Child Welfare Systems Have Long Harmed Black Children Like Ma’Khia BryantRoundup
tags: racism, social services, Child Welfare
Crystal Lynn Webster is a historian of African American women and children. Her book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North, is forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press, June 2021.
Last week, a police officer fatally shot a Black child. Sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot outside her foster home while she was engaged in a fight and holding a knife. The officer who shot her did not attempt to de-escalate the conflict, but instead fatally fired upon arrival. The event has stirred debates about her behavior, with some justifying her death. But these debates miss a key perspective: Ma’Khia was a child who deserved protection. Rather than scrutinizing her behavior, we need to understand the systems that failed her and factored strongly in her death.
And it isn’t just about policing, and the disproportionate violence targeting Black and Latino children by law enforcement officers, as was the case in the recent killings of Adam Toledo, 13, and Anthony J. Thompson Jr., 17. Bryant’s situation was also greatly shaped by her experience in foster care. In the United States, systems of care and protection of children have been racialized at their inception, something that has only intensified between the 20th century and today.
The first orphanages in the United States were established in the antebellum North in cities with growing free Black populations. Yet, these institutions refused to admit Black children. The New York Orphan Asylum, founded in 1809, did not have any Black children and in Philadelphia, the Orphan Society explicitly identified Whiteness as a requirement for admission. In both cities, White Quaker women established private, segregated orphanages for Black children — the Philadelphia Shelter for Coloured Orphans (1822) and the New York Colored Orphan Asylum (1836). And yet these Black orphanages were fundamentally different: Rather than caring for Black children, they sent them out to complete indenture contracts at age 8 — term labor that lasted until they reached adulthood as domestic workers or on farms. It was very unlike the valued, skilled labor White children performed in apprenticeships during the same period.
These institutions, while thought of as “orphanages,” frequently served Black children who were often not orphaned due to the deaths of their parents. Rather, administrators believed they were in need of intervening care, making judgments about the Black parents of the children they admitted and frequently advocating for children’s removal from their parents if they were poor, if their mothers worked or if they were found alone on the streets. Some children at Northern orphanages were even fugitive slaves.
Black children’s parents, many of whom at the time were newly emancipated, often struggled to provide for their children. They needed their children to work to help support the family and they had difficulties finding child care while they worked, often in hazardous and exploitative occupations. To navigate this labor system, some African Americans attempted to use these institutions as temporary child-care sites as they gained financial footing. But then they struggled to regain custody of their children.