KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Reimagining Foster Care

Reimagining Foster Care

Season 1, Episode 11
A square image. It is a somewhat abstract Illustration in warm, bright colors of a blue and white landscape with flecks of orange. The landscape itself is undulating in about 4 waves descending from the top right to bottom left corners of the image. The sun is partially visible on the top left and the sky is blue. White, cursive lettering spells out “Shake the Dust” across the ground.

[Content warning for discussions of physical and sexual abuse] This week, the team is talking about foster care, how child protective cases work, the racism and other problems in the system, misconceptions Christians have about that system, and how we can reimagine a better way of reducing harm to families by taking seriously the perspective of affected parents. Since Sy worked in family court as a public defender, he is effectively our guest today. He gives us some insight into a small but growing movement to transform the way we think about child and family safety, a perspective many Christians need but do not hear.  

Resources mentioned during the episode: 

Additional resources: 

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter. Find transcripts of this show, sign up for our free mailing list, and subscribe to our blog at KTFPress.com


Jonathan Walton – follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.     

Suzie Lahoud – follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.  

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.  

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.  

Shake the Dust is produced and edited by Sy Hoekstra, and transcribed by Suzie Lahoud with help from Descript

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


Sy Hoekstra: You know, you ask me why do I defend people who have done terrible things? So, you know, I've already talked about how most of the people involved in the system are not doing that, but there are those cases. And I did represent people who did those things. And it’s because Jesus does that, and that's what he did on the cross for everyone. For everyone, no matter how bad the thing was that they did, he stands up and defends you as someone who has dignity, and someone who is worth fighting for. That doesn't preclude there being consequences for something that somebody did wrong. But what it does mean is that the question, I think, from the perspective of someone who has been formed by scripture and formed by Jesus should not even enter your mind.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]   

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake the Dust, leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God, a podcast of KTF Press. My name is Jonathan Walton. I'm here with Suzie Lahoud and Sy Hoekstra.

Today, our guest is actually Sy. We're going to be having a conversation about the foster care system, how it interacts with systems of oppression and violence, and what Jesus has to say about it, and how we can enter into good work with him.

So Sy, can you tell us a little bit about the foster care system and how you got involved?

Sy Hoekstra: Oh, why thank you, Jonathan. Yes, I can. [Jonathan chuckles] So I was a public defender in the child welfare system for a couple of years. So what that means is, when a case is brought against a parent for neglect or abuse, there are a few different attorneys involved in any given court case. It's a little bit chaotic sometimes. But there's the attorney who is for the government. There's the attorney who represents the children; sometimes multiple attorneys for the children. And then there are the attorneys who are actually defending the parents. So you are, you know, a public defender kind of in the same way that, you know, you have public defenders in criminal court except, the big asterisk is that it's not a constitutional right and it's not provided in necessarily the same way that public defenders are provided in criminal court.

So, like in New York, you have these kind of newer, innovative organizations. The one that I worked for was called the Center for Family Representation. It was the first one in the country, actually, to be like an institutional provider of public defense and, meaning an organization where all the attorneys are there being assigned to whatever cases come in, sharing knowledge, sharing expertise. There are now four of them in New York City, and then there are like a few more around the country.

But the norm is that you just get assigned an attorney by somebody from a panel. So it's just someone who the court is paying by the hour. They typically have way too many cases. And a lot of places, they are not experts in family law. Like they also do all kinds of other family court and criminal court cases. And in general, they are not people who are there to kind of fight to change the system a lot. There are obviously some good ones who I've interacted with plenty of myself, but many of them, just frankly, are not very good attorneys.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, so as you're painting that picture, I think theoretically, we have an image of what the foster care system might look like: children are in trouble. Foster care happens so that people are liberated from imminent threats of danger, right. But like, for the majority of us who will never interact with the foster care system, what does that actually look like?

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. So, I mean, that's a good point, right. I think the system is one that people just have a lot of faith in, right. That people just want to think that the government is keeping children safe. That's what CPS does. And we just don't need to think about it that much. The problem is, the reason that you don't have to think about it that much is because it doesn't interact with you if you have any amount of money or if you're white, right.

The vast majority, like it's hugely disproportionate, it’s not the majority, but it’s hugely disproportionately affecting people who are Black and indigenous and then overwhelmingly people who are poor. Like nobody of any means has any real interaction with the system. I mean, it occasionally happens when there are like instances of flagrant, massive child abuse in, you know, some rich person's home, but that is definitely not the norm.

So like I said, if you go to family court and you look at the cases that are coming in, they are overwhelmingly poor people. They're way disproportionately Black and indigenous people, and some other people of color as well, but the brunt of the disproportionality is on Black and indigenous families.

