In 1863, Harriet Tubman and eight of her trusted scouts orchestrated the Combahee River uprising in South Carolina. The uprising, which followed a year of planning and organizing, freed almost eight-hundred enslaved people, burned thirty-two planation buildings, and decimated the rice plantations that rested at the center of the state’s economy.[1] The Combahee River uprising directly freed enslaved people and devasted South Carolina’s confederate economy, but the uprising also signaled a commitment to live in a way that understands that the impossible must be possible.[2] That is, the uprising rested on a belief that a world without slavery and systems of domination—the seemingly impossible—was not only possible but necessary, and that the creation of such a world demanded action that affirmed a futurity of freedom for Black people. In 1997, when Black, mostly queer, feminists gathered in Combahee and drafted the Combahee River Collective statement,[3] they did so purposely as a continuation of the struggle of the Combahee uprising and as an expression of a commitment to building another world.

For the Combahee River Collective (C.R.C.), building another world rested in a politics that saw Black women as inherently valuable. They wrote, “[i]f Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”[4] The Combahee River Collective Statement conceptualized the notion of intersectionality—the idea that marginalization and oppression are experienced simultaneously in different, interlocking ways as a result of how systems of domination interact with people’s identities. Their centering of Black women was not an exclusion of others with marginalized identities from their struggle. Oppositely, they contended that from centering Black women emerges the analysis and solidarity necessary for the liberation of all oppressed people and the destruction of all systems of domination. Thus, the Combahee River Collective statement outlines a politics that understands that liberation and freedom for Black women (and all oppressed peoples) also necessitates the upending of all systems of oppression that sustain racial capitalism, patriarchy, homophobia, white supremacy, and imperialism.

The child welfare system, more accurately the family policing system, is one part of the United States’ larger prison industrial complex (PIC)—an expansive system of overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.[5] Child welfare does not always immediately surface within the larger movement to abolish policing and the PIC. But as Dorothy Roberts writes, “[t]he prison and foster care systems are marked by glaring race, gender, and class disparities: The populations in both are disproportionality poor and African American, and both systems are particularly burdensome to poor Black mothers.”[6] Moreover, the system situates parents and communities as individual failures while ignoring “the damage done to families and individuals by capitalism or in the lack of commitment to meet children’s material needs.”[7] 

Indeed, Black children from poor communities are disproportionality separated from their families through the foster care system. Once they enter a foster placement, they experience longer stays, are overly prescribed psychotropic medications, are more likely to be placed in groups homes and congregate care facilities, and too often experience multiple moves, resulting re-traumatization. The family policing system systematically polices and punishes Black families and Black mothers in particular through harmful, punitive interventions. Black mothers and their newborns are routinely drug tested at birth. The system disproportionately removes children from Black mothers with disabilities,[8] terminates parental rights—especially the rights of incarcerated parents—and willfully misjudges poverty experienced by Black families as neglect. Even when children are not separated from their families, the family policing system turns families’ communities and homes into open-air sites of policing and punishment,[9] and wonders why the services they try to offer are not trusted. Through mandated reporting and the surveillance that occurs through open in-home cases, neighbors, educators, domestic violence support workers, doctors, mental health providers, landlords, and substance use programs all turn into state actors with the authority to monitor parents’ behaviors and the power to spur the removal of children from their homes.

Ultimately, the existence of the family policing system means we live in a world where the well-being of Black mothers, Black families, and Black communities is expendable. I would like to extend the Combahee Statement to Black families. That is, what does it mean for those advocating for the end of the family policing system to center Black families—to understand that Black families are inherently valuable and to act in a way that affirms a futurity of freedom for Black families and communities? Abolishing the family policing system requires the creation of another world and the reimagining, or remembering, of care. As Black feminism instructs, the liberatory project of abolition requires the making of a society that is free of all systems of oppression. When the status quo is white supremacy, racial capitalism, patriarchy, ableism, and homophobia, and reform reifies the status quo, Black feminist abolition calls for the seemingly impossible—the rendering a society free of these oppressions. Black feminism—from Tubman to the C.R.C.—instructs us to act now to create “new conditions of possibility” and radical ways of living.[10] Black feminism instructs us to be complicated in our analyses of systems of oppression, to center those most marginalized, and commit to the continuing project of making a way out of no way—making a way where Black children, mothers, and families are free.


[*] Maya Pendleton is a senior policy analyst at the Center for the Study of Social Policy who works on the upEND Movement, a movement aimed at ending state sanctioned surveillance of families and the separation of children from their families. 

[1] See Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Prophecy in the Present Tense: Harriet Tubman, the Combahee Pilgrimage, and Dreams Coming True, Meridians: Feminism, Race, and Transnationalism, Sept. 2014, at 142.

[2] See Marquis Bey, Black Fugitivity Un/Gendered, Black Scholar, Jan. 2019, at 55.

[3] Combahee River Collective, The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977),

[4] Id.

[5] What is the PIC? What Is Abolition?, Critical Resistance, (last visited Feb. 19, 2021).

[6] Dorothy E. Roberts, Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers, 59 UCLA L. Rev. 1474, 1476–77 (2012).

[7] Don Lash, Race and Class in the US Foster Care System, Int’l Socialist Rev., (last visited Feb. 13, 2020).

[8] Jung Min Park et al., Involvement in the Child Welfare System Among Mothers With Serious Mental Illness, 57 Psychiatric Servs. 493 (2006).

[9] See Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law, Prison by any Other Name (2020).

[10] Bey, supra note 2.