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Family Policing

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Alex Chambers:  It used to be that when the foster system took a child from their biological family, the focus would be on getting them back together. That changed in 1997, when President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act. No longer would the government prioritize uniting children and their parents. On the other hand--

Micol Seigel:  The thing that's just astonishing to me and should be astonishing to everybody is that states can spend whatever they want on adoption assistance.

Alex Chambers:  This week on Inner States, activist, scholar, and adoptive parent herself, Micol Seigel, on the foster care system. We'll talk about why she calls it family policing, how it relates to other carceral systems, and how she thinks about her and our complicity in that system.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. This episode is called Family Policing.

Micol Seigel:  The iceberg is a metaphor that I came up with when I was thinking through some of the other metaphors that people have used to describe the carceral system. Carceral is an adjective that means having to do with prison, but it can then become a noun on its own, the carceral, just as a way to implicate all the pieces of the system.

Micol Seigel:  My name is Micol Seigel. I'm an abolitionist activist. I've been working, lately, with a group called Care Not Cages to fight the expansion of the jail system in Monroe County, Indiana. I also teach at Indiana University, Bloomington, in the American studies and history departments.

Micol Seigel:  Activists for a long time have been talking about the prison-industrial complex, and that's this really useful concept that leans on an earlier concept, the military-industrial complex, which was actually Eisenhower's, white president, Eisenhower's way of talking about the relationship between government and the military. As he was exiting office, he coined this term to critique the ways that he feared that the state was funding the military, investing in the military, causing military investments in the market outside of the state that would perpetuate a kind of militarism, regardless of whether the people and their elected government wanted it. Activists took up this concept to decry it, so effectively that people forget that it was actually coined by a sitting president, and it has evolved.

Micol Seigel:  I think the prison-industrial complex then began to be a really useful concept in the 1990s, and that becomes a term that I think has now eclipsed, probably in public understanding, the military-industrial complex. But since then, people have sort of proliferated this idea, so all kinds of blank industrial complexes are positive and as terms of critique to just show how different systems enmesh themselves in the market and are supported by government.

Micol Seigel:  Then it gets abbreviated, PIC, and then it gets critiqued by the very activists who found it really useful in the first place, for being facile, or overly monolithic, or forgetting its ongoing construction or for giving too much credit to oppressive systems, the state and the market, and not enough to the ability of people to resist it. For all kinds of reasons, it has become subject to critique.

Micol Seigel:  So, from there, then we move onto these other conceptualizations, I think, of the prison system, and one of the earliest is that of Michel Foucault, a French historian, whom I'm sure most academics would prefer to hear less about.

Alex Chambers:  [LAUGHS]

Micol Seigel:  [LAUGHS] But actually, I just taught a little section of Foucault's "Discipline and Punish" in a class I'm teaching up at Plainfield Correctional Facility, with IU students and students from Plainfield, and they absolutely loved it. So, this idea that Foucault is impenetrable or uninteresting, today.

Alex Chambers:  Or just kind of overdone, which I think people maybe in the academy feel, but people who haven't been exposed constantly.

Micol Seigel:  That's right.

Alex Chambers:  We can see it more freshly and think, "Oh, right, this actually does still seem to describe pretty accurately what's going on."

Micol Seigel:  Beautifully, yes. So, the metaphor that Foucault chose was the archipelago, what he called the "carceral archipelago." He started talking about this in relation to the Soviet Gulag. But he wasn't trying to critique the Soviet Union, this was full-on Cold War, 1960s, '70s, '80s, he was talking about France, his own country. We can easily apply this idea of the carceral archipelago to the notion of the prison-industrial complex, or to conceptualize the way that the carceral looks, stands spatially in our moment because it's full of all these little islands that come to the surface, and from far above, they might look as if they were unconnected but they are connected underground. There's some kind of sea ridge that they all connect to, and it's underwater, but it's essential.

Micol Seigel:  Other theorists now much more recently have been talking about not only the carceral but other structures of oppression like racism and racial capitalism with similar metaphors. Two of the most powerful are Christina Sharpe, who talks about "The Wake" and theorizes water, the water behind the slave ship, but also the aftereffects of slavery in the lived experiences of people who are touched by that history and legacy. And Tiffany Lethabo King, who goes back to the water to find the "Black Shoals," these places that are shifting sand, sometimes underwater, sometimes not, trying to find a solid place from which to stand, and sometimes finding it, sometimes falling under and drowning, drowning again, drowning again. She is also responding to the formations of black resistance, anti-black resistance, and to the possible formations of solidarity with Native Americans, with indigenous peoples in the Americas and worldwide.

