Twentieth Century Black and Native Activism Against the Child Taking System Lessons for the Present

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Laura Briggs


This Article argues that the historical record supports activism that takes the abolition of the child welfare system as its starting point, rather than its reform. It explores the birth of the modern child welfare system in the 1950s as part of the white supremacist effort to punish Black communities that sought desegregation of schools and other public accommodations; and Native communities that fought tribal termination and the taking of indigenous land. Beginning with the “segregation package” of laws passed by the Louisiana state legislature in 1960, the Article shows how cutting so-called “illegitimate” children off the welfare program, called Aid to Dependent Children, (ADC) and placing those whom their mothers could no longer support in foster care was an explicit response to school desegregation. While the National Urban League initially mounted a formidable national and international mutual aid effort, “Operation Feed the Babies,” its ultimate response—appealing to the federal government to reform the welfare and child welfare systems— backfired in disastrous ways. The Eisenhower administration responded by providing federal funds for a program it called ADC-foster care, giving states resources to dramatically expand the foster care system, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Black children in foster homes within a year. Native Tribal nations, in contrast, fought throughout the late 1960s and 70s to get states out of Indian child welfare. After a decade of activism, in 1978, they succeeded in passing the Indian Child Welfare Act, which put American Indian kids under the jurisdiction of tribal courts instead of the states’. Over the next decades, the number of Native children in foster care shrank dramatically. While history rarely offers clear guidance for the present, these two stories strongly suggest the limits of reform for state child welfare systems, and the wisdom of contemporary activists who call for abolition.

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How to Cite
Briggs, L. (2021). Twentieth Century Black and Native Activism Against the Child Taking System: Lessons for the Present. Columbia Journal of Race and Law, 11(3), 611–638.