Community Alternatives and Resistance to Disruptive Systems that Harm Black Families

February 15, 2021

By Rhonda Young, Catalyst Program Analyst

Following the protests of George Floyd’s murder, there has been a rise in American anti-racism consciousness, even though racism has been a defining feature of American society since slavery.  In the U.S., Black people are most likely to be killed by the police; they are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Police Violence Maps (2020) reports that Black people have comprised 28% of those killed by the police since 2013, despite being only 13% of the U.S. population. Black families experience generational trauma by encountering enforcement agencies from child welfare services as well as the criminal justice system.  In 2018, Black children were 14% of the general population yet comprised 23% of the foster care population (Sankaran, 2020). Child maltreatment is experienced across races at roughly the same rates, however Black children enter the system at much higher rates (Wildman et al, 2014). Over the course of their childhood, 53% of Black children will be investigated by child welfare services (Kim & Johnson, 2017). Racial disparities cannot be explained by poverty and substance abuse alone (McRoy, 2004). Racial disparities exist due to racial bias and discrimination by individuals (e.g. caseworkers, supervisors, mandated reporters, other professionals). Child welfare professionals and others involved are knowingly and unknowingly allowing personal biases to impact their decision making. For instance, two research studies noted that race, risk and socioeconomic status influenced case outcomes: even if Black families had lower risk scores than white families, they were more likely to have substantiated cases and/or have their children removed from the home (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014).

Black children are more likely to be removed from their homes and yet Black families are less likely to receive services than white families (Cross, 2008). Black LGBTQIA youth in the child welfare system are at even higher risk of not receiving the appropriate services to meet their needs. The intersection of identities for Black LGBTQIA youth makes them more vulnerable to mental health challenges while they simultaneously experience inadequate access to culturally appropriate care and/or services (Trevor Project, 2019). Additionally, youth who experience placement disruption and separation from their families are at higher risk of being commercially sexually exploited. Black youth make up a disproportionate number of commercially sexually exploited (CSE) youth in California: 66% of CSE youth were Black in 2013 (Walker, 2013).

Racism, including racial terrorism on Black people, has been an ongoing public health crisis. The American Medical Association (AMA) has concluded that racism contributes to health inequities in the United States. Police have long-been disproportionately surveilling Black communities, which has led to an increase of police encounters with Black individuals. The AMA found there is a correlation between the occurrence of police encounters and increased rates of stress and anxiety levels, along with elevated high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma – leading to comorbid conditions that produce fatal outcomes. Additionally, the American Public Health Association (APHA) emphasizes that racism is the driving force of social factors that deteriorate Black health and is evidenced by inequalities in housing, education, and employment (Ehrenfeld & Harris, 2020).

Social institutions that directly influence Black families are embedded in racism and white supremacy. These institutional structures, policies and practices create advantages for white people and discrimination, oppression and disadvantage for Black people and other people of color (Martinas, 1995). The influence of Black family disruption through slavery and genocide is prevalent today as subtler harmful forces have been created through the development of child welfare policy. Since the late 1800s and early 1900s, white supremacy guided policy by deeming Black parents and children as “problems that needed “solving.” Child welfare policy has been used to implement “problem solving” by child removal, assimilation or conversion.  Black families have been disrupted, separated, and permanently fragmented by systems that theoretically reflect whiteness (Greenesmith, 2019). Structural systems are a product of hegemonic whiteness in that whiteness is invisible to those who benefit from it. Hegemonic whiteness is the preeminence of white sociopolitical structure, setting whiteness as the standard for shaping social organizations (Gregory, 2020). In turn, whiteness creates systems that oppress and rationalize the oppression of non-white populations while upholding individual and collective innocence of whiteness that constrains the mission of social change. When unquestioned, whiteness is blatantly unidentified or not critiqued in social institutions. (Alang, 2019).

What are the next steps for organizations and agencies?

