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Justice In America Episode 23: Criminalizing Mothers

Josie Duffy Rice and guest co-host Zak Cheney-Rice talk with Emma Ketteringham, the managing director of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice, about the relationship between the criminal justice system and family court, and how together they can wreak havoc on American families.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown

One of the most devastating collateral consequences for someone involved in the criminal justice system is the potential destruction of their family – most commonly parents losing custody of kids and children being forced into foster care. On this episode of Justice in America, Josie and her guest co-host Zak Cheney-Rice look at the relationship between the criminal justice system and family court, and examine how together they can wreak havoc on American families. They are joined by Emma Ketteringham, the Managing Director of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice.

Emma Ketteringham’s Book recommendation: Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts

Additional Resources:

Roxanna Asgarian’s story on the Hart family is here.

The Tragedy of Family Court, from City Journal

The Hidden Trauma of “Short Stays” in Foster Care, from The Marshall Project

Family Separations Happen Within Our Borders, Too, from Slate

When Should a Child Be Taken from His Parents?, from The New Yorker

Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

Our email is



[Begin Clip]

Emma Ketteringham: The vast majority of parents in the child protection system have not hurt, abandoned, or abused their child. They’re charged with posing risks to their children largely because of circumstances of poverty and all of its related stressors. Things like inadequate housing, lacking childcare, poor healthcare, disagreeing with the child’s school or doctor, asking for a second opinion even, losing their temper, being ill or disabled, accidental injuries or just even failing to protect their child from someone else who hurt them. And many of the things that they’re charged with are things that if they were financially better off they could treat themselves.

[End Clip]

Josie Duffy Rice: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 

Zach Cheney Rice: I’m Zak Cheney Rice.

Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works. Thank you so much everyone for joining us today. 

Zak: You can find us on Twitter  @Justice_Podcast, we’re also on Facebook at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear from you. 

Josie: So I’m very excited about our special guest host today. Zak is a staff writer at New York Magazine. If you want to learn more about him, you can check out his 10 question bonus episode. But the other fun fact about Zak is that he is my husband so I’m especially excited to have him on and joining us for a few episodes. Thank you so much for coming on.

Zak: Thank you so much for having me and for having me in your lovely office next door to my office.

Josie: We opened the show with a clip from our guest, Emma Ketteringham. She’s the Managing Director of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice.

Zak: Emma’s going to talk to us about something a little different, about family court and what happens in families where a parent has been accused or convicted of a crime.

Josie: But before we delve into today’s topic, let’s talk about the word of the day or phrase of the day, but actually today it’s not even a phrase it’s more like a common thing you hear when you hear about the criminal justice system, about the time a person charged with the crime is potentially facing.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Woman #1: Each faces up to 17 years in prison if convicted.

Man #1: He’s facing up to 11 years in prison. 

Woman #2: And faces up to 75 years in prison.

Woman #3: If convicted, he could face up to 90 years in prison. 

Woman #4: Both men have been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter and could face up to 39 years in prison if convicted of all the charges being brought against them.

[End Clip Montage]

Zak: Most recently, you may have heard this phrase in the college application scandal. You probably remember the story: Lori Loughlin, the TV mom from Full House, these parents were accused of paying half a million dollars to illegally get their kids into college. News reports repeatedly claimed that she could face up to 40 years in prison.

Josie: Yeah, this is one of those places where the criminal justice system and journalism about the criminal justice system are often just not on the same page, because there’s a big difference between the maximum possible statutory sentence, and the sentence a person is almost definitely going to serve. And this is particularly true in the federal system, which is what we’re kind of talking about today, though it’s fair to say it generally applies across the board. Ken White is a former prosecutor who’s had a great blog for years called Popehat and he also has a great Twitter account, also called @Popehat, and he’s talked about this issue a lot. If you search his blog for a maximum sentence, you’ll find a post related to this about Whale Sushi that we highly recommend.

Zak: Let’s say you’re charged in federal court with two felony counts of obstruction of justice and two felony counts of conspiracy to commit fraud. Altogether, you’ll be facing about 50 years in prison max. The exact potential amount depends but let’s just use 50 years as an example. But the chances of you getting 50 years in prison are about the same as the chances of you winning the lottery. It’s like the bad luck lottery. That’s because of a few things.

Josie: Well, for starters, they’ll probably take a plea bargain anyway, right? We’ve talked about plea bargains plenty on Justice in America. I think that was like our second episode. But quick refresher on the stats, basically 97 percent of convictions in federal court are the result of plea agreements. That means about 3 percent of cases go to trial. And the entire point of a plea is that you’re going to exchange your right to the trial for a much lower sentence. So already, it’s safe to say that off the bat 97 percent of convictions are going to be below the statutory maximum.

Zak: But even taking plea agreements out of the picture, there’s another reason you probably won’t have to serve the 50 years, and that is the US Sentencing Commission. The US Sentencing Commission is an independent agency within the judicial branch. It was created in 1984 and what it basically does — this is a very, very basic summary — is it creates guidelines around sentencing for federal crimes. It used to be the judge had a remarkable amount of sentencing discretion, for example, in your case, they could have sentenced you to probation or 50 years. It’s a pretty wide discrepancy.

Josie: Then came this new Sentencing Commission, which has seven members chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate and the Sentencing Commission began issuing these federal sentencing guidelines to kind of try to narrow the window of possibility for defendants. We won’t get into why this is but just a note that these guidelines used to be mandatory, and now are advisory. So judges can recommend sentences outside the guidelines, but they rarely do. And again, the US Sentencing Commission is just for federal cases. Some states have Sentencing Commissions too but not all of them, they operate differently state to state etcetera.

Zak: Anyway, the point is that these guidelines are what judges tend to use when they determine a person’s sentence. This is particularly true when the defendant hasn’t been accused of the most violent crimes.

Josie: So yes, maybe you would technically be facing up to 50 years, but the federal sentencing guidelines may recommend something like 43 to 51 months or something. And that sentence is the one you’re way more likely to serve.

Zak: Why does this matter? Well, for a few reasons. It’s just not great when journalists are reporting something as likely or possible when in all likelihood it is simply not, in other words to take the lottery example, if the news reports that Zak Cheney Rice, yours truly, could soon come into a couple million dollars, which would be great, that makes it seem like a potential future thing that could happen.

Josie: I wish you were about to come into a couple million dollars.

Zak: If anyone listening has a million dollars to give away, we’ll happily take it.

Josie: Yes. Or you can donate it to The Appeal, we’ll take it or our son’s college fund since when he goes to college, it’ll probably cost about a million dollars for him to go to college.

