In June 2018, I attended a protest in front of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, in Boston. It was the height of furor over the Trump administration’s child-separation policy, words so flat-sounding that they cannot even approach the pain of what was happening. Since April 2018, the government had employed a “zero-tolerance” policy, forcibly separating children from their parents—supposedly, to deter migration at the US-Mexico border. Most of the families were Central American—from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. They were fleeing such chaos and suffering at home that nothing would deter them. But this didn’t prevent the US government from taking their children.
Despite decades of dulled response to the mounting horrors at the border, child-snatching touched a nerve. There were widespread protests across the US, often expressed with signs, or speeches, to the effect of “This is not us,” or, “This is un-American.” Hillary Clinton tweeted, “There’s nothing American about tearing families apart.”
At the Boston protest, a Black woman, with a commanding air, stepped to the microphone with a different view. “This is not a new story,” she said. “We have a long legacy of children of color being ripped from their parents. At the auction block, at Native American reservations, because of the war on drugs, and now because of what’s happening at our borders.”
I had just moved back to Boston. I asked another protestor, “Who is she?” It was Ayanna Pressley, then at-large city councilor, now congresswoman in the US House of Representatives.
Pressley gave as succinct as possible a summary, two years in advance, of the argument of Laura Briggs’s new book, Taking Children: A History of American Terror. To call the book “timely” is an understatement. Briggs traces the history of a very American practice of separating children from their parents—mostly poor and of color—against the parents’ will. Briggs adds US foreign policy, in the form of support for military regimes in Latin America that forcibly separated and “disappeared” children. But, otherwise, Pressley’s list hits the grim highlights.
With Trump out of office, will people’s attention turn away from the border again? If so, how will separating children from their parents continue, under what legal guise?
Is “taking children” too broad a category for understanding such different phenomena as Native American children kidnapped and sent to boarding school and Black children separated from their enslaved parents? Briggs does risk flattening out her argument, by gathering many kinds of historical patterns under the category “child taking.” But the synthetic view has its merit. As critic Fintan O’Toole recently wrote in a different context: “To see history—at least the history of war—in terms of people is to see it not as a linear process but as a series of terrible repetitions: what happens to human flesh in episodes of organized violence is always and everywhere the same.” For “war,” swap in “racist violence,” or “genocide.” Once you are looking at the people, you see not just slaughter and rape, but the children taken, over and over, in a horrifying loop. As Briggs notes, since the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, taking children has been recognized as a constitutive part of the crime. The best-known part of the 1948 definition of genocide is “killing members of the group.” But the last, lesser-known part of the five-point definition is “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Briggs describes the US, along with other democracies in Europe, as toggling between a racial nationalist set of politics and an uneasy liberalism. It is this back and forth, push and pull, that creates different varieties and patterns of child taking—some meant to be hidden, secret, others intended as a sickening, punitive, public spectacle. All child taking is not the same, but it is part of a recognizable historical pattern.
What about that subtitle, “A History of American Terror”? Of course, this is not a uniquely American form of terror, even as Briggs uses that term advisedly to mean not just the US but Latin America as well. A strong chapter, drawing on her own earlier work in Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, shows how the US government turned a blind eye to, if not actively encouraged, the theft of Latin American children by military dictatorships during dirty wars in the Southern Cone and Central America, from the 1970s through the 1990s. These children resurfaced in the tens of thousands, stripped of their histories—and, in the case of Guatemala, in many cases of their Indigenous identities—as adoptees either in-country or abroad. Briggs’s point is not that taking children is unique to America but that it is not un-American in any way.
Large-scale child snatching began its American story early. What set racialized slavery in the Americas apart from other forms of slavery (in Ancient Greece or Rome, enslaved prisoners of war) or unfree labor (indentured servitude, Asian workers labeled “coolies”) was that it was hereditary. By definition, if you were held as property, your children were property, too. They could be taken from you and sold away at any time, to anyone, anywhere.
Taking children, like sexual violence, could be a form of both terror and profit. It was a threat as well as an actual practice. The threat was meant to deter rebellion, or other “bad behavior.”
Of course, enslaved families, especially mothers, fought for their children, as Central American families at the border do now. Sojourner Truth, after she was free, said at a women’s-rights congress: “I have borne 13 children and seen most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard.” Truth spent years struggling to get her children back, and was the first Black woman in New York to successfully sue a former owner. According to Briggs, she forced him to honor a promise to free her child, even after he had been sold away to Alabama.
Briggs draws on studies of the family lives of enslaved people, slave autobiographies, and abolitionist literature to remind us that families mourning stolen children suffered one of slavery’s foundational traumas. As Briggs points out, an important recent book on slavery—in which the author seeks to retrace “the process by which lives were destroyed and slaves were born”—is titled Lose Your Mother.[Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 6.]
Briggs’s chapters “Taking Black Children” and “Criminalizing Families of Color” take us all the way up through the present. An important pause on this rapid tour of US history allows us to take stock of the US welfare programs that, as Briggs writes, “have been a political football since their inception as mothers’ pensions in 1909.”