Also, the vast majority of cases are for neglect, not abuse. So, by the way, before we continue, I should probably put like a big old content warning on this episode, because we're going to be talking about, obviously, child abuse and domestic violence and other things will come up. So the vast majority of cases are not for serious physical or sexual abuse of children. They are for neglect. And neglect covers a whole, whole wide range of issues, most of which are just related to stressors of being poor. Which is why rich people don't get involved in the system, right. Because they literally just aren't facing the same things. They aren't facing the things that the state is going to interpret as neglect and accuse you of that.

So some examples, lots of people end up having cases because they don't have enough food in their houses, because they don't have stable housing, because their houses are dirty- they don't have time to clean them, literally. I mean, they, you know, it can't just be like there's some dust around, it has to be a little bit more intense than that. But those are some of the issues that people get cases for. Or you can get cases for things that are related to poverty, right. So you have mental health that the state says is putting your child at risk. You have some mental health condition that's putting the child at risk and you're not seeking treatment for it sufficiently. That's a cause of action for neglect. You can be a drug user, right. There are all kinds of things that are, may or may not be actually harming your child in any way, but the state will say they're putting your child at risk of harm and that in and of itself constitutes neglect.

Also, there's a lot of cultural misinterpretation that goes into these cases, right. And just kind of standards of middle-class, white child-rearing, right. So you heard a lot of those things, that there's not enough food; there's not enough, you know, there's not stable housing; that sort of thing. And then the answer- instead of being like, “We'll give the family money for food” or “Give the family stable housing,” right- the answer is often, “You just need a bunch of monitoring from the child welfare system.” And in a lot of cases, “You actually need to have your child taken away and put in a home that has food.” Which is way more expensive, by the way, than just buying a family food. So why I say that that's kind of a white, middle-class way of dealing with it is, you know, “We're going to put these children into environments that we're used to that make us comfortable” instead of allowing the families that are, that exist, to remain intact and provide them with the support that they need.

Then the other, like kind of big-header problems with the system is that it's way overtaxed and underfunded. Meaning every actor at every point in the system, including me, including the public defenders- all the lawyers, all the judges, all the caseworkers- are really, like really burdened with too much work. And so everybody kind of is like cynical or jaded or burns out or whatever. So, for example, when I was working, you know, I typically had 60 or 65 open cases at once as an attorney. You know, a lot of the caseworkers in New York City will be dealing with 10 to 15- or even more in some of the areas like the South Bronx that they really surveil really hard- at a given time, which is too many for them, for anyone to handle competently.

Suzie Lahoud: Wait, can I just, can I just pause you for a second, Sy, to emphasize that point. So not only does this system, not just penalize families who are living in poverty, but there are actual neighborhoods that are more closely surveilled by the system. So they're actively targeting these communities kind of almost just waiting for these things to happen.

Sy Hoekstra: Well, the reason… Yes, they are. But the reason is that they have made so many of the people who are involved in the lives of poor people mandatory reporters. Anybody who, anybody who works at a school, doctor, hospital, all those people are mandatory reporters, in anyone's life. But anyone who works in public housing, like everybody, everybody who is employed by the New York City Housing Authority is a mandatory reporter. I think that's right, at least the people who interact with families. I don't know about like random desk workers. Everybody at your school. You know, the cops are in your neighborhood at a higher rate, right. They are also obviously mandatory reporters. They work very closely with ACS, which is the child protective organization in New York City. So it just ends up being that so many people in your lives are reporters. Social workers, right. Social workers are all over the lives of poor people- all mandatory reporters.

Suzie Lahoud: So it's a higher percentage of folks who work in the public sector.

Sy Hoekstra: Who specifically work in the bureaucracies that deal with poor people, right. Like that's what it is. All the welfare agencies, right, like they're mandatory reporters. Like it's just, it's everywhere. So what that means is you get a higher number of cases. There are very, very few people watching the families on the Upper East Side, right. There are no cops in those schools. There are no, you know, all that kind of stuff.

So anyways, and by the way, the judges too have way too many cases. They're like constantly delaying things, constantly putting things off, you know. And again, a lot of people in the system are very well-intended. They want to help people. And they just can't because they have too much work to do. And you have too many, you have to be constantly triaging, like what cases you're giving attention to and why. And what that often means is, you're just dealing with emergencies all the time.

Suzie Lahoud: So Sy, just to get a little bit more into the nitty-gritty of how this system tends to flesh itself out in the lives of individuals, you shared from your side what it looks like as a public defender working in the system. Could you walk us through a little bit what an investigation and a case would look like and feel like from the perspective of a parent?

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Somebody files a report on you for some reason. You don't know who. You don't know what they said. There's a state central registry in New York. There's similar things all over the country, but somebody reports to the child abuse hotline or whatever your state has set up, that you have done something that they believe is neglect or abuse.