To act preventively, correctively, and intentionally, service providers must hold an authentic and deep commitment to counter white supremacy at all levels of functioning in our society. Service providers must challenge themselves to stop emulating positivism that perpetuates Black insignificance and to end practices aligned with whiteness and white logic (Beck, 2019). Positivism is evidenced by individuals from dominant groups resisting the existence of racism.  This creates false inclusivity of marginalized people and a denial of their actual experience, while still perpetuating racial hierarchy. In addition, there must be a shift from thinking one’s self-examination is not required in unpacking racism because anti-racist work involves both individual and collective work. There is power and an impetus for social change when there is truth-telling about historical racial terrorism in our own institutions. Reviewing how institutions are utilized to avert Black family preservation is a start for organizations to combat white supremacy; intentional avoidance of fatal state intervention is required in developing strategies to combat the decimation of Black families.

What are Community Alternatives and Resistance?

Listening, learning and work in partnership with community members to dismantle oppressive systems is fundamental when using radically different approaches to fight racial terrorism. We can resolve challenges Black families encounter by proactively partnering with Community Alternatives and Resistance to protect Black lives from police brutality, familial separation, and fatal outcomes. Community alternative responses and community resistance are produced by actively applying community-based violence prevention and culturally relevant intervention strategies that offer support to Black families and other families of color (Movement for Black Lives, 2020).  Community empowerment and control can be developed when the people within the community are the first responders to crises.  Reporting Black families to child welfare services for problems that arise from systemic racism and oppression can be mediated by community agencies to prevent harm upon Black parents and children. Contacting child welfare services to mitigate Black familial issues may not always be the best approach as Black parents are often offered and/or mandated to partake in family service plans that include parenting classes, anger management classes, domestic violence classes, counseling services, substance abuse and mental health treatment programs that do not culturally and spiritually align with Black families. Services may not reflect the spiritual and religious views of Black families making it difficult for services to be effective. Excessive reporting of Black families builds unwanted child welfare history and increases risk of systemic control and surveillance.

Collaborating with families on a consistent basis to identify support systems is another form of Community Resistance. While prioritizing the needs, dignity and humanity of Black families, community agencies should work with their extended family and friends to mitigate crises and emergencies. Service providers collaborating with children’s grandparents, aunts and/or uncles for respite care instead of contacting child welfare services to address childcare and supervision challenges is an example of community resistance. Respecting autonomy among Black communities and understanding Black people can alleviate their own problems is a critical part of upholding, “Black Lives Matter.” Transformation of agency principles and functions to value and prioritize Black self-determination is pivotal in keeping family preservation.

Service providers can directly refer Black families to Community Alternatives and programs similar to those listed below instead of being dependent on enforcement agencies to provide services to Black families – this prevents Black families from entering systems that are re-traumatizing and could negatively impact their livelihoods. For instance, if an individual is facing a mental health crisis, community members can coordinate the use of local resources (e.g., alcohol and/or drug programs, outpatient mental health services, housing agencies) to respond to the mental health needs of that individual as a collaborative. Service providers can assist these efforts by encouraging and informing families how to use their communities in place of relying on enforcement systems to address social problems.   Other examples of Community Alternatives and Resistance are below.

Examples of Community Alternative Responses and Resistance

• In Sacramento, California, community members utilize an alternative resource, Mental Health First – a community service operated by local residents who respond to local calls regarding domestic violence (victim extraction and safety planning), mental health crisis response and substance use/mental health support and de-stigmatization. Mental Health First team members have backgrounds in mental health, medicine, social activism, and social services.

A community member was experiencing a mental health crisis and their colleagues worked as a community to help determine the next steps. Instead of calling law enforcement, team members worked together to determine if the individual needed to be placed on a psychiatric 51/50 hold.  The purpose is to assist individual(s) in crisis to decide their next plan of action. Boykins (2020) refers to this approach as self-determined crisis management (Guevarra, Katayama, Montecillo, 2020).

