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Our Voice Was Heard at the UN: The US Must Be Held Accountable

By Shereen A. White, Director of Advocacy & Policy

CR and JMAC with Chair of CERD Committee Verene Shepherd
Stephanie Persson, Children's Rights; Joyce McMillan, JMacForFamilies; Verene Shepherd, Chair of UN CERD Committee; Angela Olivia Burton, Attorney; Shereen A. White, Children’s Rights at the UN CERD 107th Session, August 9, 2022

I am the daughter of a Black man who was separated from his mother and most of his siblings by the U.S. child welfare system before he was school age. He aged out of the system at 18, without adequate resources and support. I have experienced the intergenerational trauma that stems from Black families being torn apart by the child welfare system.

On August 9, I traveled to Geneva with other civil and human rights advocates to address the 107th Session of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Words cannot begin to describe the power, energy, and hope that filled the room of the Palais Wilson as advocates from U.S. non-governmental organizations spoke their truths about the injustices inflicted on human beings in our country, every single day. I was there to share my personal relationship with the child welfare system and to speak to what I have witnessed on a daily basis in my professional life as a lawyer and an advocate: the unequal disruption and treatment of Black families compared to other families.

This honor and opportunity was set in motion in May, when Children’s Rights and the Human Rights Institute at Columbia Law School, submitted a letter to CERD requesting that they include discrimination in the child welfare system as a topic in their upcoming review of the United States. The Committee granted our request and – for the first time ever – agreed to obtain information about how the U.S. child welfare system functions in a racially discriminatory manner. 

detailed report we submitted to guide the Committee in preparation for the August convening was signed by over 30 U.S. advocates and civil rights organizations, all of whom called on CERD to hold the United States accountable for its failure to eliminate racial discrimination within the child welfare system. 

In Geneva, my colleagues and I formally addressed the full Committee, spent time with individual members, and watched the official review of the U.S. over a two-day period. We were overwhelmed with excitement when two of the questions we had recommended were posed to U.S. officials – in particular, one that asked directly about the laws governing child welfare that result in disproportionate harm and impact on Black families.

This was a moment I won’t soon forget. I have seen how policies and practices perpetuate the destruction and devaluation of Black families, resulting in disparate and ongoing harm. These harms are not a coincidence. They are the predictable result of laws, policies, and practices that are rooted in white supremacy and designed to subject Black families to surveillance and policing by an inherently racist system.

After working in the child welfare system for over ten years, I know that the system will not self-correct. The Biden Administration has recently acknowledged the long-standing and ongoing racial discrimination by the child welfare system. This acknowledgment does not amount to action and sadly, the Administration did not answer the questions posed by CERD. We are so grateful that the Committee has embraced our position, endorsed by so many U.S. advocates and organizations, and look forward to their assessment and recommendations in the weeks ahead. Their review is a historic opportunity to hold the U.S. accountable for injustices to Black children and families.

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Shereen A. White is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at Children’s Rights.

Disrupt Institutional Racism in Child Welfare Systems.

Pledge to help end the unjust, unnecessary, and devastating surveillance, investigation, and removal of Black children from their families. We must start by unequivocally naming institutional racism as a force at work in child welfare systems. Then we must take action to disrupt it!