Micol Seigel:  The histories of the triangle trade and transatlantic slavery and African chattel slavery in the Americas, those histories are absolutely essential to the carceral, to the prison system, to all of the interconnected systems that make up this formation in the contemporary, in the 21st century.

Micol Seigel:  The systems of the carceral are so important to place in relation to each other, to understand in relation to each other. Prisons, obviously, but jails, immigrant detention, E-carceration, that is electronic monitoring and other forms of that kind of incarceration, family policing, which is what I now call foster care. In some of the work that I did up until 2022, I was still saying foster care. Now I've switched decisively over to family policing, it describes the system much better. It sets you up for an abolitionist analysis, and it makes the connection to the other pieces of the carceral system much more easily and quickly.

Micol Seigel:  So, those five, prisons, jails, immigrant detention, E-carceration, family policing, and surveillance, which is a part of all of them but worth naming on its own, now we're out of three dimensions into something like four, or I don't know how many, mathematically, because surveillance crosses all of the x and y axes.

Alex Chambers:  So, that's circling the iceberg, and then there's this one piece of the iceberg that's underneath, which is family policing. Can you talk about the history of that system?

Micol Seigel:  There's a deeper history than I will offer here, but maybe we could just start by remembering that the Progressive Era that turned from the 19th to the 20th century was a period of lawmaking against things like child labor and on behalf of child welfare. There's been plenty of academic attention to the ways that the Progressive Era child welfare laws have fed directly into the ones that subsequently were formed. Then you have a moment of lawmaking around child welfare that's pretty intense in the '60 and '70s. In between those two is the creation of the Social Security Act in the 1930s, in 1930, '35, and the provisions of the Social Security Act are the ones that now govern family policing.

Micol Seigel:  The Social Security Act had some titles added to it in the '60s, '70s, '80s. It continues to be modified today. But that is where now federal funding for family policing comes from. So, in the '60s, child welfare was moved to its own branch of the Social Security Act. In the '80s, adoption assistance was hived off so that the funding for that could be independent. So, the evolution of the Progressive Era child protection legislation has given us a system in which there is an enormous amount of money available to separate children from their families.

Micol Seigel:  The kinds of destruction of bonds of intimacy and kinship that are rooted in chattel slavery in the selling of children away from their parents, and in colonial dispossession, the genocide of Native Americans, the uprooting of people from their lands, the decimation of populations through plague inflicted and forced relocation, and later of the assimilative Indian schools, the so-called boarding schools, those histories then are extended by the Social Security Act and by the 20th century lawmaking around that. So, we have slavery, boarding schools, child welfare services.

Micol Seigel:  These systems, Alex, the way they feed into each other, all of these multiple systems, it's essential to see their slippery and shifting relationships because it prevents you from imagining some evil Big Brother, some Wizard of Oz behind the curtain manipulating the puppets. It's not a puppet master. There is no puppet master.

Alex Chambers:  [LAUGHS]

Micol Seigel:  Crazy mixing metaphors here.

Alex Chambers:  [LAUGHS]

Micol Seigel:  But it's very easy for people to imagine, and a lot of conspiracies are theorized as a result of this because it's so bewildering to see how these histories, legacies, laws, attempts to reform give us this horrific system in the present.

Alex Chambers:  If you're just joining us, we're talking with activist, writer, and teacher Micol Seigel about why she decided foster care should be understood as a form of family policing. It's time for a break. When we come back, Micol explains what took her from studying prisons and policing to family policing. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. I'm talking with activist and scholar Micol Seigel about why child welfare is also a form of family policing. I asked Micol what shifted her attention from prisons and police to the system's effect on families.

Micol Seigel:  I will start with some of the women I met when I was teaching at the Indiana Women's Prison in 2017. So, I've been doing teaching on the inside since 2010 in Indiana, at four different correctional facilities. It just so happened that in 2017, I was at IWP, and I began to meet people who were struggling not to lose their children. I learned from them that there had been a recent change in Indiana law that made it much easier for women who were sent to prison to lose their children, to lose their parental rights, to have their parental rights terminated, that's the legal way to say that.

