When Tasheva was 11 years old, she was left alone with her four younger siblings in her family’s New York City apartment. As kids who are left alone often do, they got into a little (innocent) trouble. “We threw water balloons out of our window,” Tasheva said, a smile breaking through the corners of her pursed lips. The balloons landed on a neighbor’s terrace, and the the police were called. “The police showed up at our apartment, asked us if we were alone were there any adults in the house,” she later told me over the phone. After the officers confirmed that the children were alone, Tasheva remembers them being taken to the precinct station, where ACS workers showed up. “It was like we were in custody with ACS [Administration for Children Services] at that point,” she says. Days later, Tasheva and her siblings were taken from their mother’s home and put into foster care where, the 44-year-old says, her life changed irrevocably—for the worse.
Foster care proved to be a very unsafe place for Tasheva. Tasheva says she was raped for the first time by her foster-care brother at age 14; two years later, he would impregnate her. In response, her foster-care mother encouraged her to have an abortion and offered to put a lock on her door.
Tasheva told her story to a crowd of over 100 people at the New School last week during a panel put on by the nonprofit Child Welfare Organizing Project on the connections between mass incarceration and the child-welfare system. Like the criminal-justice system, the child-welfare system overwhelmingly pulls in poor Americans, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. Ninety-three percent percent of the 11,500 youth in the New York City’s child-welfare system are black and Latino. “Poor people are seen as out of place and in need of supervision,” said Andrea Morrell, a professor at Guttman Community College in New York City who studies criminal justice and worked in child welfare for many years. The level of surveillance black and brown women face is similar to that experienced by black and brown boys and men—in schools, playing in parks, going to work, sitting at home, shopping for food—but instead of arrests, jail, and long prison sentences, the result, for women, is what is commonly called “catching a case.” “Catching a case” means being investigated by a child -welfare agency and possibly having your child taken out of your home and put into foster care. In some cases, that leads to getting your child permanently taken from you.
There are so many ways to “catch a case,” Morrell told the audience—women can be reported to ACS “by the police, by social workers, by teachers and school administrators, by parole officers, NYCHA security, welfare caseworkers, ACS workers, and not to mention [mothers’] neighbors and their bosses.” According to an annual report, ACS conducted 5,579 investigations between January and December in 2017 and 3,971 children were placed in care. Often, the mother’s biggest crime is poverty—in New York City the vast majority of youth are taken from their parents’ care not for allegations of abuse, but for neglect. The New York Times tells the story of Maisha Joefield, who was taking a bath when her 5-year-old daughter left the apartment in search of her great-grandmother’s house, across the street. ACS removed her daughter from her home and placed her into foster care, and Joefield was charged by police with endangering the welfare of a child. It can quickly become nearly impossible for a mother to extract herself from the system, as it was in Joefield’s case. “This surveillance is not neutral. Once [you’re] entangled in this web of punitive social systems it can take years to get one’s head above water,” said Morrell.