renee-michelle-harris_web.jpgAn article in the Oct. 10 edition of the South Florida Times told the beautiful story of the Ramich family. No offense to the reporter, Daniella Aird, who did a commendable job, but I hated it.

You may recall that the Ramichs are the white upper middle class family who, after unsuccessful attempts to conceive with fertility treatments, went to the state to adopt a child. The adorable little black girl that became their own was in the foster care system after the state rescued her from her mother, a prostitute with six children and a crack addiction.

I guess you’re wondering what my problem is. The little girl is now in a good home with parents who love her. My problem is not the obvious. I have no problem with white parents adopting children of color. If parents can provide a loving environment for a child, their color is inconsequential.

My problem is the way the article, and articles like it, continue to perpetuate the image of the drug crazed black mother, incapable of taking care of the children she births. Without my social work background, which included several years working with or for the state Department of Children and Families, I might have experienced the warm, fuzzy reaction that articles like this one are meant to elicit. It had the opposite affect on me because I’ve seen enough to know better.

I’ve seen enough to know that the agency was reckless and thoughtless for placing a child who was not yet free for adoption with parents who clearly wanted to adopt. As the Ramichs said in the article, it was stressful waiting to find out whether she was really theirs. Practices like this make good people want the worst for another human being because it essentially placed the Ramichs in the position of rooting against the mother’s recovery so that they could keep her child.

I’ve seen enough to know that, far more often than not, there is more to the drug-addicted mother than was shared in the article. Attending  DCF’s recent celebration of children being returned to their formerly drug-addicted mothers, and having worked with dozens of women who overcame drug addiction, prostitution, childhood sexual abuse and other tragedies to become phenomenal parents, tells me that not all drug-addicted women deserve to lose their children. 

I’ve seen enough to know that even the subtle choice of referring to the mother’s problem as a “crack addiction” instead of a “drug addiction” paints a more dreadful image of the woman, and garners more support for the Ramichs of the world. It’s akin to the philosophy that underlies the disparate drug sentencing guidelines where “crack” offenders receive more jail time than “cocaine” offenders in this nation’s criminal justice system.

I’ve seen enough to know that many of the attorneys appointed by the court to represent black families who lose their children to the state do a horrible job, and are often more interested in placating the judge than in presenting a vigorous defense for their clients.

I’ve seen enough to know that the drug-addicted mother did not stand a chance against the wealthier and more socially acceptable Ramichs, because even when black and poor families have done everything required of them by the court and the state in order to regain custody of their children, they may then be required to fight against well-established, respected foster parents who have fallen in love with their child.

I’ve seen enough to know that it is far more cost effective for the state to use a fraction of the money it uses to care for a child in foster care to help preserve her family.

I’ve seen enough to know that when men like Alan Abramowitz (DCF’s regional administrator for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties) lead with a philosophy on preserving and reunifying black and poor families, more black and poor families are preserved and reunified.

In her brilliant book on the subject, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; Northwestern University Law School professor Dorothy Roberts, said “My goal of developing a new case for protecting black families against state intrusion is based not only on parents’ and children’s rights, but also on the injury to the black community as a whole. Racial inequities in the child welfare system…cause serious group-based harms by reinforcing disparaging stereotypes about black family unfitness and need for white supervision, by destroying a sense of family autonomy and self-determination among many black Americans, and by weakening blacks’ collective ability to overcome institutionalized discrimination.”

I’ve seen enough.

Renee Michelle Harris is the associate editor of the South Florida Times.