Micol Seigel:  So, the new law specified that women sentenced to greater than three years in prison would lose their parental rights. The idea there, the good idea about protecting children is that children who float around the foster care system or from caretaker to caretaker for a long period of time are deeply traumatized. And that is true. But the solution that people devised was to yank them out of the system more quickly, facilitating their adoption, and what that does to the natal family is irreversible. And it's devastating.

Micol Seigel:  So, I was noticing these changes in Indiana, and then I was also going through stuff in my own life that had been brewing for a long time. I wanted to be a parent, and a couple of things converged to make me make that happen. For a bunch of reasons, I was not going to do it in the perhaps mainstream way. So, I did, I became a foster parent.

Micol Seigel:  And so then I began to experience the system from this completely other perspective.

Micol Seigel:  And, honestly, I was astonished that I was allowed to become a foster parent. [LAUGHS] I thought that they wouldn't want a single person. They, in Indiana especially, would maybe have regulations against allowing an out lesbian, a queer person, to become a parent. I thought perhaps that I wouldn't be religious enough, or too Jewish, or Jewish but not Jewish enough, as a secular person, that I would be too old. Did I say that already?

Alex Chambers:  No.

Micol Seigel:  That I thought that I would be too old. I was 50.

Micol Seigel:  I might've had issues in an earlier moment when there was less of a need for foster parents, but at the moment that I entered that system, the system was flooded with children and there was such a deep need for foster parents that a lot of the earlier strictures, or preferences, or intolerances had been lifted.

Micol Seigel:  The Indiana family policing, or foster care system, expanded astonishingly in the years 2012 to 2017. The percentage of parents losing their parental rights rose 21% in that period of 2012-2017 and the number of children waiting for adoption, needing to be adopted, rose 80% in that period. So, a 21% rise in parental rights termination created an 80% rise in children needing to be adopted. The number of children in out-of-home care began to rise in 2005 but rose steadily through 2017, with a huge and noticeable uptick after 2014, so that in 2017, the rate of out-of-home care in Indiana was twice the national average. So, Indiana's doing some special things to pull kids out of natal families, to take children from their families of origin.

Micol Seigel:  States around Indiana actually saw the numbers fall. It's not about a rise nationally or regionally. It's about specific things happening in Indiana. But the things that I'm going to talk about now are not specific to Indiana.

Alex Chambers:  Okay.

Micol Seigel:  There's some kind of perfect storm that happened in Indiana, and a couple of other states have some similar numbers. Indiana's not unique, although some analysts of the system as a whole call Indiana a driver of the national numbers around parental rights termination and separation of children from families.

Micol Seigel:  So, the first thing that happens is the rise of the opioid epidemic. We had this huge rise in opioid-related deaths from 2014 to 2017. But it's not an obvious relationship there. You might think, oh, opioids rise, more addiction, more deaths, greater poverty, or people are going to prison. But that's not exactly what happened because, in fact, poverty rates fell in Indiana in this period, and the prison population held steady, but the number of women in prison in Indiana actually fell between 2014 and 2017. So, it can't just be that opioids are causing poverty or incarceration or death and death does not cause necessarily an increase in children in the foster care system, because families with a death can keep their children if there are two parents or if there are kin.

Micol Seigel:  The thing is that Indiana is one of several states that removes children born to addicted mothers at birth. So, if a pregnant person is addicted to opioids and gives birth in a hospital, that person will lose their child. So, in 2016, Indiana was one of 14 states to do that, and I think that has changed. I think, actually, more states now have similar laws, but I don't know the exact number. So, that's a policy choice. Basically, Indiana has decided to take children away from their families as a result of the opioid epidemic, which we should lay at the feet of the pharmaceutical corporations that are behind that. But we don't, we blame the parents, especially the mothers.

Alex Chambers:  Mm-hm.

Micol Seigel:  Along with the lionization of motherhood and maternity, the pedestal, there's the dungeon into which we throw mothers. We blame mothers before we blame anybody else whenever [LAUGHS] there's an opportunity.