Zak: Anyway, the point is that accuracy matters.

Josie: But the reason these wrongly reported potential sentences are also a problem is because they mislead the public about who actually has power in the system. So we don’t actually want people thinking that federal judges have discretion that they don’t have, right? Now, the judicial discretion versus prosecutorial discretion question could be its own season of the podcast and it’s complicate, but basically over the years, the discussion has really been more on the front end with the prosecutors, prosecutors choose what to charge and those charges determine the much narrower potential sentence.

Zak: Sure, you could get 50 years in prison for those crimes, just like you could win the lottery tomorrow, but the chances of it happening are nil. Instead, judges are pretty confined to the guidelines and so by deciding what to charge, it’s actually prosecutors who have much more control over your sentence. So when you hear a news segment or read an article that implies a defendant in federal court is looking at X amount of years in prison, think twice, it’s probably wrong. Anyway, on to the episode.

Josie: So today for the very first time, we’re kind of not talking about criminal law. I mean, we are in a way, but our main topic is about a related legal field that in the most tragic circumstances intersects with the criminal system directly. And that’s Family Law, more specifically family court. 

Zak: You may have heard of the term “collateral consequences.” What it basically entails is all the other consequences outside of the criminal sentence that can happen due to an arrest or conviction. For example, an arrest could lose you your job or housing, which is a collateral consequence. It could impact your immigration status, which is also a collateral consequence. And perhaps the worst of all, if you’re a parent, any involvement at all with the criminal justice system could jeopardize your custody of your kids. So that’s what we’re talking about today.

Josie: So part of the reason I wanted to have Zack on this episode in particular is because it’s about parents and parents who could lose their children over a criminal charge. And Zak and I are parents, we have a two year old son, and I think for both of us, the idea of losing him because of being at all involved with the criminal justice system is just like horrible, horrible to imagine.

Zak: Yes, it is unfathomable and I think it’s something that we’ve both kind of experienced indirectly with people we know and even the kind of spectre of this happening to people we know, it hasn’t actually happened, has been such a disorienting and destabilizing experience in their lives and just trying to imagine what that is like and hearing them talk about what it’s like to go through has been really sobering.

Josie: Yeah. So let’s start with a story. It’s one that you probably have heard, we mentioned it before on this podcast, but it was also a major story by Roxanna Asgarian on The Appeal last year. So it begins with a woman named Sherry Davis. So in 2006, Sherry Davis was found guilty of cocaine use, and as a result, she lost custody of her children. Still, she had this very strong support system around her, her boyfriend Nathaniel was not the biological father of her children, but he took care of them like they were his own and she had a sister Priscilla, who took temporary custody of her kids and intended to eventually adopt them in order to kind of keep the family together. But eventually the court terminated Nathaniel’s access to the children because they suspected he was allowing their mother to visit sometimes and then Priscilla also lost custody after a Child Services caseworker stopped by her house in the middle of the day, and saw Sherry there visiting her children. So the kids ended up in foster care.

Zak: Sherry got clean, and was really hoping that she could eventually get the kids back, as were Nathaniel and Priscilla. But the kids were placed up for adoption and three of her children Devonte, Jeremiah and Ciara were eventually adopted by two women, Sarah and Jennifer Hart in Washington State. The women had already adopted three other kids as well. That was it, a drug problem meant Sherry lost custody, and her sister allowing the kids to even see their mother meant they would never be part of her family again. The story got infinitely more tragic though after March of last year, the adoptive mother Jennifer Hart drove the family off a cliff killing all six children and both mothers. The act seemed to be intentional and blood test showed Jennifer had been drinking. Later investigation also found drugs in the Hart’s house.

Josie: So this story is tragic no matter how you look at it, regardless of whether the children were adopted, biological or what. But the fact that Sherry Davis had lost custody of her children, children that she desperately wanted, because of her drug use makes it even sadder and the fact that the Harts, a white couple who seemed to have as many, if not many more problems, including but not limited to drug use that went undetected, makes this case even more infuriating. And this sort of thing is actually not uncommon unfortunately. Of course, the tragic story of the Harts killing their children is rare, but it’s not actually rare that children are taken from their parents for things that many people would reasonably conclude are just not severe enough to warrant losing all contact with your kids forever.

Zak: It’s not just in cases that stem from criminal charges either. An April story on WNYC told the plight of a woman named Tanya, who was living in the Bronx with her brother and a few other random renters. At some point her brother evicted a couple of tenants who left behind, among other things, marijuana plants and ammunition. So Tanya’s brother called the police to come remove that stuff from the house. The police come and go. And a few hours later, someone from the administration of Child Services comes to the house. They said they’d gotten a complaint of child neglect and they looked around and saw that the house was messy, lots of trash, not a lot of food in the kitchen, etcetera. 

Josie: The irony is that Tanya too felt like the house was not the best place for her daughter. She had actually just recently tried to get into a family shelter through the Department of Homeless Services but they rejected her application saying that her living conditions with her brother weren’t bad enough to justify moving into a shelter. And now ACS was pretty aggressively telling her that her living conditions weren’t good enough to keep custody of her kid. It turned out that the report of neglect wasn’t even against Tanya. It was against her brother and his children who didn’t even live in the house, but ACS took Tanya’s daughter away from her anyway, using their emergency powers and just like that, she was gone.

Zak: There are countless stories like this where children are taken from parents before a hearing has even been held. Use of emergency power to re move a kid is supposed to be rare, and only when there is imminent danger to the child’s life or health. But WNYC found that of the almost 4,000 Kids removed from their parents in New York City last year, the city used emergency powers about half the time, it could be months or years before they get their kids back if they get them back at all.

Josie: One study even found that when women report domestic abuse, that is when they report that their husband or partner has been abusing them or their children, they’re more likely to lose custody of their children.

Zak: It’s hard to fully convey the extent to which race and class matter here in every way by every measure, we separate some families much more often based on their race and class. Black and poor families are not just more likely to face criminal consequences, as we’ve talked about pretty much every episode, they’re also more likely to lose custody of their children. In some states black children are more than four times as likely as white children to enter foster care. In 2019, a story by a lawyer named Jessica Horan-Block explained how similar parenting scenarios can be treated differently depending on the demographics of the parents.

Josie: The actor Jason Biggs, remember that guy? He was in-

Zak: American Pie.

Josie: American Pie, a big movie in seventh grade.

Zak: Robbed for the Oscar.