Such welfare programs are where we get the language of the “fit” mother: those deemed by the state to be deserving of keeping their children and given a modicum of stingy support. Up until the 1960s, there were transparently racist efforts to get Black mothers off welfare rolls—their children were supposedly illegitimate; welfare would disincentivize work. After the ’60s, the racism was coded in different ways: supposed welfare queens, a now debunked moral panic over “crack babies” as the war on drugs heated up. This recoded racism upped the flow of Black children into foster care. Children were often “removed” over the strenuous objections of Black mothers and taken by social workers for no reason other than poverty.
The logic is circular. The government wouldn’t (and won’t) help alleviate poverty through meaningful welfare. In consequence, mothers—especially, nonwhite mothers—were “unfit,” their children taken. And let’s not forget the largest separation scheme in contemporary US life: mass incarceration. Briggs writes that in the 1980s, “80 percent of Black women who were incarcerated … had children living with them at the time of their arrest.”
Taking children is a crime of long standing in America. It is not a recent mutation, a freak accident on which we can easily turn the page.
The US government began systematically separating Native American children from their families in the 1870s. Native children were sent to boarding schools where the mission was to “kill the Indian to save the man,” as the founder of one school infamously put it in 1892. School administrators cut the long hair of children, forbidding them to speak their languages, or visit their parents, which might impede assimilation.
By the 1920s, over 80 percent of Native American children of school age were in boarding schools. In 1930, one witness on the Navajo (Diné) reservation wrote, “The children are caught, often roped like cattle, and taken away from their parents, many times never to return.”
Scholars and activists are still uncovering the violence, including sexual abuse, that was rampant at these boarding schools, which only saw large-scale shutdowns in the 1970s. By that time, Native American children were frequently taken from families without consent. Again, it was that “fit mother” argument, as made by non-Native “authorities” who did not recognize childcare practices involving extended families.
Native American children so frequently ended up in the foster or adoption system that Native activists successfully lobby for legislation preventing their communities’ children from being taken. The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), passed in 1978, limited the removal of Native American children from their communities for foster care and adoption, and gave tribal governments a stronger voice in child-custody proceedings.
The ICWA—and, by extension, tribal sovereignty—is still frequently challenged in US courts. Meanwhile, the “plenary power doctrine” used to defend boarding schools—as Briggs explains, quoting legal scholar Maggie Blackhawk—makes them the direct legal precursors to today’s detention camps, which currently hold migrant and refugee mothers and children.
As in her previous book, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump, Briggs sometimes seems fatigued by the exercise of historical synthesis she has undertaken. How can you not already see it? In the introduction to Taking Children, she writes that the events she is about to narrate are “not exactly obscure.” It is only the narrative of American exceptionalism that has made it hard for some to connect the dots, to name the pattern as candidly as Ayanna Pressley did at the Boston protest.
The book is not an unremitting dredging up of past and present misery. Briggs takes care to highlight organizing strategies and social movements that have been partially or fully successful in slapping back the various tentacles of child taking. These include organizing, from abolitionist movements before the Civil War to mid-century Native American activism to keep and raise their children in the way they saw fit, to the sanctuary movement protecting asylum-seeking families in churches in the 1980s. She ends with a sobering caution. Changing presidents won’t be enough to ensure a discontinuation of the practice that is so deeply engrained in American politics and life. The Trump policy of “child separation” for the sake of zero tolerance is officially discontinued, but it continues in another guise. Now, children are separated from their asylum-seeking parents for “neglect,” which, according to immigrants’-rights activists, can be as minor as failing to change a diaper promptly.
Some argue that the very act of migrating with children—with all the dangers it entails—means that asylum-seekers are not “fit” parents. They do not stop to think, or read, about what has to be snapping at the heels of parents forced to make this choice. Parents around the world are the same: with tragic exceptions for abuse, they do not willfully endanger their children.
Trump loves to lie about who started child separations at the border. Last year, during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Trump said that he “inherited separation” from President Obama and that he, Trump, “was the one who ended it.” He has played variations on this lie during interviews and campaign rallies. But it is not the same policy.
The Obama administration separated children from parents due to “neglect” at the border, sometimes under dubious circumstances. But there was no systematic policy of taking children to deter migration. Without excusing either policy, or forgetting Obama’s earned moniker as “Deporter-in-Chief,” it is important to remember the distinction between what happened under Obama and outright separation as policy, which only began under Trump. But Briggs’s book makes me wonder: With Trump out of office, will people’s attention turn away from the border again? If so, how will separating children from their parents continue, under what legal guise?
“We are haunted,” Briggs writes, “by our collective inability to think of those who lose their children to foster care or face criminal charges as having claims to their kids that deserve to be taken seriously.” I would add, after reading her book, that we are haunted by our collective inability, after child separations, to somehow avoid rearranging the facts of the case. Rearranging, that is, so as to more comfortably reflect the view that we would like to have of America: We don’t do that. So, it must somehow be the mother’s fault.
If you belong to one of the communities most harmed by taking children, in the past or in the present, you already knew. If you didn’t know, once you see the pattern, read the stories, follow the footnotes, you can’t unsee it. Taking children is a crime of long standing in America. It is not a recent mutation, a freak accident on which we can easily turn the page.