Monthly Archives: February 2011

Community Dialogues in four US Cities: Mothers and Other Caregivers Speak Out

Mothers & other caregivers speak out against child welfare injustices, budget cuts, criminalization and war. Together they planned joint actions to demand that child “protection”, welfare and other government policies end the trashing of mothers and recognize the value of their caregiving work.

Community Dialogues ...

Community Dialogues in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Santa Cruz in December brought together mothers, other caregivers and activists against poverty and war. Together they planned joint actions to demand that child “protection”, welfare and other government policies end the trashing of mothers and recognize the value of their caregiving work. Pointing out that billions of dollars can always be found for war and bank bailouts, they refused to accept that there is “no money” for even minimal basic needs for mothers and children. The result is that mothers, other carers and entire communities are criminalized, and many low-income children, especially in Black communities, are cruelly and unjustly removed from their families by agencies that equate mothers’ poverty with neglect.

The Dialogues premiered the award-winning documentary, DHS: Give Us Back Our Children – mothers and others reclaim children from the child welfare industry. One of the Philadelphia filmmakers, campaigner Phoebe Jones, introduced the film at the West Coast events. A trailer for the documentary, which has been described as “heartbreaking but inspirational,” can be seen at

The events also launched planning for the second Mothers March Against Poverty and Other Violence called by the Global Women’s Strike. It will take place on March 12 in Guyana, England and other countries, as well as in a number of US cities, to mark International Women’s Day.

Philadelphia – Dec 3

Good news started off the dialogue: because of the activism of two of the sponsoring groups, Every Mother is a Working Mother Network (EMWM) and DHS Give us Back Our children, the number of children entering foster care dropped 10% in Philadelphia County last year (according to PA Partnerships for Children).

Guest speaker Richard Wexler, Executive Director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said, “that means that 369 fewer children were subjected to being torn needlessly from everyone they know and love and consigned to the chaos of foster care.” He praised the activist groups’ “energetic” efforts to reduce the rate of child removal but warned that there is still a long way to go.

Monica Kaiser, a former foster child, described the devastating consequences for her of DHS policy: losing all connections to her biological family. Pat Albright of EMWM connected the taking of children with the “reform” of welfare and called for an end to all time limits and sanctions as TANF reauthorization moves through Congress. Eric Gjertsen of Payday men’s network spoke of $trillions spent for war while communities suffered, and of the practical support needed for refuseniks — many thousands of women and men in almost every country who refuse to go to war or into the military. Bill Webb spoke on the revolving door of foster care and prison. Parents, former foster children, local and national advocates, social work students and others, also related their experiences.

Santa Cruz – Dec 7

Mothers, grandmothers, and other women gathered at Louden Nelson Center to watch the documentary, and speak out about what they experienced in the child welfare system. The documentary elicited powerful responses, and has been showing on Community TV. Several mothers, Black and white, spoke out about their custody fights, how the courts sided repeatedly with abusive partners, and how their children are still recovering years later. Black grandmothers spoke of their fight with DHS for the right to raise their grandchildren. Santa Cruz has a rate of removal of 23 out of every 1000 impoverished children, which is more than twice the state average, with a disproportionate number of children of color. The group affirmed that children have a right to their mothers, and caring for children needs to be valued. They vowed to participate in the Mothers March 2011 and to support each other when up against the system.

San Francisco — Dec 9

A grassroots, multiracial and multigenerational bunch crowded into Poor Magazine’s office for a dialogue focusing on the Criminalization of Survival. Following the film, a broad panel widened the scope, with speaker Pierre Labossière of the Haiti Action Committee relating the kidnapping of children in Haiti by US-based agencies to the separating of families by child welfare services in the US, and how non-profits in both Haiti (which has more non-profits per capita than any other country) and the US are profiteering from women’s and children’s poverty. Rachel West of the US PROStitutes Collective spoke on behalf of women who face losing their children after being arrested for prostitution and other “crimes of poverty” like shoplifting and homelessness, while San Francisco spends over $11 million prosecuting prostitution offenses. Shauna Gunderson told a heart-wrenching and shocking story of brutality by the courts: a judge said he should give her a gun so she could shoot her kids and put them out of their misery. Nell Myhand spoke on the racist bias against Black families in San Francisco where 11% of children are Black but are 70% of children in foster care. A formerly imprisoned Black man in the audience said that the current removal of children harks back to slavery, and that prisons provide a cheap labor force.

Los Angeles – Dec 11

An audience that was overwhelmingly women of color packed the Southern California Library in South Los Angeles. They cheered when Congresswoman Maxine Waters (the only elected official to respond to the invitation) spoke about how moved she was by the documentary, promised to host a screening on Capitol Hill, and agreed with its message: if foster mothers can be paid to take care of children, why can’t the biological mothers be paid to take care of them? (Jazmin Banks, former foster/adoptive mother). Waters also paid homage to leaders of the welfare rights movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, and spoke of the suffering of women in Haiti.

On two panels, mothers, fathers, and grandmothers spoke of their struggles with the brutal child welfare and immigration policies that rip children from those who have loved and cared for them all their lives. Black children are 8% of the population in LA, but 34% of those in foster care, while immigrant mothers in detention face losing their children to foster care or even to “fast-track adoption”. An older woman spoke of the devaluing of women’s caregiving over a lifetime.

Anti-poverty, anti-criminalization and anti-war activists spoke of the impact on their lives and their communities, of budget cuts and military spending, and the other costs of war – including the high rate of veterans’ suicide, illness and poverty, and the lack of support for those who care for veterans.