Josie: Yeah, robbed. His wife Jenny tweeted earlier this year about how she had accidentally dropped her five year old son on his head, fracturing his skull, and requiring him to spend some time in the ICU. She talked about how traumatic that was but she said that her family was met with compassion and sympathy from the hospital and she tweeted that she was, quote, “forever grateful” for how they were treated while in medical care. But a similar thing also happened to Jessica’s client, a Latina woman in the Bronx. Jessica is actually also a lawyer as The Bronx Defenders just like our guest, Emma Ketteringham. Her client’s kids were playing on the bed when two of them bumped heads and the next day, she noticed that her daughter had a bump on her head. And so she took her to the pediatrician and it turned out that her daughter had actually gotten two very minor skull fractures.

Zak: But instead of getting compassion and sympathy, she was interrogated and accused of child abuse. No one told her she could contact a lawyer. When the baby was ready for discharge, ACS instead told her that she had to find family members that could take care of her kids. Otherwise they’d go to foster care.

Josie: You know, this story hits particularly home for me and Zak, because we had this really scary experience happen when our son was, how old?

Zak: Five days old, I think.

Josie: Yeah. And he basically was having a lot of trouble breathing, but we were new parents, and we didn’t necessarily know what was going on and eventually we decided to take him into the ER and we kind of thought we were overreacting remember? We were sort of like, we’re gonna get there, they’re gonna tell us to go home.

Zak: Yeah, we’d also been told I think by our pediatrician that, you know, babies are really still figuring out how to breathe at that age so you might see some irregularities or stuff that looks kind of weird.

Josie: Right and so we thought everything was pretty normal and that we were just kind of going to take this precaution and see what happened and we went to the hospital in the middle of the night. And as soon as we got there, they immediately hooked our baby son up to every single cord imaginable, it seems like. And what they told us was that he was in respiratory distress and that if we had waited like even just a few more hours, it could have been a really serious and tragic situation. 

Zak: Yeah. So we ended up staying there overnight. I thought at that point that we would go home fairly soon, but we were eventually transferred to the NICU, which is the neonatal intensive care unit. Shout out to them. Just incredible, just doing god’s work, taking care of babies who are very premature, who’ve just had operations and we were there for I think 17 days total? 19?

Josie: I think it’s 21. 

Zak: Over two weeks, between two and three weeks staying there overnight. I don’t think either of us left the hospital except maybe once to shower back at the house.

Josie: Yeah, for me I found it to be a really traumatic experience when you have this new baby and you are worried about their health, and you’re worried about if they’re going to make it and then if that had been compounded with someone accusing us of child abuse, can you even imagine how much worse that already terrible situation would have been?

Zak: No. It’s impossible for me to fathom, really.

Josie: And it’s possible that someone could have concluded that right? Like we took him in, he obviously was really sick. They could have concluded that like, we hadn’t done a good enough job of raising him in these first couple of days.

Zak: Or imagine, god forbid, we hadn’t taken him in at all.

Josie: Right. And this is all different forms of family separation that happens through Family Court. But there’s also the de facto family separation that happens when mothers are sent to prison. We’ve talked about this before on the show in Season One, Episode Six, which featured Gina Clayton. But just to underscore what we mean, every time we send a parent to prison, we are separating a child from their parents and we really have to grapple with the consequences of that. We talk a lot about child separation right now. We talk a lot about family separation right now in the immigration context, which is also horrifying but we have been separating parents from children in this country daily for decades. One of my idols is a woman named Andrea James. She runs an organization called the National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls and she’s literally just, I think, one of the most incredible women in the world. And she served about 18 months in federal prison. And when she went in her child was about six months old. She was actually still breastfeeding when she was admitted to prison.

Zak: And her son was almost two when Andrea got out, which is how old our son is.

Josie: Here she is on PBS NewsHour in a segment called “American prisons are hell. For women, they’re even worse.”

[Begin Clip]

Andrea James: I was very fortunate. I was very privileged as an incarcerated person, I had a husband, who brought my children to see me every single visit. I left behind at the time a 12 year old daughter, and my son was six months old when I walked into that prison. And for me, I had the opportunity  — and that was incredibly heartbreaking, it was incredibly difficult to be separated from them — and I walked into a prison that was crammed full of women who had not seen their children and then even after incarceration, phone calls are extraordinarily costly. It’s very difficult to be able to stay connected to your children, particularly if when you were sent to prison your children were separated and sent to different households to live in. And so mothers often had to make a decision as to which child she was going to call and often had only enough money — we made 12 cents an hour in the prison for the most part — only having enough money to call one child, or make one phone call to a child a month. Women have very gender specific reasons as to what leads them into the behavior that lands them on a prison bunk and often the system does not recognize those things as mitigating factors or even pays attention to what those things are. And so we need to do a better job of paying attention to that. And yes, there are men, obviously, who are incarcerated, and they make up the majority of the prison population in the country. But the fact of the matter is that for many of the reasons that women are incarcerated for, we need to find other solutions because they are directly in relation to women being victims themselves.

[End Clip]

Josie: The one of the things that Andrea likes to talk about that I think it’s really important to mention is about the slow drip of violence and the violence of separating families. This is a really serious consequence of the criminal justice system, and it is a consequence that often flows through family court.

Zak: We’ll talk more about this next with our guest, Emma Ketteringham, Managing Director of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice. Stay tuned.


Josie: So we’re here today with Emma Ketteringham. Emma is the Managing Director of the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice and I actually met her at my first criminal justice job 10 years ago, at the Bronx Defenders, the work of the Family Defense Practice is really important and also really unusual. I’m so excited that she’s joined us today. Thank you so much Emma. 

Emma Ketteringham: Thank you. 

Josie: So tell us a little bit about the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice, both why it’s part of a public defender’s office and also how it’s different than a lot of legal service providers and family court. 

Emma Ketteringham: Sure, the Bronx Defenders is a public defender office in the South Bronx and we’ve actually been representing parents in child protection cases for almost 15 years. We started the work with a small grant that funded two lawyers, a parent advocate — who is not a lawyer, but a person who maybe has experienced the child welfare system themselves — and a social worker. And our goal was to represent as many parents as we could, who were facing the loss of their children because of contact with the criminal system. So we started the practice because we were meeting clients in criminal court who were desperate to find their children. Their children have been taken at arrest and then now had a child protection case, in addition to a criminal case. They sometimes hadn’t seen their children since their arrest, they’d been given no information about how to contact them or how to get them back and they might have just received like a handwritten note under their door with a phone number to call and when you’d call the number, it would just ring and ring. So it was terrifying and we didn’t know how to counsel them. And when we tried to help them connect with a family court attorney, we realized how overburdened and insufficient the family court system was, even when the criminal case was really minor and might resolve very quickly, without a criminal record or time in jail, the arrest had started and neverending nightmare in family court and parents were looking for help in how to put their family back together. So we also started to understand that child protection investigations and foster care, just like over-policing and mass incarceration, were concentrated in low income communities of color like the South Bronx, and there was little help available. So the knock on the door by an ACS caseworker was as dreaded and as terrifying as the stop in the street by the police and often, so much more was at stake. So basically, we weren’t the only ones who saw this deficiency in family courts. New York City created institutional defender offices to represent parents in 2007. That year, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn were each given a provider and we became the primary parent defense office in the Bronx. And today, we have 75 lawyers, social workers and parent advocates, all very passionate about family defense, and we’ve represented over 12,000 parents. 

