With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

I've Studied Child Protective Services for Decades – It Needs to be Abolished Now

Although most histories of the US child welfare system start with the charitable organizations founded in the 1800s to rescue poor white children, its true origins trace back to slavery. One of the most awful atrocities inflicted by the slavery regime was the physical separation of enslaved parents from their children. Even when enslaved families remained physically intact, Black parents were denied authority over their children. Slavery law installed the white patriarch as the head of an extended plantation family that included the Black people he enslaved.

“Abrogation of the parental bond was a hallmark of the civil death that United States slavery imposed,” writes law professor Peggy Cooper Davis in Neglected Stories: The Constitution and Family Values. Slaveholders proclaimed their moral authority by reinforcing the message of parental helplessness, frequently whipping enslaved parents in front of their children. “These messages of parental vulnerability and subordination were repeatedly burned into the consciousness of slave parents and children,” Davis explains, “undermining their sense of worth, diminishing the sense of family security and authority, eroding the parents’ function as a model of adult agency and independence.”

Whereas the forced supervision and dissolution of Black families at the hands of white people is rooted in slavery, the systematic court-ordered displacement of free Black children to strangers’ homes finds its origins in Jim Crow apprenticeship. After Emancipation, white planters exploited the apprenticeship laws already in place to wrest custody of Black children from their parents as a source of forced labor. Southern states also included provisions for compelled apprenticeship of Black children in the Black Codes, passed in 1865 and 1866 to control Black labor by prohibiting freedom of movement, contract, and family life. The Black Code passed by the North Carolina legislature in 1866 to return “lately slaves” to their prior status both restricted the working rights of Black adults and allowed Black children to be “bound to” work for white planters without their parents’ approval. These laws gave judges unfettered discretion to place Black children in the care and service of white people if they found the parents to be unfit, unmarried, or unemployed and if they deemed the displacement “better for the habits and comfort of the child.”

Of 90,000 newly emancipated Black people in Maryland, for example, some 10,000 were reenslaved under apprenticeship laws, typically to their former enslavers. A witness testified in 1867 that in some parts of the state, “the whites, the ex-masters of the slaves, had the children probably of about two-thirds of the families of the freedmen.” Even the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress in March 1865 to provide relief to newly freed Black Americans and white refugees, sometimes chose apprenticeship over attempting to reunite Black families.

Read entire article at Mother Jones