Temple Law Professor Sarah Katz has been awarded a three-year Fellowship from the prestigious Stoneleigh Foundation. Katz, who teaches and runs Temple’s Family Law Litigation Clinic, will work to promote racial justice in the child protection system. We checked in with Professor Katz to understand more about her work and her goals. 

Q: You don’t mince words. In your Fellowship proposal, you open a discussion of the problem by stating that “the child protection system has a systemic racism problem.” Tell us more about that, especially as it impacts families in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. 

SK: Black and brown children are overrepresented in every aspect of the child protection system nationally, and in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. One significant reason for this is that child neglect is often conflated with poverty; most people don’t realize that at least 85% of the children in foster care are there due to allegations of neglect, not child abuse. Black and brown children are more likely to be reported for suspected child abuse or neglect. Over 50 percent of Black children will experience a child abuse or neglect investigation by their eighteenth birthday (nearly double the rate of white children); nearly 10 percent of Black children will be removed from their parents and placed in foster care (double the rate of white children); and one in 41 Black children will have their parents’ rights legally terminated, severing their connection to their family of origin. In Philadelphia, 65 percent of children involved with dependency court are Black, despite the fact that Black children are only 43 percent of the children in Philadelphia. These numbers represent real children and families, and certain communities throughout Philadelphia and Pennsylvania live with the real and present trauma of family separation or the threat of family separation every day. Scholars, such as Dorothy Roberts, have concluded that this excessive level of intervention in Black and brown families’ lives is by design, with the goal of policing and surveillance of Black and brown families, rather than providing help and support.  This is why I, like many others, now call “child protection” the family policing (or family regulation) system. 

Q: How has your work in the Family Law Litigation Clinic offered insight into these systemic issues for you and your students? 

SK:  Prior to joining the Temple Law faculty, I was a parent defense attorney at Community Legal Services for 8 years, handling dependency cases (civil cases brought by the government alleging child abuse or neglect by children’s parents or caretakers) in Philadelphia Family Court. Although the Family Law Litigation Clinic does not generally handle dependency cases directly, many of the cases we do handle (mostly custody, support, adoption, and protection orders) frequently have some sort of history or active involvement with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Our clients are parents and other caregivers of children, and almost universally they have a deep distrust of DHS – whether they are trying to protect a child from abuse or neglect, or the subject of an abuse or neglect investigation, most of our clients express wariness and doubt about DHS involvement, because of their own lived experiences of interacting with DHS. There is nothing more terrifying for our clients than undergoing an investigation of child abuse or neglect because it is invasive for children and their parents, and carries the potential threat of family separation. Even though only a relatively small percentage of reports which are investigated are found to be true, even the process of being investigated can cause harm to the family. Our clients also have lasting trauma from their experiences of being involved with the family policing system, either as a child, a parent, or both. 

Q: In your proposal, you talk about engaging lawyers and law students in understanding better how lawyers and law teaching have helped to perpetuate the problem, and in grounding legal work in the lived experience of those impacted by the system. Can you explain what those statements mean and why they’re important to this work? 

SK: As a law professor engaged in training the next generation of lawyers who will work both within and against the “child protection” system, at this point in my nearly 20-year legal career, I am passionate about interrogating the ways in which lawyers and law teaching have helped perpetuate the existing system and exploring pedagogical approaches to help law students and the legal profession think critically about this area of law and the role of lawyers within it. Just as Alan Detlaff and other scholars have called for the social work profession to take ownership of their role in perpetuating the harms of the family policing system, so too lawyers need to look critically at their own role. In any context, the work of dismantling systemic racism requires close introspection and action around the ways in which racist impact is embedded into law, policies, and practice. A critical and central component of these efforts is listening deeply to those impacted by the law, policies, and practice, and allowing these individuals to set the vision and action plan for what needs to change. Thus law teaching and advocacy grounded in lived experience disrupts notions of expertise and who knows “best” for children and their families. I believe both law students and practicing lawyers need to listen deeply to those impacted by these systems, not just as “clients” but as lived experts and thought partners in learning the law and engaging in advocacy.   

Q: Tell us about your plans to engage existing advocacy initiatives and work being done by those who have been impacted by the system. 

SK: I am so inspired by the national groundswell of organizing led by individuals with lived experience in the system, namely parents and former foster youth, to draw attention to the significant harm caused by the excessive level of surveillance and intervention in Black and brown communities. And while a tremendous amount of advocacy is occurring nationally, there is more work that can be done to raise the level of engagement of law students and lawyers in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in this work. The fellowship will proceed in three parts. First, I will conduct qualitative research on how lawyers can effectively partner with lived experts in systemic advocacy efforts. Second, from that research, I will develop teaching materials for use by law professors and students, as well as practicing lawyers, which incorporate lived expertise. In the final year of the fellowship, it is my goal to create a new law clinic at Temple Law, focused on advancing racial justice in the family policing system. 

Q: Why are you the right person to undertake this work? 

SK:  As a white cisgender woman, one of the most important things I have learned through other anti-racism efforts with which I have been involved, is the importance of actively listening and creating space for voices which are not mine. This needs to be an ongoing practice, and I don’t always get this right. Yet I do know that despite the privileges of excellent education, training, and experience, the most important things I know about the family policing system come from the experiences of my clients and others with lived experience with the system. Yet these stories are not my stories. I feel a deep obligation to not only bear witness to these stories, but to bolster the voices of these lived experts in ongoing teaching and advocacy. 

Q: What tools do you hope will exist, or be underway, at the end of your Fellowship to help promote racial justice in the child protection system? 

SK:  This senior Stoneleigh fellowship offers an incredible opportunity to amplify and bolster the engagement of our law students and alumni in the ongoing work of anti-racist lawyering in the family policing system. Our law students will learn from the new curricular materials I develop, and by being part of the Clinic I envision. Our alumni will be able to attend continuing legal education programs that will result from my writing and research. It is my hope this work will have a long-lasting impact on the future of the legal profession’s role in the family policing system, and in particular will help reduce the racial footprint of the system on Black and brown families.