Micol Seigel:  So, therefore there's this enormous expansion of the number of kids, who need reunification, they need adoption, whatever it is people might think they need. But there are other pieces of the system that, in the earlier part of this period, closer to 2012 or 2014, are not in place. And one of those pieces is DCS. DCS had budget surpluses in 2009, '10, '11. They gave money back to the feds. They didn't have the kind of capacity to soak up that surplus. There was a surplus of federal funds created by the Social Security Act title for B and E. Those are the provisions of the Social Security Act that pull money in for family unification, foster care, and adoption.

Micol Seigel:  So, here was this surplus of federal funds, and Indiana couldn't absorb it. So, DCS hired. It went on this hiring spree, and it hired over 250 employees in a two-year period in 2011 and '12, and then there was this just glut of DCS agents. I remember in 2017, when I was talking about this with my students, that they told me that there was this enormous expansion of the body of DCS and that that made it possible for DCS to remove so many more children from families.

Micol Seigel:  But then the other piece of this unholy alliance, this unromantic triangle, is foster parents themselves. There were nowhere near enough foster parents to absorb the children and there weren't the equivalent of orphanages, group homes or shelters either. So, there was then this huge push for an expansion of the body of foster parents in Indiana. I don't know entirely how it worked, but I know that one aspect of it was advertising, because you began to see these ads, and I'm sure you've seen them, "Be a foster parent." And there are these beautiful head shots of happy, smiling parents and children who either do or don't look alike.

Micol Seigel:  I also think people were driven to be foster parents because when a child is collected into the system, a relative can't take them unless they are a licensed foster parent. So, a lot of relatives who wanted to care for their children or their siblings' children had to become licensed foster parents. When I was training to be a foster parent, I was often the only, or one of the only, non-kin foster parents in the room, or foster parent hopefuls in the room.

Micol Seigel:  The other way, besides advertising, that the system expanded is through agencies. Agencies proliferated that could produce foster parents or that could run children's shelters. These agencies, or bodies, they are usually private, but they interact with the state in a way that makes them, I think, deeply hybrid. I think you could call them "state market bodies," because they need the state and they need the market. They're neither one nor the other. They're absolutely both. They recognize opportunities, and they set themselves up to be in the flow of federal funds.

Micol Seigel:  Federal funds are there for the taking. States can reimburse. States can get reimbursed for the monies they spend on family reunification, somewhat, and adoption assistance without cap. So, these agencies, that are either mediating between DCS and foster parents in the individual homes or actually setting up shelters, I think, created this enormous capacity in foster care.

Alex Chambers:  We're listening to activist and scholar Micol Seigel describing the relationship between the child welfare system and deep histories of social control. We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. This episode is called Family Policing with Micol Seigel. Micol says foster parents occupy a particular niche in the broader carceral system.

Micol Seigel:  It's a savior niche. This is true regardless of where that is. Foster parents are imagined as selfless, as people who put themselves out for needy children. Then you also have the specter of the perfect, innocent child who is the other discursive engine of this system, of these tropes.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Micol Seigel:  So, foster parents step into the role of the altruistic saver of this needy subject. And being a foster parent is not easy. And now I have met many foster parents, and I've understood their struggles viscerally and personally. So, I have a pretty compassionate understanding of why this self-congratulatory position is so necessary, because the system is devastating for children, and children come out of it with rage and survival strategies that are really hard to deal with, like cruelty and lying and manipulation, self-harm and the exaggeration of sickness, and depression and anxiety, not on the level that parents experience with children who have been with them their whole lives.

Micol Seigel:  Sometimes, when I talk to friends and they say, "Oh, yes, my children have tantrums too." What foster parents experience is unbelievable. But in compensation, I think foster parents do a kind of psychological self-strengthening through these conceits of the altruist, the hero, the savior, and that involves the necessary demonization of birth parents. So, you see just this incredible dumping of really hateful ire onto the backs of natal parents.

Micol Seigel:  I think that it belongs rightly on the system of which we are all a part, but when people tell these stories about natal parents, foster parents, and foster kids, it seems that you must have a demon and you must have a hero. And when people switch that narration around, they never arrive at a structural vision of a group of people all struggling to survive under carceral racial capitalism. Instead, it has to be somehow a story about heroes and villains. So, you either demonize the birth parent and the foster parent is the savior and the child is innocent and needed saving. Or you could demonize the child and say they're a sociopath. Or you can demonize the foster parent, and that definitely happens also.

Alex Chambers:  Right. I think one version of that is that foster parents are in it for the money.