Josie: Wow. 

Emma Ketteringham: And I think some of the ways that we’re unique is that we really strive to be more than just a legal service. We work in defense teams that include lawyers and social workers and parent advocates and that’s because much of what happens in a child protection case happens outside of court. There are conferences, there are meetings where key decisions are made about where children will live, what visitation should look like, whether relatives are available to help and these meetings are usually attended by parents all on their own if they’re not given an advocate to accompany them. When they have social workers and parent advocates by their side, we can ensure that parents are having quality visits with their children. We can help problem solve whatever barriers might exist to having one’s children returned. And this makes our model much more effective and frankly, more like what a parent with means would demand facing the loss of their family. 

Emma Ketteringham: We also work in multidisciplinary teams with housing attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, immigration attorneys, as well as experts in public benefits and there are multiple reasons almost always due to economic insecurity that a family comes to the attention of the child protection system and it’s critical that a family not end up worse off due to the contact with the system. Many parents lose their benefits and their housing right at the moment that they have to prove themselves fit to have their children returned. So we work in multidisciplinary teams to address every aspect of a client’s legal crisis, and to represent them in whatever ancillary proceeding might result. So our goal is really to never say to a client, sorry, we can’t help you with that you need to find someone else for that problem. We try to have all of the assistance under one roof. And finally, we make a concerted effort to be available to parents when they first need us and not just when a court assigns us. If you think about how legal services are usually delivered to people who are poor, it is the system that decides when they need a lawyer. But when you think about people with means and of wealth and how they obtain legal counsel, it’s usually at the first sign of a problem. 

Josie: Right.

Emma Ketteringham: So we created a hotline as well as a walk-in intake service so that parents can reach out to us at the first sign of trouble, or the first sign of an investigation. And this has had a critical impact on what our representation can achieve, because we see often that children are removed by Child Protective proceedings because of mistakes, misunderstandings, miscommunication sometimes between parents and caseworkers and this needless trauma could actually be avoided entirely if a parent just had access to counsel and advice during the investigation when those critical decisions are made. So when we’re there to advise and assist a parent through an investigation, we not only can avoid having their children taken from them, but we can actually avoid a case from being filed at all.

Zak: So I know the family court system is set up differently than the criminal system. Can you tell us how it works, who the different parties are?

Emma Ketteringham: In the child protection system, parents are not faced with the loss of liberty as they are in criminal court, right? Instead, they faced the loss of something arguably more precious, which is their children. Family separation, which is a traumatic and life altering consequence of the criminal legal system, is the actual intervention of the family court system. Parents don’t go to jail, their children go to foster care. Family court is a place where children are led away from their parents not knowing when they’ll see them again. Mothers are ordered not to take their newborns home from the hospital. Parents are ordered to stop using marijuana so that they can visit their children and parents whose children have unexplained injuries lose years of parenting them until it’s finally shown that it was the accident they claimed it was at the start. And that’s what these cases are about. And in addition to a different sort of, about what is at stake in family court cases, a major difference between family court and criminal court is that every case is determined by a judge, there are no juries. The majority of cases are about neglect, neglect that sounds in poverty rather than in child abuse and neglect by every state law is defined broadly, mostly as a parent’s failure to meet a minimum degree of care in meeting the needs of their children. There’s no penal code that lays out the elements of each crime. Instead, a family court judge is really asked to determine neglect based on that vague standard that’s very open to interpretation. So it’s almost impossible for a judge’s subjective child rearing views and bias not to figure into their ruling, and we see this play out, right? You might have one judge who removes at the first sign of marijuana use but tolerates spanking. Another judge might do the opposite. Some judges hold deep misconceptions about drug use and mental health issues. So there’s little consistency and what constitutes neglect or justifies a child removal from their family changes over time, and also changes from courtroom to courtroom

Josie: When you’re in a child protection case, who are the parties?

Emma Ketteringham: So basically, there is CPS, which is essentially most akin to the prosecutor in a criminal case and then there are lawyers for the parents. Each parent or caretaker of a child gets their own lawyer. And then the children are also given lawyers. Now, if the children have conflicting views, if one child is saying, ‘I really want to live at home, and what my brother says actually didn’t happen,’ they might get different lawyers. So you can have cases with up to seven or eight attorneys in one case.

Josie: Because probably the parents could also have different, each parent could have a different lawyer maybe? 

Emma Ketteringham: So that’s an interesting question because I always think about these cases that if me and my children’s father were brought into court and accused of not providing our children with adequate care, I would think that we would hire a lawyer together because we are on the same side. The system automatically assumes that parents are adversarial to each other. So even if you might not think they have differing interests in the case, they get their own lawyer. And that can be very complicated when you represent one of the parents, and they always want, of course, you know, their partner in the meetings as well, but they have their own lawyer. So communication between the parties immediately becomes stilted and formal, and I think more adversarial than necessary. 

Josie: Right, right, right. So interesting.

Emma Ketteringham: And each state has very different rules for lawyers for children. So in New York, the law was just recently changed to require lawyers for children to actually represent the views and the wishes of the child they represent. But they can substitute their own judgment for a nonverbal child or an infant or a child who’s young. So what that means is that you have another person in the proceeding who is substituting their own job judgment about what would be best for this family. That’s another way that these cases can feel very subjective and it’s challenging to advise clients about what will happen, what the consequences will be for some of their decisions. 

Josie: Right.

Zak: So you mentioned earlier that the kind of standards around child rearing that are used to determine whether a parent is fit or should have the child taken away or not are pretty discretionary for the judge. Can you give us an example of what you would think from your personal experiences, like the least appropriate reason to take a child away?

