Artwork by Eileen Jimenez. Learn more.
By Keyna Franklin, Assistant Editor, and Shakira Paige and Melissa Landrau, Rise Contributors
In exploring child welfare system abolition, Rise is learning that abolition is a vision and strategy to cultivate hope about society and to reimagine community-based care. This summer, Rise began facilitating community conversations as part of a longer-term process to develop and support a vision for building safe, just and healing-centered communities that support the well-being of children and families — without child welfare system surveillance and involvement.
In order to share our journey transparently and in solidarity with others involved in abolition work, we talked with some of the Rise team who facilitated and joined the community conversations: Bianca Shaw, assistant director for programs and culture; Halimah Washington, community coordinator; Nancy Fortunato, senior parent leader; Genevieve Saavedra Dalton Parker, development director; and Careena Farmer, contributor. Here, they discuss what we are working on and learning about at Rise.
Q. Why did Rise begin holding community conversations?
Bianca Shaw: For the last two years, Rise has been in a space of exploration about our work. We have been hearing from parents, community members and legal and advocacy organizations about the future of child welfare and what it could look like for Rise, as an organization that has always amplified the voices and experiences of parents, to center parent leadership and parent-led solutions in our work in a more intentional way. In our strategic plan, we made a commitment to deepen our community work.
For a long time, Rise focused on system improvement to reduce the harm that parents already involved with the system experienced. We feel that work is important but that prevention and helping parents navigate the system is not enough. We want to focus on what it would look like for families to never become involved with the child welfare system.
The community conversations we held this summer were the first step in a larger Participatory Action Research (PAR) project that Rise will conduct this year in partnership with TakeRoot Justice. PAR is different from other types of research because it is done by and for community. It is research led by folks who have been impacted by the system, are already thinking about solutions and being creative, and want to engage and hear from other people who have been impacted.
The goal of that project is to talk with parents to identify and understand the issues that lead parents into the child welfare system and to dream up community-focused and community-based solutions together. The ultimate goals is to build a Parents’ Platform to prevent system involvement and to advocate for parents’ priorities for their communities. As part of this process, we are thinking about how we can engage and support our community.
Halimah Washington: These conversations give people language for the violations they have experienced and a space to process their feelings about how systems have caused harm in their lives. It gives people tools to change those systems that impact them and make people in our communities and our communities as a whole feel powerless. It is about empowerment through tools of advocacy, activism, information and political education.
Q. What are some of the topics you discuss during community conversations?
Genevieve Saavedra Dalton Parker: We started off with a vision practice, listening to music and asking people to think about their ideal community — what it looks, feels, sounds and smells like – and we asked, “Was stage for asking about abolition, which is about dismantling the system and is also about child welfare part of that? Were mandated reporters part of what you envisioned?” This set the building something new in its place.
We discussed a series of questions about abolition, and whether it is possible to have a child welfare system that does not punish, police or surveil families.The final question was, “If communities had everything they need to thrive, what would it look and feel like? How is that different from or similar to the current child welfare system?”
Nancy Fortunato: We also had a conversation about the parallels between the criminal justice and child welfare systems — how both put people through the court system and separate families. They go through a revolving door with no real help or justice. There is no transparency or accountability for the harm of the system in their lives.
Q. What are you hearing from parents are the biggest concerns in their communities? What are parents’ needs and wants?
Nancy: I’m speaking from the “I” but I think these are things many parents want: Parents want resources to help their family thrive. They don’t want child welfare involvement or to be separated from their children. They want to get the things they need to keep their family together and have lives full of abundance without policing and surveillance. They want better schools, health care, child care, after school programs, summer programs and jobs and to be financially set so they don’t have to worry about system involvement. Parents want to change policies that suppress, target and control Black and brown communities and people with low incomes.
These conversations involve being aware of the stresses that communities face, particularly the stresses that Black and Indigenous people face, the root causes of those stresses and the harms that systems produce for families who are struggling to survive with the resources they have in their community. These conversations are part of sharing a higher level of consciousness about what is really going on as Black and Indigenous people, what it is to walk in our shoes and to be Black or brown. It involves being brave to voice your truth.