Micol Seigel:  Right. Yes, that's another reason foster parents need this kind of altruistic self-positioning is to combat the accusation that they're doing it for the money.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Micol Seigel:  Yes, that it's a for-profit system.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Micol Seigel:  Which it absolutely is, but that's not the motivation for the system. The system develops its economic incentives as it goes along, and then those financial investments prevent people from getting out of it. The agencies are the primary drivers of that, not individuals.

Alex Chambers:  Right. Which, once again, I think reminds us of the problem with saying an individual family is motivated by money or not by money.

Micol Seigel:  Right.

Alex Chambers:  It's kind of irrelevant to thinking about the bigger picture.

Micol Seigel:  It is relevant, yes. It is akin to the ways that "welfare mothers", quote-unquote welfare mothers, were demonized for having too many children in the 1980s and taking advantage of welfare laws. Foster parents fit into that slot of demon, and that might be the basis for some solidarity between foster parents and birth parents, but it isn't, because a kind of psychological self-separation is needed for foster parents to position themselves in a way that will protect their psyches.

Micol Seigel:  Every once in a while, there will be some horrific foster family that will do something terrible to a foster child, and then that will hit the news, and foster families will once again be the demon in this morality tale. Then lawmakers will change the statutes to somehow try to prevent this particular thing that happened from ever happening again. Each time that happens, it's usually simply an expansion of the regulation, which either limits the capacity of the family policing system to account for the needs of any of the individual people in it or redounds on the shoulders of the poor and the black and brown members of the system, whether they're natal parents, foster parents, or children.

Alex Chambers:  There's also a foster parent lobby.

Micol Seigel:  It's powerful, and it's done a couple of specific things. Based on a lawsuit, it successfully reinstantiated payments to parents who have adopted their children from the foster care system. All foster parents get financial subsidies, based on how traumatized the child in their care is. You get more if your child was more traumatized. [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  Wow.

Micol Seigel:  And after a certain moment, which I think was 2009 in Indiana, there was a funding shift, and Indiana stopped paying subsidies when the child was adopted. So, foster parents were successful in getting those subsidies reinstated and when you adopt, you go through a kind of bargaining with the state to see what your subsidy will be, and they investigate your finances, they look at everything you got going for you, what you need, what the child needs. You have to kind of show yourself financially to the state to be evaluated.

Micol Seigel:  That's one thing that the foster lobby has done. The other is this Foster Parent Bill of Rights, which was successfully passed by a group explicitly calling itself the Foster Parents Rights Group. The legal change that I mentioned to you previously regarding the termination of parental rights from a parent, a mother in particular, who is facing a prison bid longer than three years is a result of that lobbying as well.

Alex Chambers:  So, Foster Parent Bill of Rights are pretty explicitly rights against natal parents?

Micol Seigel:  Yes. The foster parent lobby understands itself often in direct opposition to natal parents. I think there are two modes of that imagination. One is a more abstract one, where foster parents imagine themselves in relation to a body of unknown, demonized natal parents, and that can have a distinctly racist tinge. Then there is the equally devastating separation that people imagine from their biological kin when they're taking their own family's children, because that reflects the struggles within that family over perhaps poverty, addiction, mental health issues, or other incapacities. Sometimes the people who become the foster parents in those situations have been involved in getting the parental rights of those natal parents terminated.

Micol Seigel:  Before I became a parent, I really didn't understand how heavy it was to separate a child from their parents. I think I thought, "Oh, well, there's a period of separation, but if they get to go back, everything's fine." Everything is not fine. I don't know what the parents go through, that's something that I haven't experienced myself, but having watched children go through it, and knowing people who parent children who've gone through it, and seeing the kinds of things that a child takes with them from that period in which they feel abandoned or out of control or unsafe or at fault or stupid and wrong, it is so much damage. And people do recover from it because people are powerful, but, boy, does it take some doing.

Alex Chambers:  I think about it as a parent, and I think once it started to be in the news when kids were being separated at the border, it was really hard to even begin to imagine that. So, I feel like I can think about it on the parents' side also and to think how incredibly devastating it would be for me as an adult, who I think maybe has developed some [LAUGHS] resilience. In theory we can develop those things. And then to have it be even that much more extreme for a kid.

Micol Seigel:  It's different for the parent than the kid.

Alex Chambers:  Yes.

Micol Seigel:  It's not that it's more extreme.

Alex Chambers:  Yes.