Among the groups organizing the event, which was chaired by Margaret Prescod of Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike and Nancy Berlin of California Partnership, were Alexandria House (LA); California Partnership; DCFS Give Us Back Our Children (LA); the Global Women’s Strike and Women of Color in the GWS; Military Families Speak Out (Orange Co), and The LaStraw, Inc. (Greensboro, NC). The South Central Farmers and SOL (seasonal, organic, local) cooperatives provided a hot lunch and childcare.

For more info see these websites:, (where you can purchase the film) and

Los Angeles: 323-276 9833
Philadelphia: 215-848-1120
San Francisco Bay Area: 415-626-4114
Santa Cruz: 831-713-6941

Philadelphia audience

Philadelphia audience


Shauna Gunderson Santa Cruz event organizer and Phoebe Jones one of the filmmakers

Shauna Gunderson Santa Cruz event organizer and Phoebe Jones one of the filmmakers


Nell Myhand, Women of Color/GWS & Pierre Labossiére, Haiti Action Ctte, on SF panel

Nell Myhand, Women of Color/GWS & Pierre Labossiére, Haiti Action Ctte, on SF panel


DCFS Give Us Back Our Children panel LA Community Dialogue

DCFS Give Us Back Our Children panel LA Community Dialogue


Co-Chair Nancy Berlin, California Partnership, & Panel 1

Co-Chair Nancy Berlin, California Partnership, & Panel 1


Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaks at LA Community Dialogue

Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaks at LA Community Dialogue


Pat Alviso of Military Families Speak Out and other panel members

Pat Alviso of Military Families Speak Out and other panel members


Lunch donated by South Central Farmers & SOL cooperatives, and Alexandria House

Lunch donated by South Central Farmers & SOL cooperatives, and Alexandria House

Agencies pervert precious human rights


With a radiant yellow scarf shrouding much of her face Amanda spoke about the anguish she’s endured arising from an abusive husband — anguish aggravated by the various governmental agencies that have shielded her abuser and snatched her child away.

Amanda described one beating that left her requiring surgery. She lashed federal authorities for “lying and negligence” particularly in protecting her abuser, who is a commander in the U.S. military.

“My minor child was taken away from me and subjected to sexual and emotional abuse,” Amanda said often tearfully during a discussion last Friday evening at a program sponsored by the Every Mother is a Working Mother Network held in University City.

“I’ve been denied my human rights and my constitutional rights.”

Amanda’s use of the phrase human rights is unusual within the context of child custody and spousal abuse because most Americans typically don’t associate those issues as items under the human rights umbrella.

But what is a human right if it does not include protection from wanton physical assault or provide assistance to preserve that special bond between mother and child?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a provision stating: Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance.

This Declaration, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, contains another provision stating: The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.

Amanda’s placement of her physical abuse and parental deprivations within the arena of human rights is interesting because this Friday is the annual international observance of Human Rights Day commemorating the U.N.’s Dec. 10, 1948, adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A unique aside on this year’s Human Rights Day is that it comes just weeks after the United States went through its first-ever Universal Periodic Review on human rights by a U.N. committee.

While U.S. officials proudly pointed to such continuing progress in America as the election of a Black president and his selection of a Hispanic female US Supreme Court Justice, 56 countries including staunch US allies offered 228 recommendations for improving human rights in the nation that presents itself as the world’s leader in protecting the rights of all.

Those recommendations involved issues like attacking poverty addressing, eliminating discrimination in the criminal justice system, improving conditions for Native Americans and Blacks and addressing abuses impacting immigrants.

Norway urged America to improve the economic and social rights of women and minorities.

Belgium called on America to stop sentencing teens to life in prison. Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of life sentenced teens.

England, Australia and the Vatican were among nearly two dozen countries calling upon the U.S. to end the death penalty.

One recommendation spotlighted the plight of Philadelphia death row journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who observes the macabre anniversary of 29-years inside a prison cell this Thursday.

Cuba called on the U.S. to “end the unjust incarceration of political prisoners including Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal.”

The issue of political prisoners in the U.S. is a subject generating interest internationally yet one ignored by Americans said Efia Nwangaza, a lawyer who attended the U.N. human rights review session held in Switzerland early last month.

“There are over 75 political prisoners in the U.S. most of them former Black Panther or Black Liberation Army people,” said Nwangaza, a Philadelphia native living in South Carolina who helped prepare documentation on U.S. political prisoners for that U.N. review.

“We’ve made progress through an admission by omission with the U.S. not denying it has political prisoners.”

Women clawed by callous bureaucracies of governmental social service agencies, like those participating in last Friday’s program, too often feel like prisoners, also.

Joining Amanda on that panel was a woman named Monica who said she was once a foster child in Philadelphia.

“Thirteen years ago I was uprooted from everything I know and put into a system that was supposed to protect me and it didn’t,” Monica said.

The centerpiece of that Friday program was the premier of a new short film “DHS – Give Us Back Our Children” which examines the experiences of women fighting abuses within Philadelphia’s foster care system.

This documentary presents poignant accounts from persons mistreated by the foster care system operated through the City’s Department of Human Services. The Every Mother Network produced the documentary in conjunction with Philly’s Scribe Video Center.

“People turn to DHS for help and don’t get it,” said Phoebe Jones, who helped edit the documentary.

Philadelphia spends $35,000 per-child/per-year for each foster care placement, funding that participants on the Friday evening program said could be better spent in most instances by financially assisting family units overcome problematic issues instead of separating children from parents, siblings and relatives.

The good news announced at the program was the ten percent decrease in the number of children entering foster care in Philadelphia during the past year.

However, the program’s featured speaker put this progress into perspective.

“Philadelphia still tears apart families at a far higher rate than any other big city,” said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform located in Alexandria, Va.

“A study of foster care “alumni” found they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder of Gulf War veterans …”

Linn Washington Jr. is an award-winning writer who teaches journalism at Temple University.