top of page
  • Writer's pictureEmma Peyton Williams

We need a social movement against family regulation

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

Since protests have erupted in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and countless others, calls to defund and demilitarize police have reverberated around the nation. Skeptics are quick to ask "but what are our other options? If we can't call the police, then who?" Many have jumped to name social workers as an ideal alternative to police, as is reflected by recent viral social media posts like these:

But as we who are organizing against the family regulation system know, social workers often are not alternatives to policing, but instead another iteration of policing. Policing is more than merely a job, it is a pervasive mentality that often manifests in any relationship where there is a power differential (ex: counselors vs clients, landlords vs tenants, doctors vs patients).

Naturally, in the movement against the family regulation system, we are most invested in the ways policing shows up in child protective services. Articles like "Dismantle the racist child welfare system, too" by Richard Wexler and "Let's Root Out Racism in Child Welfare, Too" by Martin Guggenheim demonstrate that family advocates are not naïve to the parallels between racist policing and racism in child welfare. But despite the inextricable links between policing and family regulation, our concerns about the punitive nature of the family regulation system have rarely been reflected in the messaging of the recent uprising. Why not?

Because the movement against the family regulation system is not a social movement. Yet.

Right now, the movement against the family regulation system is highly professionalized, led by parent defense attorneys and a handful of radical social workers. I do not wish to discredit the work of parents (mostly mothers, mostly Black and/or poor mothers) who are resisting the system, but it is undeniable that circumstances often prevent their self-advocacy from turning into a social movement. For the same reasons that these individuals are disproportionately likely to become system-involved (being under-resourced, socially isolated, and surveilled by police and social services alike), these brave advocates' voices are rarely heard. Magazines like Rise give voices to parents in the system, which is a wonderful start. We need more of this.

We, in the movement against family regulation, need to sharpen our analyses: we must understand our work as intrinsically linked to the movement to abolish police and prisons. We must harness the momentum of the current political moment to catalyze a campaign against surveillance, regulation, and punishment in all its forms, throughout both the criminal system and the civil system.

In order to have an effective social movement, we have to follow the leadership of the experts. Not the professionals who have academic training or even parent defense attorneys who have logged countless hours in courts. We must follow the leadership of those whose expertise comes through their lived experience: survivors of the family regulation system. Joyce McMillan has been doing this work in New York through her JMacForFamilies campaign and her work with Sinergia's "We Are Parents Too" program. Anntionetta Rountree has galvanized the Illinois area by forming an "alliance for change and justice" in response to the negligence of Illinois' DCFS that led to the murder of her daughter Rica Jae. Suzanne Sellers' "Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice" is carrying on the work in Chicago. Whether their work is publicized or not, all across the country families are fighting for their unity every day (including families who are incarcerated by ICE). Uplifting the work of these parents and survivors is one step towards building a social movement.

None of this is to say that the work of researchers or parent defense attorneys is not valuable or vital (it's both), or that people in these roles cannot be survivors too (they can). Groups like the Movement for Family Power brilliantly illustrate how professionals can amplify meaningful coalitions for family justice. But if we are to truly listen to the abolitionists who are telling us that narrow policy reform has never brought us justice, then we will recognize that the movement against family regulation must extend far beyond our courtrooms and our offices. Much like the movement for prison and police abolition, the movement for family justice will happen on streets and in communities.

Update 06/15/20 4 PM PT:

Serendipitously, Joyce McMillan just shared an example of exactly the kind of survivor-centered social movement I'm referring to. Brooklyn-area readers, support the work this weekend!


Recent Posts

See All

Why "canceling cancel culture" must be anti-carceral

On July 7th, 150 writers and public figures published an open letter in Harper's Magazine titled, "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate" that defends the value of "the free exchange of information and


bottom of page