Exploring the Traumatic Impact of Criminalizing Policies on Black Women and Girls

Black Youth Project 100 with Freedom Side in New York City August 2014. (Photo: Caleb-Michael Files)

The truth is, “black girls and women are still some of the most vulnerable members of society, thereby putting us more at risk for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Black teen girls, in a given year, are more likely to attempt suicide and become trafficked at younger ages than their racial counterparts. Additionally, black girls are at a significantly higher risk for sexual abuse, physical abuse, and child neglect.

Stressors that occur during black and brown children girlhood, such as loss, grief, substance abuse, mental illness, exposure to violence and parental incarceration are identified as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). A tool to “assess the cumulative effect of trauma on a person’s life”, ACEs identifies household dysfunction by exploring childhood experiences through a series of questions. At the conclusion, the response totals are utilized to assess the likelihood of risk factors for negative physical, mental and behavioral health outcomes (i.e. – asthma, early experimentation with drugs, suicidal ideation).

The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence indicates that more than 60 percent of children from birth to 17 years experience victimization and 38 percent witness violence sometime during childhood. While our recent focus has centered on the black and brown #missingDCgirls, who are disproportionately pushed out of the educational system, the community needs the conversation expanded in order to continue to coalition build and support efforts for black and brown girls affected by many of the issues that girls face, within their families, schools, and communities.

Faced with significant trauma and limited coping skills, many girls engage in behaviors that impede healthy socio-emotional development and positive overall well being. Cutting, drug experimentation, poor diet, violent outbursts, social isolation and displays of depressive emotions are just some of the behaviors that precede unaddressed stress and hopelessness, particularly in black and brown girls’ lives.

Restricted by geographic location, lack of resources, lack of knowledge of supportive services, healthcare access barriers due to age and parental rights and adolescents are left with no options. It is the foundation for a perfect storm hopeless feelings and stress.

Exploring the Impact of Criminalizing Policies on African American Women and Girls

In September 2015, scholars, community members, activist, and advocates gathered for a roundtable to discuss the impact of incarceration and mandatory minimums on survivors. With goals that focus on black women and girls, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault highlighted criminalizing policies, mandatory minimums, and challenges in reform initiatives.

The summary report highlighting the US Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women key points and recommendations from the roundtable was issued in January 2017. The report captures these critical issues at “the intersection of multiple aspects of a person’s identity (i.e., gender, race).” When examining the “impacts of increasing incarceration and criminalization,” public health issues faced by black women and girls, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, mental illness, disability and chronic health ailments are often an afterthought. While acknowledging, the roundtable did not further discuss the impacts due to expression or exploration of sexual orientation.

“…participants noted that efforts to end violence require a deeper analysis of the intersecting factors that shape an individual’s identity. For example, it is important to take into consideration the additional barriers and risks experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) girls and women. Participants also highlighted the need to take into account the particular challenges and exploitation of transgender women and girls.”

The criminalization black women and girls face due to the inability to cope, runaway status, nonreporting of parental abandonment and all “the ways in which conditions and experiences related to domestic violence and sexual assault intersect with girls’ experiences in the child welfare and social services systems.” This an area of inquiry for further research and development of culturally relevant and trauma informed programming. As evidenced by the short and long term effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the correlations to pathways involving hyper-regulation and criminalizing trauma are the opposite approach to rehabilitation.

Critical race and black feminist theory are the foundations of my clinical and sociological perspective when presenting bio-psycho-socio-emotional histories. Social workers in clinical roles such as substance abuse and mental health are trained to not only “acknowledge, be supportive and discuss the problem” but also help the client navigate institutions and systems.

As an effective therapist, it’s imperative to not pathologize behaviors but to also understand individuals, communities, and organizations within the context of the social and cultural climate.

Wading into Action at the Intersections, The Case for Bresha Meadows

Photo Credit: Verso Books

On July 18th, 2016, 14 year old Bresha Meadows was arrested for shooting her abusive father in the head, and she is currently awaiting trial for aggravated murder.