And then basically, as long as that report isn't kind of, prima facie, so ridiculous that no one would believe it, they go and investigate it. And that means that a CPS worker shows up and knocks on your door, and they're going to come in, and they're going to start asking you questions about everything. Like every, not just what they, whatever the report was, it doesn't matter. A school could have called in a report saying your kid has been absent from school too many days without an excuse. The CPS worker is going to walk in and start asking about whether or not you do drugs, or have domestic violence, or you have any mental health issues, or you hit your children. They are going to, this is true in New York City, they are going to strip search your child. If a school calls in a report for your kid not being in school, they will strip search your child to make sure that there are no bruises or marks. Whatever the report is. That's what happens every single time.

And this is true even if the report sometimes is completely absurd. Like I heard a story one time of a woman who was actually an attorney for children and a parent had gotten mad at her for taking a position opposite to the parent and the parent called ACS on her, like as a revenge call. And this caseworker just kept showing up at this woman's house, who had all these connections in ACS, she knows everybody to call, all that stuff. And this person just kept showing up and asking to strip search her kid. And she, like, I saw her at an event crying as she told everyone that she let the person do that because she just wanted to get it over with and get these people out of her life and stop harassing her.

Now there, when they ask you all those questions about all the different ways that you could potentially be harming your child, they do it by saying, “I'm here, I'm on your side. I'm your friend. We're here to help. We're just here to refer you, to provide services, so I'm just going to ask you some questions,” and then they start asking you about all these issues. And a lot of times what happens is, they then use anything you said as an admission against you in court. And they, you know, so then like a couple days later, a parent realizes that they've had a case filed against them and they get a petition and it's just all the stuff they said to the caseworker.

Suzie Lahoud: So are they, sorry, just to pause you again, are they read their Miranda rights before this conversation takes place?

Sy Hoekstra: No. And this is part of the thing is, you can shut the door on a CPS worker and never talk to them.

Suzie Lahoud: But do most folks know that?

Sy Hoekstra: No. And they're actually, in New York City right now, there is a bill that’s bouncing around City Council, trying to get like, basically Miranda rights, read to parents when caseworkers walk in. And ACS is actively resisting it saying that would lead to child endangerment- “We would not be able to do our jobs, and as a result, children would get hurt if parents knew their rights.” Like literally, that's what they're out there actually saying- “If the, you know, poor Black and brown people that we monitor knew their rights, we wouldn't be able to do our job.”

So once they file that case against you that has all those things that you said to them thinking that they were on your side or whatever, then a lot of parents come into court completely betrayed, right. The case gets filed saying, “Here's all the neglect provisions,” and either “We want to take the child away from the family temporarily,” or “We want to monitor the family, keep the children in the home, but monitor the family.” And then basically the parents at that point, most of them at least, feel completely betrayed. Like they have no, they have no faith in the system anymore, right. They have no trust in the people that they have to work with. And the people who went in and did the interview and filed the case against them, like that's the worker that they're going to have to continue working with. I mean, it is rare for a case to open and close within a year, because it takes so long for the case to be adjudicated or for ACS to get its act together and start putting in place the services that they want the parent to do.

So that's kind of the next step is the parents then, you know, ACS will decide, usually in a very cookie-cutter way, what the services are that they want the parents to engage in as a result of whatever the alleged neglect is. And the parent at that point, you know, nothing's been ordered by the court because no neglect has been proven, but the overwhelming incentive is to just do whatever services ACS wants you to do, even if you did not harm your child in any way, even if the allegations are untrue, right. Just because it will get you out of your case faster, it will get them out of your life faster. So it's just incredible, manipulative power that they wield.

You know, you proceed to a trial at some point where you, there's no jury, there's no reasonable doubt standard. It's just preponderance of the evidence, which means it's more likely than not, which basically means in almost any case, a judge can find some factors, something to say, “I interpret what I heard this way, and I make the finding…” You know, same as in criminal justice, a lot of the judges are former prosecutors, either of families or of children. A lot of them are, you know, prosecutors from the juvenile prosecution side of family court.

So, I mean, as you can imagine, the whole process is just overwhelming and bewildering to parents because they love their children. They want to take good care of their children. In some cases, they screwed up and did something wrong. In some cases, they did not at all. I mean, I'd say in the majority of my cases, they didn't actually do anything wrong, like really ethically wrong, to their children. They just have some struggles that they're dealing with. And the weird way that the system works is that they bring this adversarial case against you, and they try and get you to do services that way. Like they try and get you, they try and force you to do it in an adversarial process instead of in any sort of supportive way, or in a way that breeds, you know, kind of trust and confidence on behalf of the family.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah, well and it sounds like the way that parents potentially, and I realize it was unfair of me to ask you to describe how it feels to a parent. Obviously you haven't, you know, as a parent experienced this process, but that is still helpful to give a picture of what the process is like from the parents’ side. And it sounds like the atmosphere, psychologically, the way that a parent would experience it, doesn't feel like a situation where you're innocent until proven guilty. It sounds like the opposite. Like you come in and the assumption is that you've done something wrong and an action needs to be taken because of that.

