June 5, 2020


A Just and Loving Future for Black Children

The world is finally listening to the powerful calls from Black leaders for justice and radical change in our police and criminal justice systems and an end to systemic racism. The response must not overlook the need for reform in child welfare and juvenile justice systems that have long taken the lives and childhoods of Black children. How we care for our most vulnerable, our children, requires a systemic overhaul.

The heart-breaking death of one of these children, Cornelius Frederick, has much to teach us. He died last month in an eerie preview of what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. Housed at the Lakeside Academy foster care congregate care facility in predominantly White Kalamazoo, Michigan, after his mother’s death and stepfather’s later incarceration, Cornelius made the fatal mistake of throwing a sandwich in the lunchroom. Members of the facility staff reacted by restraining him until he was unresponsive. He reportedly cried out, just like George Floyd, “I can’t breathe!” At age 16, Cornelius died of cardiac arrest while dozens of other children looked on in horror.

Cornelius Frederick was murdered at one of the institutions that receive millions of taxpayer dollars annually to keep children safe and well. No one was punished except several of the child witnesses, who were distraught from what they had seen and who were promptly incarcerated. The facility and 29 others owned by the parent company, Alabama-based Sequel Youth and Family Services, continue to receive monthly government payments to care for children at risk, despite a well-documented history of horrific abuse and neglect of children in their care. In addition, the discovery that at least 37 children in Lakeside tested positive for the COVID-19 virus drives home the harm of confining children in institution settings where poor facility conditions, lack of social distancing, excessive use of restraints, and shift care create petri dishes for the spread of infection and serious illness.

Youth Law Center exists because this is not an isolated example of the way Black children are treated in these kinds of institutions. Black children make up a shockingly disproportionate amount of the tens of thousands of children in congregate care and detention facilities across the country. They are routinely abused and neglected. Sometimes they are killed. Rarely are facilities shut down or adults held accountable for harm. Many of these children are placed in facilities far from home and loved ones, with little oversight or protection to ensure their safety.

Action to close these facilities and reform the laws and policies that make up this nation’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems is desperately overdue, just like action is urgently needed to reform the approach to safety, justice, and economic relief for adults. Youth and families who have been harmed deserve justice and liberation.

As advocates, we work to transform systems where it is too often accepted practice to destroy and erode each element necessary for the childhood, well-being and humanity of Black children. Yet, we know making it to adulthood amidst persistent racial injustice and white supremacy depends on the strength and safe harbor of a caring family and community.

YLC is committed to ending the criminalization, institutionalization, and dehumanization of Black children and to advocacy that ensures that the young people and families most affected have the power, opportunities and resources to create a different future. We stand ready to work in community with those who are similarly envisioning a more just world where Black children are safe, loved, and most importantly, free to dream and exist.

In Community,

Jennifer Rodriguez
Executive Director