Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

February 2022Vol. 23., No. 1Think First, Do No Harm

Written by Associate Commissioner Aysha E. Schomburg 

February is Black History Month and a time when we celebrate the contributions and triumphs of Black people throughout U.S history. It is true that we have made extraordinary contributions not only to this country but to this world. It is also true that we have historically and consistently experienced racism, discrimination, mass incarceration, and oversurveillance. Oversurveillance is a word that we hear a lot in the field of child welfare. Arguably, racism and discrimination lead to oversurveillance—and oversurveillance leads to mass incarceration. In our field, oversurveillance leads to mass family separation. 

Black families in the United States have always been surveilled. Overseers on plantations come to mind.  Their role was not only to protect the property of the slave owner but also to preserve the racial hierarchy of the workforce. Overseers were responsible for watching the enslaved Africans and exacting swift punishment for any behavior deemed punishable. We can think back to the "separate but equal" ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave carte blanche to White folks to have the legal right to keep vigil over Black choices of where to sit, eat, and drink. The "wrong" choice would, at the very least, result in humiliation and could undoubtedly result in beating, incarceration, or even death. More recently, in the 1950s and 1960s, we can consider the government's counterintelligence program, often referred to as COINTELPRO, which was the intentional and purposeful surveillance of Black freedom fighters and other political organizations to disempower Black people and maintain the racial hierarchy.

Now, in 2022, what does surveillance look like? We know our nation has a complicated history of watching, judging, and infringing on the liberties of Black people. Eyes are omnipresent. It may look like someone calling the cops on people barbequing legally in the park, bird watching, or playing our music too loud. For our children—and for Black families impacted by child welfare—it's calling child protection when a family is struggling, instead of leaning in and pledging support to them. If a child is in imminent danger then yes, make that call. However, so many folks make that call, perhaps thinking they are doing the right thing, without even realizing the devastation that one call may cause to a family. Others may make the call because they are implicitly or explicitly biased against Black families and children. They oversee. They police. They over surveil. The data back this up; by some accounts, more than half of all Black children in this country are investigated by child welfare, and Black children are disproportionately investigated and separated from their families. 
This month, while we celebrate the contributions and triumphs of Black people, make a commitment to ending this tragic surveillance and separation of Black families. Call out oversurveillance when you see it. Confront the bungled definition of neglect that answers poverty with carceral solutions. Save Black children from that knock on the door and that tunnel of child welfare, out of which they may never see their way. 
James Baldwin once said, "The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side."" The plight of oversurveillance and mass separation of Black families is ugly.  Think…first, do no harm.