Sy Hoekstra: No, right. Exactly. There's definitely, in theory, there's still a presumption of innocence or whatever, but in the meantime, your child is in foster care. So in addition to treating you as guilty from the start, basically, the system is also incredibly arbitrary, right. The legal standards are really vague for what constitutes neglect or for what constitutes, you know, sufficient circumstances for the government to be able to put your child in foster care.

And that kind of vagueness and that arbitrariness happens at every stage, right. So who's going to decide, who of those mandatory reporters is going to decide that they are required to report you. Some people will, some people won't, for the exact same behavior by the parents and the exact same thing that a kid said to them about what a parent did at home. You know, who's going to choose to file a case against you versus just closing your case. Who's going to choose to, like the, first of all, the social worker makes that decision and they bring it to the attorneys. Which attorneys are going to accept those cases. I mean, it was wild, when I was in Manhattan family court, there were just, you know, some attorneys that you knew were ones who were really filing happy, who loved to file cases, and some who really didn't, and would send workers away for stuff that was a waste of their time.

It can be very arbitrary in terms of the judges that you get, like who is going to be overseeing your case and what kinds of accusations they find to be most troubling. You know, literally, just some judges would think of some kinds of cases as more important than others. And you would have to counsel your clients based on that, should we go to trial or should we take the settlement or whatever, based on what you know about the judge and how much they, I don’t know, look down on parents that have allegedly committed “X” kind of neglect.

And so all of that arbitrariness invites in, as any sort of arbitrariness or vagueness in the law does, invites in all of people's personal prejudices, right. And so all of the anti-Blackness, all of the assumption of guilt that gets put on people who are involved in the system, all of that comes in just at every stage, and it produces these incredibly disproportionate numbers of families who are involved in the system who are not white. Like the four big defense agencies in New York City, 90% of their clients are not white. In New York City, right. And they're like, and they are taking, you know, the vast majority of the cases that come in. It's not going to touch you if you are a white person with any amount of money.

Jonathan Walton: So Sy, as I'm listening to you share, a lot of what is coming up for me is the similar narratives I've heard about the war on drugs, law and order policing. Can you share a little bit about those connections and where you see overlap?

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah, so there is a ton of overlap between the law and order and the war on drugs history. So child welfare, in general, did not become anywhere near as punitive as it is today until Black people got involved in it; until it became something that oversaw Black people on a large scale. And that happened in the sixties because there was, along with the civil rights movement, there was a huge welfare rights movement where, especially a lot of Black women, organized to get Black people involved in welfare. Most aid for children was going to single white families, especially widows. Like that was kind of the archetype in the minds of the people creating the laws was, you know, white widows, poor women who had to deal with their children without their breadwinner around anymore.

And so when Black women very successfully organized in the sixties to say, “No, our families need to also be supported by the state. This can't be something discriminatory,” then, over the next couple of decades, is when you see the system become really punitive, when you see foster care expand enormously. So it's all, it is literally like, a parallel to mass incarceration is the expansion of foster care after the movement to end Jim Crow, right. So it is another kind of way of surveilling and controlling people and keeping them down that happens at that time. So the overwhelming pushback against reforms, kind of like in the mass incarceration situation, was also the crack epidemic, right. So it was all in the seventies and eighties. There were, I mean, in the early nineties, there were 46,000 children in foster care in New York City alone, right. Today it's like eight or nine. So that whole panic accompanied the expansion of foster care in the seventies and eighties.

The main difference is that the foster care system affects women, right. So, you know, the mass incarceration system overwhelmingly affects men. And so then, another way that those kinds of systems interact with each other is that the criminal justice system is also, you know, surveilling the same populations at the same time, and it's putting all of these things on people's records- arrests, or prosecutions, or convictions, or whatever- that then actually prevent people from being involved in the care of their family’s kids who are in foster care. So, meaning the system is not going to license you as a foster parent, or the ACS is not going to want to give you, if you are like the aunt or the uncle or the grandparents or whoever, the children if you have an arrest record, right. It's like kind of a lesser talked about collateral consequence of the over-criminalization of communities of color. So what that looks like is you will have like a whole network of people who want to take care of this child, but aren't allowed to by the state and they take them instead and put them with strangers. Which, by the way, is what happened to Ma’Khia Bryant. Like she had lots of family around, but she was in foster care anyways. And it was, part of it was because her grandmother couldn't get stable housing.

Suzie Lahoud: Which is also just bad policy because you're not addressing the root problem.

Sy Hoekstra: Not addressing root problems and causing massive trauma, right. Like removal from any family is traumatic. Like, period. It does not matter. Even if the family was actually abusive in some way- which again, most of the times they're not- then like, just being taken from your home, being taken from your stability, being taken from your family is wildly traumatic to kids. And in theory, judges are supposed to consider that when they take kids away. But in reality, if you can demonstrate to the satisfaction of a court that there is sort of imminent risk to a child's health or safety, they're going to be taken away. And just for people who don't know, Ma’Khia Bryant was the foster child in Ohio who was killed by police a couple of months ago, but I wrote about it for Red Letter Christians, and we'll link to that in the show notes, I guess.