Emma Ketteringham: Well, some of the kinds of cases that we see, for example, would be a mother is charged with neglect because she left her children alone in the apartment. Maybe it’s the children are ages of ten or eight where parents might reasonably disagree about whether that’s too young for children to be left for a certain amount of time or whether it’s okay, maybe the parent feels that they know their own children and they know that they know not to turn on the stove or answer the door to strangers. And maybe the mother is just running to change the laundry and she’s a single parent and if you really thought about it, she’s just running downstairs to a lower floor of the house, which if you lived in a huge house would do that anyway to change your laundry. So it’s like we see cases like that where a judge, one judge might say, ‘I understand that I relate to that, I think it’s not ideal, perhaps it would be better if she brought them with her, in case something were to happen, but I don’t think she’s fallen below the minimum degree of care of parenting.’ And then maybe another judge would say, ‘There is absolutely no reason why she would leave the children alone in that moment and that’s unacceptable.’ And so that’s what I mean, where you see the same factual scenarios play out differently depending upon almost the personal judgment and subjective views of the judge and that’s because it’s such an ambiguous standard. If you think about it in criminal court, you know, if you charged someone with robbery, you have to show that they had an intent to take the property of someone. If they fail to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt, there’s no conviction. Here we’re asking a judge to look at a situation, usually a family situation that’s very foreign to their own, and judge whether or not that parent, usually a mother, fell below the minimum degree of care. And that’s what I mean about how it can change. Another example is marijuana use, right? We see in New York is a state that’s getting closer and closer to legalization every legislative session, and yet we still see in the Bronx, if a parent admits to a caseworker that they occasionally use marijuana or even that they have used marijuana, they’ll be sent for a drug test, they’ll be sent to an evaluation to see whether or not they need drug treatment and just compare that with parents in New York City and other neighborhoods, right? In Park Slope or Upper East Side where they’re sort of freely blogging, or writing op-eds about the virtues of using marijuana as a parent. I mean, it’s that disperate. 

Josie: And they never worry about ACS showing up for their door.

Emma Ketteringham: I don’t think I mean, you know, there was a headline a couple years ago that was “Smokin’ pot mamas and it was written by moms in Park Slope, which is sort of one of the most famous parenting communities, you know, made fun of on SNL, and yet, they were sort of touting the benefits of using marijuana as a stressed out parent. When I read that, I think of my clients who have lost custody or come close to losing custody, if they don’t agree to stop using marijuana right away. So that’s what I mean by there’s sort of this ambiguous statement and a lot of room for subjective judgment and personal bias when we are looking at these families.

Josie: So before I worked at Bronx Defenders, I thought what I think a lot of people think, which is that child services are the undeniable good guys and I remember growing up and the joke was child services is going to come get you if, like it was always just sort of this presence that took care of children in my head and I think a lot of people believe that people who’ve had their children taken from them had to have done something horrible. They had to have deserved it. But that’s really not always the case. And part of that is because of ACS and sort of what they are and who they are. So can you talk about how ACS can be harmful?

Emma Ketteringham: I agree with you that there are vast misconceptions about who are the people caught up in the child protection system. Roughly 250,000 children enter foster care in the US each year and I think most people hold the misconception that the parents of these children have hurt, abandoned or abused them. And the corollary belief is that children who are in foster care are better off there and safer because they’re there. But actually, the vast majority of parents in the child protection system have not hurt, abandoned or abused their child. They’re charged with posing risks to their children, largely because of circumstances of poverty and all of its related stressors. Things like inadequate housing, lacking childcare, poor healthcare, disagreeing with the child’s school or doctor, asking for a second opinion even, losing their temper, being ill or disabled, accidental injuries, or just even failing to protect their child from someone else who hurt them. And many of the things that they’re charged with are things that if they were financially better off, they could treat themselves, like mental health issues or substance abuse issues. We know that those things exist in wealthier communities. We know that other parents also use drugs, also become depressed, also reach out for help when they’re overwhelmed as a parent, and yet they don’t face the risk of losing their children. So at its essence, I think the child protection system is not about good people saving children. I think it’s an inadequate and harmful response to family poverty and the wealth disparities in the country. Its response to families is to cast their problems as individual failures, as failing to live up to some standard of parenthood. And then it offers child removal, therapy, foster care, and ultimately, family dissolution as the answer instead of what families actually need to survive and do well, like safe housing, quality child and healthcare, safe communities that aren’t over policed, successful and inspiring schools, livable incomes and hope. The other thing that I think is important to note when we’re talking about whether or not the child protection system is a good thing or not, is to talk about how this dystopia of losing your children is disproportionately reserved for black and brown families. For decades, black and brown children have been in foster care in disproportionate numbers. Huge race disparities exist at every stage of the system. Black children are more likely than white children to be placed in foster care in the first instance, they are more likely to suffer worse consequences once they get there. They’re moved from home to home more often, they receive fewer services, they remain in care longer, and they’re less likely to ever be reunited with their parents, as well as less likely to ever be adopted. So if you think about that, if you think about how this system is one of the most racially segregated systems in America, then it is hard to look at it as something that is doing good. And if you were ever to walk into the Bronx Family Court on any given day, you’d think that white parents never used drugs, you’d think they never had mental health issues, you’d think they never made mistakes and that’s because it’s reserved almost entirely for families of color. And that’s why some people have actually started to call the child protection system, The New Jane Crow, because the system is to black women what mass incarceration has traditionally been to black men.

Josie: Wow. I feel emotional sitting here talking about this because we have a child, we have a black child, we’re a black family.

Zak: I think a lot about as well, our son is in daycare, and he is a very active child. He’s always moving. He’ll like fall, bump his head and scrape his knee, do this, do that and your kid shows up to daycare with cuts and scratches and stuff that are kind of part of the normal course of being a little toddler and you have this extra thing hanging over you were like, well, how’s this going to be interpreted? What do I have to fear in terms of perception, like what are these people going to, how are these people going to respond? Are they going to think this is something that, you know, needs to be referred to a body that can take my kid away from me potentially. That’s something that was really made vivid, I think, having a kid for the first time.

Josie: Right.