Micol Seigel:  It's qualitatively different. Your brain is developing.

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Micol Seigel:  If you have childhood trauma, your brain does not develop in the same way. You lose the ability to concentrate. You lose memory. You lose cognitive function. It affects you for a long time.

Micol Seigel:  I hope people do put themselves in the position of a parent who loses their child. I hope everybody who's a parent listening will do that right now, because there are so many blocks in place that prevent people from imagining themselves as the people who might lose their children. Those are the ideological constrictions of all of the us/thems that structure the way that we think about ourselves. "Oh, well, people who break the law." "Oh, well, immigrants who came here illegally." "Oh, well, those people."

Alex Chambers:  Right.

Micol Seigel:  Whatever the distinction is it prevents people from allowing themselves to imagine but once you allow yourself to imagine, you can't not do something, I hope.

Alex Chambers:  What do you feel moved to do, or what do you hope people feel moved to do?

Micol Seigel:  In New York City, during COVID, the family policing system kind of ground to a halt. It was really interesting. It was a natural abolitionist experiment, because DCS stopped, or the equivalent of DCS in New York City, stopped removing children from their families under allegations of abuse or neglect, because everything stopped during COVID. And guess what did not rise in New York City in those months when there were no removals? Rates of abuse and neglect. They did not rise.

Micol Seigel:  The alibis for the system of family policing are just like the alibis for the prison system. The alibis for the prison system are the rapists and the murderers. "Oh, but what about the rapists and the murderers? We need safety from them. We need protection. We need big Daddy to come and protect us from the big bad wolf." And therefore, we create laws, and then the laws end up being enforced in the ways that we have seen that extend the hierarchies of race and class that we inherit from previous systems of racial discipline, including Jim Crow and African chattel slavery.

Micol Seigel:  For family policing, the alibis are the terrible child abusers and the terrible neglectful people. It's really interesting to notice, if you are a person who talks about these things with your friends, that there are so many grown-ups who are survivors of some pretty awful neglecter abuse who were never removed from their families, because we do not remove people from their families for abuse or neglect, period. We remove people from their families for allegations of abuse and neglect levied against black, brown, and poor and working families. We do not have, except in very rare exceptions, kids in the family policing system from middle-class and wealthy families. They're not there. So recognizing that allows you to see these horrific stories of abuse and neglect, which get trotted out as the basis for lawmaking, as alibis for the system of family policing, which is a policing system.

Micol Seigel:  The family policing system removes children from black and brown and poor and working families as a mode of discipline and as an infliction of sort of gratuitous cruelty, which is a form of racial construction. It is a mode of racialization, to create misery that then works to perpetuate inequalities. Misery is the bottom of the ladder. Immiserating people is to reinforce racial categories. So, it's one of the systems that we should dispense with.

Micol Seigel:  It's one of the systems that we should dispense with by building networks of care that are outside of the state market, not by expanding the systems that are reinforced, that are supported by state violence, but by building systems focused on beloved communities.

Alex Chambers:  Do you have models in mind that you've seen, that you've heard about, read about?

Micol Seigel:  The best models are in places where the state is experienced more as violence and less as care. People take themselves outside of state systems. But the problem is that those are the most resource-poor places, and so they don't look great. They might look like collective care, but they certainly don't look like communal luxury.

Micol Seigel:  There were some models of mutual aid that were reinforced during COVID. COVID did allow for some of these networks of care to flourish, and they are not necessarily visible to mainstream media or independent media, but we know that some of these systems also flourished after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, in favelas and quilombos in Brazil, under neoliberal slum systems in Chile under Pinochet, in the rural United States.

Micol Seigel:  We know that they exist and they have existed, and they rise and fall as different historical conditions allow. But if we were to nourish them more deliberately and highlight them, allow them to be in conversation with each other, inform each other, then we could grow more of them. In the meantime, the state and people who mess with its institutions can help by not expanding the system, by taking money out of the more punishing parts of the system, and in some ways by redistributing the resources that are available to things like education. I'm so wary now. I used to say, redistribute money from the police to care systems, to social workers, but now that I'm thinking about family policing, I can no longer say, redistribute money to social workers, because social workers are so profoundly a part of this policing system.