Suzie Lahoud: So Sy, just to transition a little bit, obviously the tagline of our show is “leaving colonized faith for the Kingdom of God.” And so you've exposed a lot of racial prejudice, and prejudice against low-income families struggling with poverty, and ugliness in the child welfare system. So could you just talk us through generally, how have Christians tended to interact with the system, engage with the system? What's the general narrative in, particularly, you know, white evangelical churches?

Sy Hoekstra: I, you know what, it's interestingly actually not just white evangelical churches that do what I'm about to talk about. So a lot of, first of all, in a lot of places, the way that foster care works is, there are all these nonprofits that take government contracts to, you know, recruit and license foster parents, to put kids in homes, to monitor the homes, just to kind of administer the system on behalf of the government. And the government kind of oversees all that. A lot of those nonprofits are Christian organizations. So the interaction has been very unquestioning. And it's come from a very good place, right. It's this Christian desire to take care of children who need to be taken care of. Who could possibly argue with that, right?

But what they're actually participating in, as part of a broader system, is not, in general, something that those organizations are very intent on looking at or critiquing because they are part of the system. They're the ones actually administering this system of racial disparity and what ends up looking like oppression for a lot of families. And then there are a lot of Christians who are foster parents and, you know, again, incredibly laudable goals and the church lionizes, generally, foster parents for what they do. And I'm not saying that foster parents are bad people who do bad things, but I'm saying they're participating in a system that they, I think, need to be more educated about and need to be more educated about from, not the foster care agencies, not from the system itself, but from the actual parents who are involved in it. And, you know, a lot of foster parents, unfortunately, in my experience, and this is dealing with, you know, hundreds of foster parents, buy into the narrative of the system. That basically the parents are the enemies of the children, and they need to be reformed and kind of brought up to snuff, and that's sort of just how it goes.

And so they, as foster parents, are doing, you know, what sort of must be good work. And, a lot of times, because I take care of “X” amount of children, or I know someone who takes care of “X” amount of children and they do a great job, that means foster care is a great thing, I think is like a lot of how I've encountered talking to Christians about these issues.

When, you know, in reality, kids in foster care experience physical and sexual abuse at way higher rates than in the general population. Lots of foster parents are actually doing it for the money. And there are a lot of foster parents who say, “Well, I don't get that much money.” You're right. You don't. But there's a lot of people who, that's one of their sources of income and they treat the children terribly. Like I see this all the time. I've had kids taken out of foster homes because the parents were, you know, passed out drunk and the house caught on fire. I mean, you know, awful, awful things happen to kids in foster care. And a lot of times those things are a lot worse than anything that would have happened to them if they had stayed at home.

Suzie Lahoud: Or even been allowed to go to an extended family member, like you talked about earlier.

Sy Hoekstra: Right. Yes, exactly. And there's just this, you know, buying into that narrative that the parents are the danger, the families are the danger. And kind of, I don't know, weirdly ignoring the fact that a lot of times, teachers can be dangerous to kids. Camp counselors. You know, coaches. Family members who don't live in the home. Lots of people who are not in your home can be a danger to a child. And your parents can be the safe, loving place where you are protected and you are, you know, things are well.

But that's just not the narrative of the child welfare system for the families that they deal with, right. And the stories that the child welfare system tells, implicitly, are all about poor families, are all about BIPOC families, because that's who they're actually dealing with, right. They don't put it in those terms. Of course they don't. But those are the people that they're actually monitoring and surveilling. So that's who they're talking about.

Suzie Lahoud: Not only the stories, I've noticed in, from my limited interaction, I feel like a lot of the promotional content, if you look at it, a lot of times it's families of color, children of color, being placed in white homes. And that's kind of the, like that's the ideal picture that you want to paint.  

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. And so a lot of Christians, by the way, get into that system to adopt children, right. Like people come in and they say that they want to foster in order to adopt a child because that's, you know, adoption is obviously a great thing to do for a child who needs a family. But the fact is that a lot of kids who are in foster care have a family who loves them and who can actually take care of them. And you're participating in the system, and the purpose of the system of foster care is reunification of families. Like at least in theory, right. That's what the law says- that the system is supposed to be about reunifying parents and children after you kind of ameliorate whatever the problem is in the home. So saying you're going to foster to adopt is basically saying, “I'm walking in there to undermine the purpose of the system.” And there are some exceptions where you can participate in foster care programs where, you know, it's for children who legitimately have nowhere to go. But those are tiny, tiny minorities of the actual number of children in the foster care system.

