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Grassroots feminist moms challenging the child welfare system

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On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with Alicia Owen and Sheryl Jarvis. They are moms with lived experience and a critical analysis of the child welfare system. They are also members of Community Action for Families, a group focused on providing direct support to moms navigating the system and on challenging the harm that it does to families.

Certain institutions that are part of the state get perceived in starkly different ways by different segments of the population, generally because they get experienced in starkly different ways. So, for instance, it's common for folks who've never had to have anything to do with the social assistance system to regard it as a source of uncomplicated benevolence for poor people -- they might support that, they might oppose it, but that's mostly how they see it. Most people who are actually on the system, however, have a much clearer sense of how, yes, it provides much-needed support, but not only is that support vastly inadequate, but the system can also be intensely regulatory, oppressive, even abusive. Or to take an even starker example, consider the police, and the oppressive divides in how they are experienced that have been brought to mainstream visibility by the organizing led by Black youth in cities across the continent over the last couple of years.

Another kind of institution of this sort is the child welfare system. People who have never had to interact with it, or who perhaps know of it only through news stories that mention its interventions in cases of especially horrific abuse, tend to regard it as purely benevolent -- maybe in need of a tweak here or there, but fundamentally good. Yet for many of the women who find themselves and their children caught up in the child welfare system, it is a source of harm, a source of stigma, a source of trauma. Mostly, it intervenes not in situations of abuse or gross neglect, but in more everyday sorts of situations in which women and their families are having a hard time and need some support. Except rather than providing that support, many women experience the child welfare system as intervening in ways that make everything worse. It is the part of the state that often intervenes instead of our society making sure that marginalized women and their families have the supports they need in the face of violence, poverty, addiction, and so many other issues.

Community Action for Families is a three-year-old group based in Toronto. Initiated by Jarvis, the group brings together grassroots women with lived experience of the child welfare system and allies in the agency sector who have a critical analysis of that system. For their first two years, their biggest focus was on providing various forms of direct support to women who were dealing with the system. Over the last year, they have continued to do that, but have stepped up their work doing political and popular education, both with women who have lived experience and with frontline service providers, and they are in the early stages of a five-year plan to develop new, non-institutional, non-coercive ways of actually supporting women and their families. Owen and Jarvis talk with me about their own struggles with the child welfare system, about Community Action for Families, and about the changes needed to truly support marginalized women.

To learn more about Community Action for Families, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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