Emma Ketteringham: I’m a parent as well and having done this work for so long, I’m reminded daily of the privilege I have, by my race, by where I live, because the experiences of my clients can be just that, right? They can not be able to explain to their daycare provider why their child is favoring one leg and might be limping on the other, you know, and as a parent, you don’t see everything your child does, and especially when they get to the age where they’re running around and hurting themselves and to have to maybe keep your child home because you fear the judgment of the daycare provider and the rush to judgment and making a call which they’re mandated to do if they suspect anything, is a terrifying way to live. And I think that’s one of the other reasons why this system is not the good guys, right? Because it’s terrorizing a community. It’s making parents fear raising their children. And not only that, but it’s also making families who might actually need some help, who might be feeling overwhelmed, it makes them fear asking for help that they need and I think that’s one of the greatest harms that the system does. For me, mass incarceration, it’s not a system in crisis. It is a crisis. It’s very existence causes widespread fear and it actually does harm to the children that it seeks to protect. It’s not a good thing to be separated from your family. We watched what this administration did to families on the border, we know what it looks like and what it sounds like for a child to be separated from their mother or their father. And yet, this is what this system does and often it does it too quickly, with very little evidence and without ever having gone to court first. Very Similar to the criminal legal system in that sense, I know, you know, a lot of people talk about bail and how when you set bail, you’re essentially incarcerating someone before they’ve been found guilty of anything. Well, most states, New York included, gives CPS emergency removal powers, that means that CPS can come to your home and they can take your child based solely on the report they have received. They don’t have to get that decision reviewed by a judge first. They can take the child right then in the moment, and again, as we’ve talked about already, but that’s happening disproportionately in poor communities and disproportionately in black and brown communities. And I don’t think it’s the intention of the child protection system to dissolve poor families of colors, but the families who are most surveilled and most often dismantled, are poor and disproportionately black and brown and that is just a reality that no one talking about the system can deny.

Zak: So what are the implications, to your mind, of having the state so deeply involved in the construction and destruction of families? Where are the lines now? Where do you think they should be drawn? I mean, presumably there are compelling counter arguments to some of this, what are they to your mind?

Emma Ketteringham: I think about that a lot because I’m not a libertarian. I’m not here to argue that the state should play no role in family welfare. I do think the state has a role to play in not just in keeping children safe, but also in keeping families well and healthy and thriving. And that’s why when you really look at how the child protection system operates, you really start to understand the inequities in our society, how some families are left to struggle to raise their children and some families rely on multiple resources. I mean, no family really does it alone. But I think the role of the state is to support families and I think what that would look like is not pouring billions of dollars into social services agencies that puts all of the parents into services. What it looks like is direct investment into the community itself. I think the state should be responsible for enriching the entire community and supporting families and addressing wealth inequities. And that’s probably somewhat of a radical notion. But we already spend billions of dollars on this industry, and I think, is money not well spent and the more we grow the system, the wider the net that the state ends up casting, the more families that it brings in.

Josie: So you see these children taken from their parents, and sometimes they don’t get to see their parents again, right? Sometimes they end up in foster care permanently and then what? I think there’s a sort of illusion that if you’re taken from your parents, you end up with a better family, right? You always end up adopted by a family that wants to kind of repair that harm or adopted at all. And it’s such a very different story than people who choose out of love to give their children up for adoption, for example, so I wonder, in your experience, what happens to kids after they’re taken from their parents, at least in the South Bronx?

Emma Ketteringham: So I think it’s important to say that, in my experience, the foster parents are often well intentioned and good people who are seeking to take in a child who is in crisis but the reality is despite those good intentions, children raised in foster care face a pretty grim set of statistics. Rates of safety in foster care are actually lower than for children in their own homes. Former foster children face a host of poor outcomes including homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, and criminal legal system involvement. Many children enter foster care never actually reunite with their family and are never adopted and so they age out as essential legal orphans without ties, it’s interesting now with social media, we see a lot of these children finding their families again. 

Josie: Wow. 

Emma Ketteringham: But because those families were also abandoned by the system, you know, once the system gave up on reuniting them with their children, it’s not as if they find them in a better off position. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I often have kids who are 18 to 21, coming into my office and asking if I can help them piece together what happened in their life, and why are they where they are, and how did they end up without a mom. It often hasn’t been explained to them directly, what happened. That’s another sort of big criticism of the system that I have, which is that the system is so focused on achieving permanency for a child, they want to achieve an outcome for the child and, as you said Josie, many think that foster care is that sort of fairy tale ending where you are taken away from a horribly abusive family, and saved by a family that will now love you and care for you and give you a better life. What we’ve seen, though, is that oftentimes even those adoptions are disrupted. There have been studies that have been done on New York City adoptions in particular that show, even after adoptions are finalized, they might fall apart, and children are then returned back to the system. We also see children aging out because they’re never returned or never adopted and oftentimes, they’re forced to sort of make it on their own. And like I said, they face a whole host of consequences. So we often meet them again, for example, when they become parents, and then they’re being prosecuted by the agency that was actually in charge of raising them. It’s very cyclical, and intergenerational. I think that if the system would allow itself to be more flexible to acknowledge that many children live in more complex family arrangements, for example, maybe by virtue of divorce, the child might have multiple households, or maybe there are multiple people sort of charged with raising the same child and that hasn’t necessarily been shown to be harmful. But in the child welfare system, there’s this sort of myopic focus on one outcome and we’re the only country that actually adopts children away from parents who want to raise them themselves. And so I think even if that parent can’t be the daily caretaker, for whatever reason for that child, why can’t we be more flexible in the family arrangement for that child so that we don’t have to legally kill the relationship of a child to their parents? Maybe that parent can’t care for them every day, but why can’t they be part of their life? Why can’t they communicate? And why can’t the child decide when they’re ready whether they’ll reject their parent?

Zak: I mean, so why is it like this? What’s the logic and what are the rationales used to frame this as better than the alternative that this is supposed to confront, this supposed to address?

Emma Ketteringham: I think this is one of the ways that the foster care system reflects its racist and classist origins. This is a system that was developed in the late 1800s to really address white middle class anxiety about new immigrants who are entering urban areas. So what you saw, it was called “placing out” and what this means is that you would take a child from a home thought to be inferior and place them with a family that you believed would instill the right values in those times — white Protestant values — and the goal was that the child would then grow up and not pose a threat to society. I think that still remains, even though now of course, we do have a greater emphasis on preventative services to avoid children from being taken in the first instance and we do require agencies to make reasonable efforts to keep families together and return children back home. You do still have this belief that sort of underscores the entire system that these children are better off in another home. And that ignores all of the research and all of the experience of these children, that in fact, they’re better off at home, or at least with a connection to their home and to their family of origin, regardless of where they need to live or who provides their daily care. So I just feel like the system has not really caught up with what we know to be the true experience of children in the system and we look at it as an either or scenario. The way the funding works is that in order for children to be adopted by one family, then we’re not going to support the other family.

Josie: Your work in family court, the difference between how mothers are treated and how fathers are treated, do you see mothers getting more charges than maybe fathers would because they’re supposed to be more competent? Do you see fathers not actually getting the chance at raising their kids because they’re seen as a secondary caretaker? How does that kind of play out?