And another kind of strange thing that a lot of Christians seem to think about foster care that I've noticed as I talk to parents about it, is that it has something to do with being pro-life. That like fostering children presents, or has some effect on, abortion, which is…

Suzie Lahoud: The two don't correlate.

Sy Hoekstra: They don't correlate. And I say this, the reason I’m saying this hesitantly is because there are some people who foster children because they are pro-life and they believe that they're helping. And those children were taken away from their families involuntarily. And there, you know, obviously, if you're someone who wants to adopt children, you have the option to voluntarily place your child in foster care. But, you know, most people would rather pick a private adoption agency so they can actually have full control over where their kid goes.

You know, when you're in, like the system itself, the foster care system is charged in every single state by the legislature with caring for kids who don’t have a family. So if you are someone who wants to put your child in foster care instead of having an abortion, you can do that, regardless of how many people are available to adopt the kid. You may be creating a home for a child, but you're not really having any effect at the point of the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. And I just bring that up because that's a specific way that Christians seem to think about foster care that does not really make a lot of sense, unfortunately.

Jonathan Walton: So Sy, keeping kind of this theme of it being, what you're talking about, the foster care system being interconnected with how we think about the poor, how we think about the unemployed, how we think about those caught up in the criminal justice system; one question that comes up is, how could you defend those people? What's your response when a question like that comes up?

Sy Hoekstra: So, yeah, I get this question a lot, especially when I was, you know, when I was still doing the job, is sort of, how can you do that? Like people who are neglecting or abusing children, like those are, basically, the worst people, right. So, you know, I've already talked about how, actually, most of the people involved in the system are not doing that, but there are those cases. You do actually get cases of severe physical and sexual abuse of children. And I did represent people who did those things; not just who were accused of doing those things, but who openly admitted in court that they did those things and where there was no real question. There was evidence about it and everything. I say that, because you can sometimes admit you did something in court for reasons other than you actually did that thing.

So I think there's a practical answer to why I did that, and then there's kind of a spiritual answer to why I did that. The practical answer is that just because somebody has done something wrong, doesn't mean they don't have- even something horribly wrong- doesn't mean that they don't have rights and dignity that need to be protected. Let's say you do admit to sexually abusing a child. You then, after that, they then have to decide what to do with you, right. What kind of programs you're going to go through. What kind of contact you're going to have with your children. What kind of opportunity, if any, you're going to have to reunite with your child at some time.

And there are rights involved in that. There are procedures involved in that. There are rules about evidence that are involved in that. There are all kinds of things that the government; and the attorney for the child; and, if I'm being perfectly honest, the judge are going to be perfectly happy to overlook once it has been proven that somebody did something really bad, right. The same way that it is- you see this all over the criminal justice system- everybody knows somebody’s been accused of murder, somebody's been convicted of murder, and then there are all these procedural or terrible errors or whatever that happened over the course of their case that come out later. Because, basically, once people had decided that they did it, they decided they were a bad person and they trampled all over their rights and they ended up in jail for way longer than they needed to be. Or they were falsely convicted of a crime or whatever. All those things happen and those people need, still need a defense.

And Christians, I think, should be some of the first people to do that because we are, in theory, supposed to be the least judgmental people. Like that's what we're called to be. We're called to be people, you know, like Bryan Stevenson says- Bryan Stevenson's a capital defense attorney. He was one of my professors at NYU in law school. And he's always saying, you know, “People are not the worst thing they’ve ever done.” And that is a biblical truth. People are not the worst thing they've ever done. They've been forgiven. And that's kind of the spiritual side of it, right. You know, you ask me, why do I defend these people who have done terrible things? And it’s because Jesus does that. It’s because the person who I claim that I'm following; that I claim that I'm worshiping; you know, whose disciple I say that I am; that's what he does. That's what he did on the cross for everyone. For everyone, no matter how bad the thing was that they did, he stands up and defends you as someone who has dignity and someone who is worth fighting for. You know, and that doesn't preclude there being consequences for something that somebody did wrong. But what it does mean, is that the question, I think, from the perspective of someone who has been formed by scripture and formed by Jesus, should not even enter your mind. Like, it should be something that we just understand is what we do as Christians, because it's what our King does.

Suzie Lahoud: I feel like too, Sy, it's important to add that, and I'll certainly let you speak to this from your experience, but also the, you know, the obvious sort of theological piece of solidarity with the oppressed. You mentioned a lot of the families that get dragged into these courts, a lot of the parents weren't even guilty of the things that they're accused of; or it was grossly exaggerated; or they were first themselves victims of systemic racism, systemic oppression, and injustice. I mean, I think the spiritual truths you spoke were so powerful and important, but I think also for our listeners to just have that perspective that also, there are parents who are having their kids taken away, who didn't necessarily even do anything.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. And I think actually to put some kind of practical flesh on the bones of that good point is that, you know, I talk in the Ma’Khia Bryant piece that I wrote about how the system sees the world in terms of perpetrator and victim. But like you said, a lot of people who are accused of being perpetrators were victims. And actually, the organization that I worked for, the Center for Family Representation, that organization was started by two attorneys who were, for a long time, attorneys for the children. And they just got sick of seeing their clients, the kids- who were seen as, you know, these angels in need of protection, when they were kids- grow up, get pregnant, have a child, and then become the defendant. And the whole system just flips on them, right. And then they're the bad guys, and their kids are the angels. And then their kids grow up, and then their kids are the bad guys, and, you know. And so you start to see like that aspect of it as an indicator of the fact that the actual purpose of the system is not really child protection. It's surveillance and control.