Service providers have been trained to use law enforcement to address mental health challenges Black families and youth experience.  Collaborating as a community to create an alternative response prevents unlawful arrest, injury, or death of Black people by an enforcement agency. The immediate needs of community members are met through a different method of accessibility.

• An additional example of utilizing community alternatives occurred within the context of a home visit from a Sacramento family resource agency, Birth and Beyond.  In this case, Birth and Beyond was providing services to a Black family that had previous child welfare history. The mother was overwhelmed with caring for her five children and had limited family and social supports. The mother applied for county funded childcare, which would not be available to her for a couple of weeks. The mother was experiencing significant stress and had begun to take her frustrations out on the children verbally.

Instead of reporting the mother to child welfare services, the home visitor connected the mother to the Crisis Nursery, a preventative resource that works to mitigate risk factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect. The mother was able to take her two youngest children to the Crisis Nursery for 24-72 hours of respite care and replenish herself emotionally and mentally during this time. The mother avoided child welfare services involvement and unnecessary child welfare history, as well as the trauma of encountering an enforcement agency.

• Another example of a community alternative response is Black Child Legacy Campaign (BCLC). BCLC is a community driven association that was created by the Steering Committee on Reduction of African American Child Death that aims to reduce deaths of Black children by 10% to 20% in Sacramento County. BCLC provides direct service to neighborhoods that have the highest numbers of African American child deaths. BCLC created Community Incubator Leads for Black neighborhoods to resume community control and intervention efforts to reduce disproportionate Black child deaths. Community Incubator Leads create community overview and creates services for resources, case management, counseling, anger management, family support, school readiness, parenting education, fun and social activities, volunteer opportunities and resources fairs (BCLC, 2020).

• An additional demonstration of a community alternative is offered by Creative Interventions (CI). CI is a national resource center based out of Oakland and serves as an alternative community response to interpersonal violence. The creators had worked with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault but discovered systemic barriers to combatting violence. CI was developed with the intent to use human experience and knowledge to prepare community members to confront, challenge and overcome violence (Creative Interventions, 2006).

CI created the “Staircase of Accountability” to for community members to use when developing goals for repairing with the person(s) doing the harm. The focus shifts from punishment to responsibility with the understanding that individuals are not solely responsible for change, but so are communities. The process of accountability entails:

1: Stop the immediate harm. Stopping the specific act of harm from occurring so that the next step can be discussed. If the person committing the harm cannot be reached, some of other form of resistance will be implemented (e.g. staying away, leaving, getting out of harm’s way).

2: Recognize the harm. Admitting and acknowledging the harm done, disclosure of specific details of harm done.

3: Recognize the consequences, without excuses. The person who committed the harm reflects on what has been done. The person listens to people share their experiences of the harm and begins to comprehend the full impacts of their behaviors and actions on others, and on themselves. Feelings of remorse, regret, embarrassment, or shame may arise as the person accepts the consequences without fighting it or making excuses.

4: Make repairs for the harm. The individual committing harm makes genuine attempts to repair the harm. Restoration cannot be achieved quickly. Repairs are requested by the harmed persons in the community. There is also acknowledgement of some harms being irreparable. While repairing harm, the person makes an ongoing commitment to never repeat the harms onto others again.

5: Change harmful attitudes and behaviors. Requires the person to seek a profound level of change as this moves beyond the specifics of harm to the deeper causes of harm. This involves developing a sense of equity and humility, shared giving and receiving and seeking community as a space for connection.

6: Create a healthier community. The person’s efforts to remain accountable can serve as preparation to be a healthy and respectful fellow community member. The person who has taken accountability can act as a supportive source for someone else who is causing harm.

Other community organizations and advocacy groups, including Safe OUTside the System Collective in Brooklyn, Chicago’s Young Women’s Empowerment Project, Philly Stand up in Pennsylvania and Community United Against Violence in San Francisco have successfully used and implemented CI’s “Staircase of Accountability” to create community accountability while centering care and harm reduction.