Emma Ketteringham: The vast majority of cases are brought against mothers. And it’s very interesting because even if there is, you know, a father who lives in the household or who is still in the relationship with the mother, they’ll often be named as a person legally responsible rather than as a parent and I find that so telling, and it’s like fathers are both invisible in this system, which in some ways is good because they’re not hauled into court and forced to go through service plans and they can actually be identified as a resource for children. But on the other hand, it reflects a very sort of interesting notion of the family, right? Because I think that if they were to come to a family in Park Slope or the Upper East Side, that both parents would be regarded as equally accountable for the care of their children, as equally responsible. And yet, in the communities that CPS is most heavily concentrated, what you usually see is it’s just the mothers brought into court. We once had a case in family court where the mother had given birth and the baby had tested positive for drugs and the answer for the system was to place the baby in foster care and so we worked with the mother to find the father of the child in the hopes that he could take the baby in and this would avoid that removal. The father got on a bus, he was living in North Carolina at the time, he got in a bus, he came all the way to our offices in the Bronx, he had nowhere to stay, no money left after he paid for the ticket and I remember just trying to allow him to enter into the courtroom was a challenge. Everyone said, ‘How do we know he’s the father? Will he drug test? We don’t want him to see the baby until we know that he’s not using drugs.’ To me that showed the invisibility of fathers and the way that fathers are cast out of their families. At the same time, like I said, sometimes we’re working with the fathers on the outside because at least thankfully they’re not in the system. So it’s a bizarre situation, but it does still continue that it’s women who are mostly held accountable and responsible for the care of their children.

Zak: If you encounter a case where there’s an allegation of neglect, dealing with a specific child, in a family with multiple children, how does that play out in the court? How does that play out in terms of determining custody and whether it is only that child taken away if there’s something that’s found or is it all the children are gone if there’s one case of neglect in the whole household? How does that usually work out?

Emma Ketteringham: So it really depends. It depends on the nature of the allegation and it also sometimes depends on the relative ages of children. You know, you can imagine I represented a father once, he was very, very worried that his son was getting involved in gang activity. He’d found gang beads in his room, he was noticing that he was leaving the house late at night, he wasn’t going to school. At some point, he lost his patience talking to him wasn’t helping. And so he did discipline him physically in the hopes that this would dissuade him from getting into activities that he thought were life threatening, and actually probably were life threatening. And there were younger siblings in the home as well. And so our focus in that case was to help the judge understand that, regardless of how you might evaluate that situation between father and son, and I definitely did not agree at the time that the best thing was for this boy now to enter a group home where he’d have more freedom to do some of the things that he was doing and I think whether or not you agreed with the father’s approach, it came from a place of love and care for his son. It was not abuse in the sense of, you know, anything that we needed to fear even happening again, I could hardly get this father to put his name on the record he was so beside himself with grief that he had brought this upon the family. And so the issue became, what about the younger children, you know, they weren’t similarly situated. And I remember, you know, this was something that had happened between a teenager and his father, it was a one time incident and yet the court removed all of the younger siblings too, and put them all in foster care saying, ‘Well, if you lose it with one he might lose it with the others.’ And I just thought, you know, we did do a hearing for that case and we ended up reuniting the family relatively quickly. But it’s just that kind of inquiry that the case is doing and I think one judge would look at it differently than another judge. So it usually does come up that there might be a dispute between one kid and the parent and sometimes judges are better at recognizing that the same tension, same stress doesn’t also exist with the other children. But sometimes all the kids end up in care and that can be very complicated. That can lead to the situation that we sort of talked about earlier, when children might have different lawyers in the same case, because maybe the teenager is saying to his lawyer, ‘I don’t want to go back to that home. I’m mad at my dad. I don’t want to be there.’ And the other children are saying ‘We want to go home. We miss dad. We want to be with him.’ And so then that can create a conflict.

Josie: Am I right that these parents are not entitled to a representative in court, they’re not entitled to having a lawyer in family court.

Emma Ketteringham: There is no constitutional right to a lawyer in child protective proceedings. New York State has a statute that parents are entitled to legal representation in these cases. 

Josie: Okay. 

Emma Ketteringham: It’s an interesting statute because it doesn’t actually say when that representation must begin. So New York City is very different than the rest of state in terms of when you first see your lawyer, you know, as I mentioned, we make an effort to be available even before the case is filed just at the first sign that you might lose custody of your children we want to be there to help advise you so that you know your rights, so that you understand how to cooperate also with the investigation, if that in the end will avoid your children being removed. In other areas in New York State, you might not get a lawyer until several weeks after your children have been taken. That’s just because it’s not adequately funded as it is in New York City and, you know, we’re only just starting to look at the quality of parent representation in these cases. We’ve been talking about deficiencies in criminal defense representation now for a decade and it’s critical that we do, but the conversation about what quality representation parents need in these cases, discussion about the fundamental right that it’s involved in these cases? That conversation has only just started to begin and New York City is very rare that it has institutional providers like the Bronx Defenders, they really don’t exist anywhere else in the country and not in the state either.

Zak: Can you kind of explain in a little bit more detail that the difference that having dedicated practice in the Bronx that you help run in terms of what kind of outcomes are generated for clients in that area, especially as compared to what existed before and what’s different now? What are you guys doing? And also looking forward, what are you looking to improve on?