Bresha Meadows continues to plead “not true” (the juvenile court’s version of “not guilty”) to the charge of aggravated murder. Although, it is a plea attached to an outcome too unsettling to consider, she remains a hopeful black girl, who acknowledges the small freedoms of wearing her own clothes, being able to go outside and having additional visiting privileges. These “freedoms”, additional supports financed by her family, parallel her previous placement in juvenile detention.

At a pre trial release hearing on January 20th, a judge ordered that Bresha be sent to a residential treatment facility in her home state of Ohio. Initially, Bresha faced a life sentence for aggravated murder of her father, whom she allegedly shot and killed. It is reported that Bresha’s father brutally beat her mother and terrorized her family for years. Although her father’s family is insisting he is innocent, Bresha and her family members contend that she was born into a nightmare and was afraid of him.

An August 2016 article reported that Bresha’s mother took necessary precautions such as filing an order of protection and contacting child services. It is unclear at this juncture, whether any of those precautions were effective.

Stories like Bresha’s rarely receive recognition on a mainstream level but when they do, they tend to focus on the criminalization of black girls and the education system. Broadening the conversation on the criminalization of black girls to include child abuse and neglect, witnessing and experiencing domestic violence, trauma and a complacent child services system are imperative.

Bresha is at the intersection of witnessing domestic violence, experiencing child abuse and unsuccessful supportive resources. She has suffered the effects of shooting her father and ultimately becoming the protector of her family. Bresha’s mother, Brandi reported that she was not strong enough to leave the abusive relationship but Bresha helped so they could all have a better life.  Bresha is at risk, as demonstrated by studies that suggest that children who are exposed to domestic violence and/or child abuse are more likely to experience a wide range of adverse psychosocial and behavioral outcomes.

Bresha Meadows

Bresha’s final pre-trial hearing is set for April 17, 2017. Here are 12 ideas for action you can take, developed by the #freebresha campaign, some of which include organizing a #freebresha teach in, and creating art inspired by Bresha, to name a few.

This case is important because of the clinical work that I have done as a licensed social worker with black families in Illinois and Indiana. While my experience has spanned settings, specifically within child welfare and juvenile justice, black families are routinely marginalized throughout the experience.

Limited or no resources, lack of access to services and discriminatory practices are a few ways families are marginalized through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

In addition to my concern for her family as a unit, my concern is for Bresha.

Now she languishes in a system that has failed her over and over again. The screams of so many victims of violence, racism and patriarchy bounce off the sterile walls that surround her, only to be swallowed whole by our silence. read more

As a former therapist at a juvenile residential treatment center and juvenile detention center, my group and individual sessions were often tailored from a holistic perspective. Topics ranging from trauma, grief, familial, community and (what I now understand to be coined) state violence were often processed and addressed during treatment.

The longer that Bresha is locked in a juvenile facility, away from her support system, the higher her risk is for attachment and mental health issues. A representative from an organization in Ohio that advocates for youth mentioned, “Children who spend time in juvenile detention are more likely to abuse substances as adults, and less likely to have good educational outcomes and form stable families of their own.” Bresha’s case progression, home environment and psychosocial risk factors such as exposure to violence are elements that contribute to her overall mental health and well being.

Lastly, her case is important to me because she is a black girl and so am I. In solidarity, this is my fight for Bresha.

Black girlhood, violence and child abuse in the black family and the criminalization of black girls are complex topics, especially within the black community. These issues are complex due to the intersections of race, gender and the culture of abuse, all of which have a foundation rooted in racism and patriarchy.

Professor and Author Dr. Stacey Patton states, in How Black Feminists Have Become Complicit in the Abuse of Black Children, “the one form of violence within black communities that does not seem to be recognized as incurred by white racism is violence against children.” Many of these stories include our experiences with domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, community violence & state violence, along with a litany of other socio-cultural issues that impacts black families and communities. These stories are worthy of examination and amplification.