Careena Farmer: I got involved because of my experience with ACS and how they dealt with my child. They basically forced me to put my child on medication that she didn’t need. I grew up in Florida with a lot of friends who were in the system. My best friend aged out of the system after being in foster care since she was 8 years old. There are so many things wrong with how the system treats parents and kids who are in the system. While I was in a women’s shelter, I listened to stories of women who weren’t allowed to see their kids, and their parental rights were terminated before they got the support they needed to get their kids back. People say they want things to change. I need to use my voice to help people see how things need to change.
I can’t wait to have more community conversations. I really want to help families get the support they need to prevent ACS from coming into their lives.
Halimah: I was part of a meeting recently where we about what it means to be fighting for your life constantly — thinking about your safety, safety, safety because you spend so much time in unsafe spaces. A facilitator said that for her, in doing movement work it was important to think about accomplices in her safety. Community conversations are a place where we can explore who our accomplices in safety are when dealing with child welfare, schools and hospitals. We need to be able to identify who can keep us safe in these spaces and who has the same vision for a world without police.
Q. What does abolition of the child welfare system mean to you?
Bianca: It is a really difficult question. I have a lot of hopes. We have been talking about what it looks like for families to be in communities that feel safe, healing and connected and are deeply rooted in relationship building and trust. When I think about dismantling the child welfare system, I think about what we need to build. We need school systems that are places of healing, curiosity, play and support. A health system where families can get the resources and care they need without fear that they are walking into a place that may punish or kill them. I think about places that are lush and green, where people have access to healing and services outside of systems we have traditionally depended on.
Abolishing the child welfare system is about creating a new world, new things that we people of color have had access to and have depended on but that have been demonized and pushed aside. In that way, I think we already have everything we need and that needs to come to the center. I can’t think about abolishing the child welfare system without thinking about all of the other systems that harm us. Child welfare exists because families don’t have what they need. Problems arise and we don’t have a way of addressing them without causing more problems. We need to get to the core of that.
Nancy: I think it also has to do with white supremacy — that they think they know more and the way they walk in the world is the way everybody should live. That’s not true. When you are white, you are not targeted — you can walk around without worrying about being policed or surveilled. For Indigenous, Black, brown, and Latino people, the culture is different and you are worrying about whether you are going to survive today or not.
Genevieve: There is a long history of that with little to no accountability for the system’s foundation, practice and function, serving as a tool of white supremacy.
For me, abolition involves centering the lives of Black folks, Black women, Black women parents and how that will make life better for everyone. If we look to folks who are extraordinarily harmed by these systems and protect and value the sacredness of Black life and Black joy, everyone will benefit. We all will benefit from the liberation of people who are harmed by these systems.
Halimah: In thinking about the way reforming a system works and has looked over the years, it is clear that trying to change it and train people to respect everyone’s humanity — especially Black and brown people’s humanity — has not worked. We tried reform and now it is time to try that radical abolition thing. This means taking away what we’ve become so comfortable with as a society, in terms of how we treat poor people, Black people, brown people. Enough is enough. Abolition speaks to the history of our people, the history of resilience, organizing and maintaining radical joy even in the fight for our humanity.
Bianca: With the Family First Act, we saw a focus on prevention and money invested in preventive agencies. At Rise, we talk about how prevention is still child welfare involvement. It is not a solution that takes out the harmful pieces of child welfare that punish and surveil families and burden families with responding to a system that does not truly provide the support they need.
Rise is curious not only about how we can support families right now, but also about the long-term plan for supporting families to thrive, have the resources they need, be in supportive communities and address their issues early and consistently so child welfare isn’t involved. I’ve been sharing this idea ofbeing in a space of reimagining. It takes bravery and safety and requires us to be in a place of curiosity and to be imaginative about what is possible.
Q. How can other parents get involved?
Bianca: In the coming months, we’ll be holding community events, doing online recruitment and connecting with organizations that work with families. Interested parents can follow Rise on social media and can fill out the “Get Involved” form on our website. We’ll be reaching out.
Careena: Don’t be afraid to say what you need to say or fear judgment. It needs to be heard. We all have a story to tell. We all had our own situations and experiences with the system.
Being a parent is a really tough job. Raising kids is hard and we need support. Parents need to be able to share their experiences. If you don’t talk about it, you may not get the support you need. Parents need to be able to say, “This is what is going on and I need some help.” It is hard to step up and say that. I tell my kids, “You learn something new every day.” When you have a conversation, you may get information you need.