Micol Seigel:  If you look at the iceberg and you see how the devastations of prison, the incarceration of, say, growing numbers of women is connected to the termination of parental rights and the flooding of family policing systems with foster children needing to be adopted, then you just can't place your hopes in social workers or teachers because we're carceral workers too. Then I add yet another category in which I myself am a part of the system.

Micol Seigel:  Even as I try to be a part of the kind of autonomous networks that I'm telling you about, which I do consciously and in my neighborhood, I am a part of an incredibly brutal, evil system, and I do not want to shrink from that recognition, and I cannot extricate myself from it because I will remain a parent.

Alex Chambers:  Activist and scholar Micol Seigel. Her most recent book is Violence Work: State Power And The Limits Of Police. If you want to learn more about the relationship between child welfare and social control, Micol recommends a number of books. We'll list all her recommendations on our website, but I do want to mention a few here as well. The first, which just came out last year, is Dorothy Roberts' book, Torn Apart: How The Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families -- And How Abolition Can Build A Safer World. The second is Laura Briggs' new book, Taking Children, which argues that the US has been taking children for political ends for 400 years. The last one which I will mention here is also the oldest: Anthony Platt's 1969 book, The Child Savers, that argues that attempts to save children at the turn of the 20th century were really about controlling the lives of working-class adolescents. We'll post links to those books and more on our website.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, one more recommendation. If you want a podcast about the taking of native children, check out This Land, Season Two. It's about how a law meant to keep native children with their families is being challenged in the Supreme Court and how that could have major consequences for tribal sovereignty overall.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at

Alex Chambers:  Have you been listening to Inner States for a while? Is this your first episode? Either way, we want to know what you think. We're doing a survey. Is getting to talk to us not enough motivation on its own? In case a raffle also helps, we will be doing one. A few lucky survey takers will get some classic public radio swag. Follow the link on our website, and while you're at it, tell your friends about the show. We like talking with people, and we hope you do too.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up, but first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Violet Baron, Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Avi Forrest, LuAnn Johnson, Jack Lindner, Yané Sanchez Lopez, Sam Schemenauer, Payton Whaley, and Kayte Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Ramón Monrás-Sender. Special thanks this week to Micol Seigel.

Alex Chambers:  Alright, time for some found sound.

Alex Chambers:  That was an October afternoon in a wetland. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

Micol Seigel

Activist and scholar Micol Seigel (Micol Seigel)

The Prison in 12 Landscapes is a documentary that came out in 2016. It’s a beautiful film. Intimate interviews, lush landscapes, and deep attention to the complexity of people’s lives, from cities to small rural towns. If it wasn’t in the title, it could take a while to realize that its central topic is prisons, and how they shape life far beyond their walls. The prison itself – the sprawling complex of buildings surrounded by fences, razor wire, guards – is just part of the prison system. There are also police and courts. County jails. That’s still just what we can see. Like an iceberg, the system of incarceration has a whole lot more going on under the surface. But that’s what keeps it afloat.

Micol Seigel is an activist, scholar, and teacher who’s been studying this carceral system for a long time. Her most recent book, Violence Work, looks at how police and policing are a primary vector of violence enforced and enacted by the state – which is to say, governments. But lately she’s been focused on another part of this carceral iceberg. One that is maybe less obviously part of the same system. That’s the foster care system. That might come as a bit of a surprise. We think of foster parents as maybe the holiest of parents, doing that hard work of taking in kids they’ve never met before, who desperately need a place to go. A home.

But there’s a larger system at play. On this week’s Inner States, Micol describes how the foster system, and the Department of Child Services that helps run it, is also totally intertwined with the broader system of policing in this country. That doesn’t mean Micol is saying all foster parents are bad people. Just that they – and really, all of us – are part of a bigger carceral system that separates people from their communities, their families, and, sometimes, children from their parents. As a foster and adoptive parent herself, Micol has become deeply familiar with this system.


Further Reading

Micol referenced many books during our conversation. Some made it into the published episode, some didn't. This is a complete list, plus a podcast recommendation of my own.

Laura Briggs, Taking Children: A History of American Terror (2021)

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975)

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007)

Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (2019)

Tony Platt, The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (1969)

Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (2022)

Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016)

This Land (podcast), Season 2: The Crooked Media series, hosted by Native journalist Rebecca Nagle, looks into how the far right is using Native children, via a critical adoption dispute in Texas, to destroy American Indian tribes from within.



Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music and Ramón Monrás-Sender.


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