as a means of social control has been used disproportionately against Black families. Due to intentionally vague mandatory reporting laws, the child welfare system surveils Black families to the point where more than half of all Black children in the United States are the subject of an investigation by their 18th birthday. Once investigated, Black children are forcibly separated from their families at a rate nearly double that of white children. In some states, Black children are represented in foster care at a rate more than three times their proportion in the general population.
This destruction of Black families acts as a cycle. Poverty, houselessness, joblessness, substance use, incarceration — each are the outcomes of child welfare intervention. These outcomes then drive families’ continued involvement in the system through the surveillance and policing that occurs in Black communities. While the system purports these separations and surveillance are based on the need for “protection,” the outcome is the same — the subjugation of Black families at the hands of the state.
Mandatory reporting laws derive from the 1974 Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act — or CAPTA, for short — in response to national alarm over the physical abuse of children, driven by media attention to a phenomenon described by researchers as “battered-child syndrome.” While CAPTA established mandatory reporting laws for all states, it also established minimum federal definitions of maltreatment. However, CAPTA allowed states broad discretion to expand on those definitions, resulting in laws that vary widely by state and often reflect current social problems within those states. The result is an immensely vague set of laws that can be used at any time by those in power as a means of targeting a marginalized group for political gain. This is happening now to families in Texas with transgender youth, but this has been happening to Black families for decades, such as when “crack babies” were removed en masse from Black parents upon birth despite the lack of any evidence these babies were at risk of harm. Lawmakers’ vagueness in crafting mandatory reporting laws is the reason officials can weaponize them so easily. At any moment, the state can decide a particular behavior or way of existing is undesirable. And at any moment, that behavior or way of existing can be defined as maltreatment and subject to coercive state intervention.
Lawmakers’ vagueness in crafting mandatory reporting laws is the reason officials can weaponize them so easily. At any moment, the state can decide a particular behavior or way of existing is undesirable. And at any moment, that behavior or way of existing can be defined as maltreatment and subject to coercive state intervention.
Due to this reality, some social workers in Texas have stood against this directive and pledged to not report families with transgender children, as this is against their values. Yet the larger reality is that reporting any family to a child welfare system known to result in harm and oppression is against our values. The harm that will result from reporting parents of a transgender child is no different than the harm that will result from reporting a poor Black family whose child comes to school slightly dirty and in need of food. Such is the effect of mandatory reporting laws, and this is the result of a profession of social work that has collectively failed to see its complicity in the harm produced by this and other carceral systems.
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd and others at the hands of the police, many conversations occurred about the role of social work in policing and the potential for social work to reduce the racist outcomes of policing through increased collaborations. This presented an opportunity for a turning point for social work. After decades of racist violence against Black families and the national outrage we experienced in summer 2020, this presented a moment for social work, and the profession’s leaders, to stand against this violence and to stand against our historic complicity in it. This presented a moment for social work to disavow itself from the police and to clearly and unapologetically state that social work would no longer be complicit in the harmful and racist outcomes this system produces.
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Yet this did not occur. In response to these conversations, Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers, affirmed the importance of social work collaborations with police. In a letter to the editor titled “Social Workers Cooperate with Police Forces,” he wrote:
Social workers already work alongside and in partnership with police departments across the nation. Strengthening social worker and police partnerships can be an effective strategy in addressing behavioral health, mental health, substance use, homelessness, family disputes and other similar calls to 911 emergency response lines. In fact, social workers are playing an increasingly integral role in police forces, helping officers do their jobs more effectively and humanely and become better attuned to cultural and racial biases. And studies show social workers help police excel in fulfilling their mission to protect and serve.
If this moment could not serve as a catalyst for social work to reevaluate its role in supporting the police, despite all the violence and evidence of harm, clearly social work lacks any awareness to recognize the glaring inconsistency between its professed values and the reality of social work practice. Today, social work continues to debate whether we should collaborate with police, whether we should work in jails and prisons, and whether we should be part of crisis response teams where social workers walk hand-in-hand into communities with police — the very people responsible for murdering and terrorizing them. As a profession, thus, social work continues to cooperate with and be complicit in a system of policing that is responsible for murdering countless Black Americans, one that is blatantly inconsistent with our values.
Similarly, social work has yet to meaningfully consider its complicity in the harms of the child welfare system. NASW recently acknowledged and apologized for the bias among social workers that contributes to “the disproportionate impact of the child welfare system on families of color.” Yet they made no commitment to stop engaging in the practices that result in this disproportionate impact. In fact, NASW recommends that an undergraduate degree in social work be a minimum requirement for all child welfare workers. Thus, the position of the largest membership organization of social workers in the world is that the child welfare workforce be entirely comprised of social workers.
These professional stances suggest that social workers who recognize the harm and oppression carceral systems produce must act outside our professional organizations to bring about change. Further, social workers need to stand together and not only disavow the carceral systems we’ve historically supported, but also completely remove ourselves from these systems and work from the outside toward their abolition. For decades, social workers have been fooled by the idea that we can create change from the inside. We have tried to collaborate. We have tried to reform. But this has not led to meaningful change. At this point we are complicit. The idea that we can create change from the inside is simply a lie that we can no longer accept.
For decades, social workers have been fooled by the idea that we can create change from the inside. We have tried to collaborate. We have tried to reform. But this has not led to meaningful change. At this point we are complicit.
The profession of social work is at a crossroads where its professional credibility is at stake. Our continued collaboration with racist systems that produce harm is not a position social work can continue to uphold while espousing a commitment to justice and a mandate to act against injustice and oppression. As it stands, our code of ethics is merely a performative statement of aspirational thinking that sorely differs from actual social work practice.
Yet there is a resistance forming. Social workers across the country are adopting anti-carceral and abolitionist stances and social workers are leading movements calling for abolition of carceral systems. Those of us who are true to our values know that taking action against injustice and oppression means taking action against the systems that are responsible for injustice and oppression. As social workers, we must be clear in our goal, and that goal is liberation. This begins by liberating ourselves from the NASW, which continues to be complicit in its collaborations with harmful, oppressive systems. This is followed by social workers wholly disavowing and removing ourselves from systems of harm. It is only when we are no longer complicit in these systems that we can begin to work with community toward their abolition.
And abolition is the only solution. For social work to remain viable as a profession — a profession whose practice aligns with its values — the abolition of systems of oppression is the means to liberation and our only professional path forward.
Image: Feliphe Schiarolli/Unsplash