And so I think that's, I don't know, that's just one of the reasons that the things that you just said, Suzie, are practically important to people. They're not just principles, right. What the parents and the children involved in the system, more than anything else, need is for people to be involved in whatever system there is- and I'm not a big fan of the one that exists- but, to see them as full humans who are not just in a category of someone who is good or someone who is bad.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. Yeah. Cause it sounds like what you're describing and have been describing over the course of this conversation, Sy, is not only a severe lack of empathy for the parents, but almost an erasure of them as human beings. Just a complete dehumanization that they are monsters and they are completely effaced from the story.

Sy Hoekstra: The eraser of their individual identities actually even infiltrates the language that people use on a regular basis in the court. So like, all the time, you hear judges and caseworkers and attorneys, whoever, not even saying people's names. They just say like, “mom,” “dad,” “child.” They'll refer to someone, like a kid who was abused, as “target child.” Like they just, it's like the kids themselves, like the language in New York that you use that you're not even supposed to use, it's just the system. So it's not in the statute, it's just the way that the judges talk.

Suzie Lahoud: It's the culture that's developed around it.

Sy Hoekstra: Right. But like children are “remanded” to foster care. Like the same way that a criminal defendant is remanded to prison. And then children are “paroled” to their parents. Like they literally use, it's not even, it's literally not in the statutes. It's just that the, you know, when you're in family court, it's the same place that juvenile detention and, you know, juvenile delinquency cases happen. So you just use the language. The culture of criminalization is all around you all the time.

Suzie Lahoud: Gosh. Wow. And just to start to kind of wrap this conversation up, not that I want it to end, although I have to say, this has been a tough one. It's tough for me to listen to as a parent. It's tough for me to listen to as someone that previously part of my work with refugee populations was child protection and having an awareness of that. And I think this critique that you bring, this perspective you bring, is so important, Sy, and I'm so grateful for it. And so I want to give you an opportunity to share- just so people really understand what it is that you're really bringing to light here- first of all, what are you not saying? Because I want people to understand, you're not saying that you don't want children to be protected; that, you know, you don't want them to be in abusive situations or, sorry, you're not saying that you do want them to be in abusive situations. And I feel like that, hopefully people are hearing that part of the argument here is that this is not good for the kids either. These kids are being victimized and traumatized through this system. So if I could just give you the opportunity, Sy, to clarify again, what are you not saying here? And then, leading off of that, what should people do to engage in a more, not just productive way; how can we find shalom in this space that is so ugly and broken and violent?

Sy Hoekstra: I appreciate the question. It's always worth clarifying that I'm not saying that children who are abused, you know, don't need to be taken care of. We don't need to do anything about it. What I am saying is, we need to drastically reimagine how we do it. And Christians need to be involved in that reimagination because the current system is ridiculous and harmful and racist and oppressive.

What I'm arguing against is unnecessary destruction of families. Because that's what's happening, all over the place, all the time- unnecessary trauma, unnecessary pain. So I think, what I want Christians to do, I want Christians to be involved, but I want us to be living out our faith faithfully in the situation. So I want us to be educated on the system itself. A really good- if you want to like dive real deep- a really good book is called, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts. I just barely dipped my toe in the history of child welfare and how it's related to racism and mass incarceration and all of that. She goes into it in a lot of detail. Dorothy Roberts is fantastic. You can, there are organizations that you can follow, but the issue is, the movement to really radically change the system is pretty young, is pretty small, is pretty new. So you can go follow the Movement for Family Power. You absolutely should. You can go follow, if you're in New York City, there's the Parent Legislative Action Network. The Repeal ASFA Campaign- we didn't even get into the ways that federal policy under the Adoptions for Safe Families Act- I that's what it's called- anyways, ASFA is a huge problem in the system. You know, Repeal ASFA is a big deal. You can follow them on Twitter @RepealASFA.

But you're probably gonna have to do a little bit of research to find locally who is doing things about your city’s or your county's child welfare system, because it's all run on that level. It's all run at the county level or the city level, if you’re in New York. You know, if you're going to be in the system, if you're going to be foster parents, I want people who know what's happening. I want people who care about the ways that the system is hurting people, and who are actively trying to be people who are kind to and help parents. I don't know if knowing what I know about the system I could be a foster parent, but a lot of people are, and you can change your ways and you can be helpful and not buy into the nonsense that the system is going to tell you about who the parents are and what they deserve and don't deserve, and who the children in your care are and what they deserve and don't deserve.