We must reflect on our present moment…who we truly are when it comes to the identity of our profession as one committed to social justice in our culture, particularly on issues where Black cis and trans women and girls are being killed and victimized while their suffering is marginalized, erased, and rendered invisible to us. Read More

Juvenile Detainment and the “Child – Support Model” The Case for Social Justice

In “Do Black Women’s Lives Matter in Social Work: A Gender Analysis of Racialized State- Sanctioned Police Violence” Crystal M. Hayes states, “As a social worker, I am calling specifically on us to do better as a profession when it comes to our commitments to promoting social justice and anti-racism in the world and culture seeped in persistent anti-Black racism, heterosexism, patriarchal violence and misogyny, and anti-queer antagonism and violence.”

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), “Social workers apply social-justice principles to structural problems, use knowledge of existing legal principles and organizational structure to suggest changes to protect their clients, who are often powerless and underserved”. Related to the social worker’s role is identifying and advocating for social justice.

Bresha’s mother is tasked with financing her daughter’s care.

A billing practice, rooted in capitalistic and oppressive ideologies. Deemed by detention center administrators and proponents of the social policy, as “child support”, the financial expectations and repercussions which are placed on families is challenging.

A recent investigation conducted by the Marshall Project highlights the aftermath of this system through stories of garnished wages and the impact of detainment on the child’s behavior. Rooted in the belief that parents did not want the obligation of caring for a delinquent child, “parental billing practices” were implemented. It was subsumed that this policy would serve as a deterrent and attach billing for families that utilize detention centers as babysitters for their wayward children.

Today, mothers and fathers are billed for their children’s incarceration — in jails, detention centers, court-ordered treatment facilities, training schools or disciplinary camps — by 19 state juvenile-justice agencies, while in at least 28 other states, individual counties can legally do the same, a survey by the Marshall Project shows.

Parental billing practices should be abolished given that they are archaic and heavily intertwined with oppressive and racist roots. Roots built on the premise that collecting fees from a parent would somehow encourage them to have a different stake in their child’s life, a financial stake. This would in turn, impact their parenting involvement, engagement– too ensure the child will not put the family in such a (financial) position again.

Parental billing practices do not impact parent – child dynamics to the magnitude of decreasing first time and recidivistic interactions with the system. Given my experience as a clinician, I know this issue is more complex and nuanced than mandated billing practices. Interaction and involvement with these systems is stressful, and more often than not, traumatic. Let’s add the financial expectations associated with billing practices. A writer from the Washington Post references:

“Not only does such a policy unfairly conscript the poorest members of society to bear the costs of public institutions, operating ‘as a regressive tax,’ ” Reinhardt wrote, “but it takes advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable, essentially imposing ‘a tax upon distress.’”

A clear example that the “personal is political”, the Meadows family is at the intersection of these social systems.

While in graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project (MWJCP) which works to free women prisoners who were convicted of murder but who acted in self-defense against abusers and did not receive due process or fair trials.

Unfortunately, Bresha’s case progression echoes many of the stories of the women who receive assistance from MWJCP. Just like many of the women prisoners, Bresha and her family attempted to access the appropriate channels for assistance. Given their limited resources, “domestic issues” are generally addressed through the justice and child welfare systems. It appears those systems have failed.

One of the things that I admire about social workers is our ability to advocate for others and ask all the right, even tough questions. There are a lot of questions to ask concerning this case as Professor David Leonard inquires, “The question is, will we listen—this time? Or, if we pretend that we can’t hear them in our communities and our schools and our homes, bleeding beneath the fists of men who claim to love them, will they, like a tree falling in a forest, even make a sound?”