•In Michigan, the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic (CWAC) was created by students at the University of Michigan Law School. Law students represent parents in the termination of parental rights (TPR) process at the Michigan Court of Appeals. Parents are interviewed and counseled by students at the CWAC. The legal clinic serves as an educational tool for law students practicing influential storytelling, forming legal arguments and client counseling. It is the responsibility of law students participating in CWAC to protect the fundamental rights of parents from marginalized and oppressed groups.

Before the development of the CWAC, parents had a success rate of 7% at TPR appeals. After the first four years of the clinic being in the community, parents have had a staggering success rate of 50%. Some of the cases had resulted in published court decisions that will safeguard parents’ rights in the future:

1. IN RE POPS – The CWAC had successfully argued that an incarcerated parent had made appropriate arrangements for proper care and custody for his child. Child welfare services had removed the child from the family before termination of parents’ rights. The court held that the father’s rights could not be terminated because he arranged for care with a relative that would have provided proper care.

2. Other cases CWAC law students have won reversals of termination:

• Failure to correctly notify the parent of his/her/their right to a jury trial.

• Failure to properly consider the fact that the children were placed with relatives.

• Failure to make distinct findings of unfitness for both parents.

• Failure to consider that guardianship might be a better proposal than termination and adoption.

Black Americans are dying at unacceptable rates. Whether they are dying through a gradual violence, such as systemic racism or direct violence like policy brutality, the community has a responsibility to understand why and act to protect Black lives. Service providers can actively fight against racism by committing to community resistance and change. Using community resources instead of enforcement agencies is an alternative response to meeting the needs of Black children and families. Throughout the U.S., there are creative, grass roots agencies and associations for parents who need supports (such as respite care) and culturally responsive services.

The Next Step for Service Providers

Partnering with local community resources in the area optimizes efforts in developing community alternatives. To locate community organizations in the area may require services providers to actively participate in community actions, workshops, trainings and other related events to build rapport and connection within the community they serve; this creates a genuine presence in the community. Service providers may also connect with community organizations via social media. Service providers can expand their social media presence by creating accounts on varying social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, etc.) Local organizations that primarily connect with the community via social media can share the mission, purpose and vision of their agencies to generate accessibility.

Service providers can participate in commissions and/or collaborations with organizations that work together to tackle issues within the community. Local agencies and members of the community can collaborate to create community oversight commissions over the police to create accountability and transparency. These commissions would be civilian led to create an informational and educational platform to work toward a system that prioritizes community safety. Community organizations can create workshops and invite community members to establish work groups that focus on different areas of need (e.g. housing, mental health, crime, children and families, etc.) and work together to create programs that meet the  specific needs of the community. Building community alternatives within the community is a way to remain connected with the very individuals who are impacted by the social systems service providers partake in. With ongoing collaboration and connection, community partnership and resiliency will be sustained.



Black Child Legacy Campaign. (2020). Overview of BCLC Neighborhoods: Community Incubator Leads. Retrieved from https://blackchildlegacy.org/neighborhoods/

Child Welfare Appellate Clinic. (2020). Retrieved from https://www.law.umich.edu/clinical/cwac/Pages/default.aspx

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2014). Racial Disproportionality and Disparity in Child Welfare. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/racial_disproportionality.pdf.

Creative Interventions. (2020) CI Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Stop Interpersonal Violence. Retrieved from https://www.creative-interventions.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/CI-Toolkit-Complete-FINAL.pdf.

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Guevarra, E. C., Katayama, D., Montecillo, A. (2020). What One Alternative to Policing Looks Like. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/news/11824698/what-one-alternative-to-policing-looks-like.

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Martinas, Sharon. (1995). Challenging white supremacy: Definitions and descriptions. San Francisco: Tides Center.  

McRoy, R. (2004). The color of child welfare. In Davis, K. E. and Bent-Goodley, T.B. (Ed.), The Color of social policy (pp. 81). Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.

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Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash

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