Like I said, we'll link to that article I wrote about Ma’Khia Bryant. There are a lot of links in there that you can go read. I think I'll probably just put a couple of other links in the show notes, including some subjects that we didn't talk about because there are a whole lot of things that we didn't talk about. This has been a very big overview. The number and different kinds of injustices that go on in this system are just like infinite and people don't know about them, right. People have a sense about all the things that are happening in the criminal justice system that are, you know, like false convictions and bail and prosecutorial misconduct and racial disproportionality. We know about so many things in that system because there's been so much advocacy around it. But because this has been so young, people just need to learn.

I mentioned the Movement for Family Power. They have a monthly newsletter that has really interesting stuff in it. They're an explicitly abolitionist organization, by the way, which does not mean what a lot of people think it means. It doesn't mean just get rid of any system of caring for children that have been harmed, right. It means drastically reimagine and build systems that are fundamentally about the dignity of people and affirming lives and families and not surveilling and tearing them apart. It's really powerful stuff. They're a great organization. One of them is a former classmate of mine in law school.

I think it's, get educated about the system and get involved in the politics of it as a church, and not in a way that's solely coming from the perspective of foster parents. Like you have to understand how it affects all kinds of things. You know, churches run background checks on people who are gonna say, take care of their children. And sometimes you get a ding from the child welfare system when you do that, and understanding how you can actually look into the information that the system is providing you and understand it and know how often you get those dings and they mean literally nothing about the person. Like it's related to something that actually didn't happen, and even the child welfare system decided, like investigated, and found that nothing happened. That ding can still be in the system, right. So like, that system in itself is a whole nother issue that bars people from employment when literally they did nothing. It's horrible.

So anyways, there's just so much to learn about. There's so much to get involved with. But I think Christians can have the opportunity to genuinely be involved in the forefront of this organizing. And they are, by the way. Like there are individuals who are involved in organizations that are trying to fight, but I just think if we could learn to do things from the perspective of a parent, from, really Jesus's perspective, caring about everyone who is a victim of all kinds of harm. Not just the, you know, the children who are alleged to be the victims of harm, but actually all of the harm caused by the entire system. And we fought for change within it from that perspective, I think that would be something powerful.

Now, I'll be honest. I hesitate to tell people to go do that. I think, frankly, a lot of white Christians get involved in advocacy efforts and throw around a lot of money and throw around a lot of the prejudices and the ignorance that we have. And we can do a lot of damage that way. So that's why I'm saying go get educated and go, like genuinely submit yourself to the leadership of the people who have been affected by the system and the people who are already there doing the organizing.

Suzie Lahoud: Yeah. That's good stuff. Thanks so much again, Sy, for having this conversation and sharing from your experience and knowledge. Yeah, I hope that this is the beginning of a deeper journey for a lot of folks, including myself, of looking deeper into these things and seeking greater understanding and better ways to move forward.

Sy Hoekstra: Thanks to you too, for letting me do it genuinely, because I, this is obviously something that I'm very passionate about and something that I was kind of nervous to talk about because I want to do it justice. And I want to make sure that, you know, if people are willing to spend any amount of time listening to this subject that, you know, people hear things correctly. I'm happy, more than happy, by the way, to take questions. If you want to write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com. You can tweet at me @SyHoekstra. You can do whatever. I want to hear from people and engage with people on this subject in particular. So thanks, guys.

Jonathan Walton: Thank you so much for sharing candidly. For being honest and open and sincere, particularly as someone who advocated and desires to continue to advocate. And so something very much in process. We're just deeply grateful that you shared.

And so, as he's invited all of us to enter into that process with him, and so many who are now engaged in this burgeoning movement, please do feel free to follow Sy @SyHoekstra on Twitter. That’s S-Y-H-O-E-K-S-T-R-A. That’s @SyHoekstra on Twitter.

Sy Hoekstra: [chuckles] It’s worth spelling. It's a tough one.

Jonathan Walton: Yeah. Email us with your questions, comments, voice memos at shakethedust@ktrpress.com.

Remember, if you liked this episode [Baby Everest in the background: “Yeah!” Jonathan laughs] and the work that we're doing, please do, Everest would love for you to subscribe to ktfpress.com; and to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram @KTFPress.

And, as always, our amazing theme music was done by Jon Guerra. The song is “Citizens.” And our wonderful podcast art is done by Jacqueline Tam.

Thank you so much, and we'll see you next week!

Sy Hoekstra: And I, we all hope that Everest will be there next week, too, in the background. Just making cute noises.

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely.

Sy Hoekstra: [chuckling] Bye, everybody!

Jonathan Walton: Bye!

[“Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades back in. Lyrics: “Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” Song fades out.]  

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.