We can not lose sight. Bresha is a child: a survivor of abuse and a witness to violence in her own home, at the hands of her father,

Without Papers But Not Without Rights: The Basic Social Rights of Irregular Migrants

Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake
Refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France © Matt Sprake

Those who think that irregular migrants have no rights because they have no papers are wrong. Everyone is a holder of human rights regardless of their status. It is easy to understand that the prohibition of torture protects all people but we should also be aware of the fact that basic social rights are also universal, because their enjoyment constitutes a prerequisite for human dignity. Therefore, member states of the Council of Europe should stand by their obligations to protect the basic social rights of everyone under their jurisdiction, and this includes irregular migrants.

Migrants can be in an irregular situation because they have entered a country, or stayed in a country, in an unauthorised way. Their situation may become irregular because they overstay an authorised period which can last several years. Due to the very nature of irregular migration, it is difficult to estimate the number of irregular migrants currently living in Europe, though the figure undoubtedly runs into the millions.

Barriers placed by states to the exercise of basic social rights

In my work, I have been confronted with too many situations where the social rights of irregular migrants have been deliberately denied by authorities, in contradiction with international and European law. In other countries where these rights are recognised in national legislation, practical obstacles to their exercise have unfortunately proved to be numerous.

The criminalisation of migration and repressive policies of detention and expulsions of foreigners seriously affect the protection of the basic social rights of irregular migrants, not least because they create a general climate of suspicion and rejection against irregular migrants among those who are supposed to provide social services.

Migrants in an irregular situation are too often seen as cheats, liars, social benefits abusers or persons stealing the jobs of nationals. In such a context, law enforcement officials in charge of countering “illegal immigration” often have difficulties in recognising an irregular migrant as a victim of human rights violations and in need of protection.

In some instances, the police are placed under official pressure to attain quantified targets of “repatriations” – I noted this to be the case until 2012 in France. This policy can be particularly harmful to irregular migrants’ access to social rights, because it forces them to live clandestinely and avoid contact with social assistance providers for fear of being arrested, detained or deported. According to a June 2015 study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the main reason for victims of exploitation not reporting their cases to the police is the fear of having to leave the country.

The criminalisation of migration through establishing an “offence of solidarity” against those who try to assist migrants by providing minimum access to shelter, food and healthcare is another unacceptable measure taken by some states in recent years. To guarantee access to basic social rights for irregular migrants, basic service providers such as medical staff should never be placed under an obligation to report irregular migrants to law enforcement authorities.

Access to basic social rights can also be impeded by protracted situations of legal limbo such as that experienced by rejected asylum seekers who cannot be expelled in Denmark. I consider that in situations where return is impossible or particularly difficult, states should find solutions to authorise the relevant person to stay in the country under conditions which meet their basic social needs and respect their dignity.

As indicated in a recent study on the impact of the crisis on access to fundamental rights in the EU, undocumented migrants are among the groups disproportionately affected by austerity measures imposed in the field of healthcare. In Spain, access to healthcare for irregular migrants in most regions was significantly reduced in 2012, until the government recently decided to restore primary health care access, mainly because of the disastrous impact the restrictions had on the national healthcare system. It remains to be seen if the right to access to healthcare of irregular migrants will also improve in practice.

Right to basic social assistance, shelter and food

In some countries, restrictions on access to social rights rest, more or less explicitly, on immigration policies aimed at sending back irregular migrants, including by forcing them into destitution, in order to deter other would-be migrants from coming. States may be tempted to link access to some basic social rights to the residence status of the migrant. In the Netherlands, while the law grants irregular migrants access to emergency healthcare and education, the government has attempted to deny access to shelter, food and water. As noted in my report on the Netherlands, I could witness some of the difficulties experienced by irregular migrants due to this policy during a visit carried out to a disused church in The Hague in 2014, where some 65 irregular immigrants had taken shelter.

As unrestrictedly recognised in many international legal instruments, everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and shelter. Under the European Social Charter, as emphasised by the European Committee of Social Rights, the minimum guarantees for the right to housing and emergency shelter apply to irregular migrants too.

