Michaela Simmons

Producing Delinquency: The Struggle for Racial Integration in the Foster Care System, 1920s-1950s

Using archival materials from New York City, my dissertation documents the history of Black children’s struggle for inclusion in the early foster care system. In the 1920s, the rise of Children’s Courts enabled visibility of Black children’s needs after a long history of exclusion. Yet, my preliminary research suggests that judges found themselves unable to place the increasing number of Black children in their chambers because of the exclusionary policies of most private foster care agencies. The records of the court indicate that with limited options, judges labeled dependent Black children as delinquent to ensure out-of-home placement, and expanded the system of temporary public shelters to board them. As the decades wore on, judges no longer needed to label Black children delinquent because, in the eyes of the court, they became criminal the longer they languished in a system built for short-term needs. Extending theories of liberal racial criminalization, I argue that in the course of the struggle for integration, the court engaged in practices that can been see as producing racialized delinquency. Ultimately, the political contests for racial integration in the foster care system are an important pre-history for contemporary understandings of the link between race, crime, and childhood.