Emma Ketteringham: We, along with the other family defense providers in New York City, and we’re not alone — also neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem, Brooklyn Defender Services and the Center for Family Representation — we all have pretty similar models of representing parents who experience the child protection system in New York City. And over the last 10 years, New York City’s foster care population has gradually declined. Strong representation for parents has certainly played a role in that. I would not sit here and take full credit for that. I think it is also because people have started to better understand the harms of family separation and there’s more of an emphasis on providing preventative services rather than child removal, foster care and family dissolution. But, no doubt, having high quality, zealous lawyers by the side of parents makes a huge difference for families and their children. And a study that was just published by Casey Foundation showed that our multidisciplinary approach ,so having parents, social workers and parent advocates as part of the legal team, actually, when we were compared with solo practitioners, for parents, we reduce children stays in foster care by an average of four months without making children less safe. So it’s not as if children are going back into care or coming home too soon, it is really that those children did not need to be there and that if a parent has a strong lawyer and the advocates by their side between court dates, children will come home, and children can be home and stay home safe. One thing we’ve also started to do, and thanks to people like you who invited us on to shows like this, we’ve started to sort of chip away at the narrative in New York City, about who the families are involved in the system. You know, we talked about how many people hold the misconception that the parents of children in foster care have done something terrible to them, and we’ve talked about how many people believe foster care is the answer and foster care is a savior, when in fact, the system itself delivers incredible harm to parents, to their children and to entire communities because when you take away a community’s right to raise their own children, you’re destroying the fabric of that community, you’re, you know, really cutting generations in half. And so I think that we’ve started to have people see it a little bit differently because we have 12,000 narratives of what’s happened to families in the system all collected in one place and we’re trying to sort of center the voices of our clients in the discussions about the system. But I also think having done this now for so many years, that it is very clear to me that this is not a system that can be tinkered with or fixed or reformed to make better. I think the harm is the system itself. The harm is the intervention it offers, just like over policing, just like mass incarceration. And unfortunately, the child protection system is still missing from platforms of major social justice movements. You don’t hear it being discussed in reproductive justice movements, you don’t hear it really being discussed in Black Lives Matters conversations and I think it’s missing from those conversations. You don’t hear politicians talking about it, right? It is not something that is at issue in, you know, the presidential debates, it’s really a shadow system and I know that we’ve really only just gotten to the point where mass incarceration is part of those important conversations. But we’re even sort of farther behind in that way and I think that once we start to have those conversations, we will be able to reimagine an entirely different response to family poverty and families in crisis. 

Josie: I love that. The reproductive justice. That’s just so, this is really good. I’m super pumped. I’m so excited. I’m sure this is what you’re probably asked a lot, this is the trouble, right? Is that we all can imagine a parent who can’t parent their children well, and maybe really wants to, obviously, and even from my own experience working at Bronx Defenders, I remember my first day there that you guys had a case of a family where the child had severe burns and they were saying, I can picture that out of my head because it was like literally my first day there and he was saying, ‘It was the water heater, I put the kid in the sink, and the kid had turned on the hot water and burned parts of his body’ and, and eventually, because he had good advocates, you could go and see all the times he reported it to the super and the super wouldn’t do anything because maybe they were undocumented, I mean, it was just such a story of neglect of this family for so long and then they were missing their child. You can imagine that there are cases where there isn’t really a good explanation for what happened to this child, or maybe this child is being abused or very seriously neglected, and something has to be done. If it’s you, you’re saying, this whole system is a problem, right? So what does the system look like that you think is best?

Emma Ketteringham: I think, you know, underscoring this system is the belief that a child who is abused is better off living with another family. That may be necessary in some cases, there certainly are some parents who can’t handle the day to day care for a child. But what I think that doesn’t have to mean is depriving the child of knowing from where they come, of knowing who their mother and father is and I don’t think that to keep that child safe you have to legally sever the relationship entirely. One thing I think about a lot is, what would a child like to be able to say better? Right? Would a child prefer the narrative that ‘Well, my mom couldn’t take care of me. I don’t know who she is. I live with this person who takes care of me. I don’t know who my mom is. And I don’t know what happened to her’ and I think that they’ll automatically fill in a blank, which might be they didn’t love me enough to know me, or would we prefer a child’s narrative to be ‘I live with this person because my mom has these issues. I know my mom. She knows me. I talk to her on the phone. She knows where I am. She knows I’m okay. But I don’t live with her.’ I think children are capable of living in those kinds of more flexible arrangements. I think much of the problem with the system that we have today is that we’re so intent on laying blame at a parent’s feet whether it’s a parent who really just suffers from a mental health issue, or maybe a disability, or even if they’ve done something terrible to their child, we are so obsessed, once the specter of child abuse is raised, with punishing that parent, that we forget that the punishment might actually be borne by the child even more so than the mother. So I just don’t think it is the place of the government to write off a child’s family, no matter what the history in that family is. Let the child do that when they’re old enough to do that, if that’s how they feel. If they never want to see their father in prison again, they might choose not to ever see their father in prison again, but the right to self identity and to know from where you come, I think is so deeply ingrained in all of our souls, that it really isn’t the place for the government to interfere with that.

Zak: Well, Emma, thank you so much for for joining us, I really got a lot of this conversation, just from personal experience, I really appreciate the insights about the importance of maintaining relationships with birth parents, I have a lot of friends who have been through foster care, who have been put up for adoption and still do have those relationships and I’ve seen the difference there as compared to other kids who don’t have those relationships. And I don’t know enough to go so far as to say that this isn’t a complicated arrangement for the kids, for the families who’ve taken them in and for the birth parents but it is really interesting to hear your experience with that and how beneficial you think that’s been in terms of what you’ve seen on your practice. So I appreciate your insight.

Josie: It means a lot to sort of do this episode with Zak because we’ve entered into this terrifying and amazing and often scary and unpredictable endeavor, which is parenthood, together and we’re learning by the day. It’s just the amount of things that you feel like can go wrong and how unprepared you feel as a parent just naturally, the extra fear that people in the South Bronx and poor communities kind of across the nation, across the city have to feel that the state will come in and decide that this mistake has meant that they can’t parent at all. It’s almost too much to even imagine. This is such an important conversation. It’s such a thing that a lot of people don’t know about and I think our listeners really appreciate it, especially, we really appreciate it. So thank you so much Emma. 

Emma Ketteringham: Thank you.


Josie: Thank you so much again to our guest Emma Ketteringham. As always such a wonderful conversation, so much to learn from Emma, thank you for joining us. For show notes, please visit and don’t forget to check out Emma’s book bonus as well. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on

Zak: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts

Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research assistance is by Nawal Arjini. Emma’s interview was recorded at Beat Street NYC. The engineer was Steve Wagner. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


Emma Ketteringham’s Book Recommendation:

Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice in America book bonus. So I’m here with Emma Ketteringham. She is the managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx defenders. This season, we’re asking all our guests What are you reading? What are you listening to? Or what are you seeing that has impacted your own perspective on criminal justice? Or that has been important to you? 

Emma Ketteringham: Well, it’s hard to find enough time to read and and to listen to things I will say. But I definitely am a huge fan of Justice in America podcast and listen to it all the time. And I feel like I have your voices in my earbuds as I walk around the South Bronx, so that is huge. And I read all the time. So you know, I’m a huge fan and I’m not even just saying that because, I really am. A book that has really sort of woke me up to the child protection system is a book by Dorothy Roberts called Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare. And I just highly recommend it to anyone who’s sort of interested in understanding this issue more. She writes about women in Chicago, but it is definitely translatable to any urban area. And so that’s why, I try to give it to all of our new lawyers and advocates when they start with our office. 

Josie: That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Emma, and thank you for coming on the season. 

Emma Ketteringham: Thank you so much.