Shelter must be provided even when immigrants have been requested to leave the country and even though they may not require long-term accommodation. The Committee has pointed out that the right to shelter is closely connected to the human dignity of every person, regardless of their residence status. It has also stated that foreign nationals, whether residing lawfully or not in the country, are entitled to urgent medical assistance and such basic social assistance as is necessary to cope with an immediate state of need (accommodation, food, emergency care and clothing).

Protection from exploitation and human trafficking

Everyone, including irregular immigrants, should be protected from labour exploitation and trafficking in human beings in full compliance with Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting slavery, forced labour and by extension human trafficking, and with the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.

While in many European countries a residence permit can be granted to victims of trafficking or severe forms of exploitative work staying irregularly on the territory, too often, this applies only under the condition of co-operating with the police. In 20 country evaluation reports, the Group of Experts on action against trafficking in human beings (GRETA) has urged the authorities to ensure that in practice access to assistance for victims of trafficking is not made conditional on their co-operation in the investigation and criminal proceedings: Article 14 of the anti-trafficking Convention allows parties to make the issuing of a temporary residence permit conditional on co-operation and it seems that in some cases this blocks unconditional access to assistance for foreign victims.

States have an obligation to sanction employers exploiting the vulnerability of irregular migrants. From a human rights point of view, what matters most is not that a state fights against “illegal work”, but that irregular migrants are protected and compensated for the human rights violations they have suffered as a result of their exploitation. Foreign domestic workers, because of their isolation, are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse.

Right to education of children in an irregular situation

Many international and European human rights standards, including the European Social Charter and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, require that access to education be ensured for children regardless of their immigration status. However, too often, schools or other administrative authorities place barriers to irregular migrant children’s right to education by unlawfully asking for documents such as birth certificates as a condition to enrol the child.

Measures to be taken by states

To create an environment favourable to ensuring irregular migrants’ access to inalienable basic social rights, states should not only refrain from criminalising migration but should go further:

  • Consider policies, including regularisation programmes and increased possibilities for legal channels to immigrate for work, so as to avoid or resolve situations whereby migrants are in, or are at risk of falling into, an irregular situation.
  • Ratify and implement international and European treaties relevant for the protection of the rights of irregular migrants, including the International Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the 2011 ILO Convention 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, and the Revised European Social Charter and its collective complaints mechanism.
  • Train police officers, labour and immigration officials and basic service providers on the human rights of irregular migrants and victims of trafficking in human beings and exploitative work.
  • Inform irregular migrants about their rights and ensure full and equal access to justice for irregular migrants who are victims of exploitation and other human rights abuses by encouraging them to report this without resulting in their prosecution or expulsion.
  • Enable NGOs and trade unions to defend the basic social rights of irregular migrants, including before courts with the victims’ consent.
  • Ensure irregular migrants’ equal access to victim support and assistance mechanisms adapted to the needs of each individual and that are confidential and free of charge.
  • Never call migrants in an irregular situation “illegal migrants” as this would be inaccurate and harmful as stressed by the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) in its campaign “Words Matter!”, promoting alternative words to this expression in several European languages.

Background documents

  • European Committee of Social Rights, Collective Complaints Decisions on the merits:
    • Conference of European Churches (CEC) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 90/2013
    • European Federation of National Organisations working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 86/2012
    • Defence for Children International (DCI) v. the Netherlands, Complaint No. 47/2008
    • International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) v. France, Complaint No. 14/2003
  • Press Unit, Registry of the European Court of Human Rights: Factsheet on Trafficking in Human Beings
  • Council of Europe Anti-Trafficking Website
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s Resolution 1509 (2006) on human rights of irregular migrants, 27 June 2006
  • Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Recommendation 1985 (2011) Undocumented migrant children in an irregular situation: a real cause for concern, 7 October 2011
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