DPA Podcast Episode 42: Movement for Family Power’s Lisa Sangoi on the Drug War and the Family Regulation System

The drug war has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives—and it’s time to uproot it. The Drug Policy Alliance has been working closely with other advocacy organizations to create Uprooting the Drug War, a project that shines a spotlight on the insidious ways the drug war has spread into the systems of child welfare or family regulation, public benefits, employment, immigration, housing, and education.

Today we kick off a new monthly series on Drugs & Stuff, with each episode featuring a DPA partner sharing their experiences fighting the drug war in one of those six systems. We begin with Movement for Family Power’s Co-Founder and Co-Director Lisa Sangoi and DPA’s Gabriella Miyares discussing the difficulties families face in the family regulation system, and what we can do to fight for family power. 

DPA is proud to partner with Movement for Family Power through our Advocacy Grants Program. To learn more about grants opportunities, visit

To learn more about how the Family Regulation System became Ground Zero for the drug war, check out the Ground Zero Report, a collaboration among MFP, DPA, and the NYU Family Defense Clinic. 

For more information on the resources Sangoi mentions in the episode, visit: 
The Bronx Defenders—Family Defense Practice
National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women & Girls
Email [email protected] to get involved with the campaign to repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act
Visit the Reimagine Support campaign page to learn more about the campaign to challenge unconsented drug testing of pregnant people, new parents and newborns and reporting to the family regulation system in NY State
Elizabeth Brico’s blog Betty’s Battleground
Dinah Ortiz, Vice Chair of North Carolina’s Survivor Union
J Mac for Families
Parent Legislative Action Network
Bobbie Butts and Vonya Quarles 
Family Reunification, Equity, and Empowerment
Kelis Houston of the NAACP Minneapolis
Elephant Circle
Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, book by Dorothy Roberts 

Listen to more podcasts. 


Intro  (0:02)  
Welcome to Drugs and Stuff, a podcast from the Drug Policy Alliance.

Gabriella Miyares  (0:09)  
Hello, and welcome to Drugs & Stuff. I'm your host, Gabriella Miyares. Today, we're thrilled to kick off a new series of episodes that tie into a project that's been many years in the making here at the Drug Policy Alliance. That project, Uprooting the Drug War, which can be found on, exposes the insidious ways the drug war has taken root in six critical systems: education, employment, housing, child welfare, immigration, and public benefits. Each month on the podcast, we'll feature one of those six systems and learn more about how the drug war has become embedded within it. For our first episode in the series, we are so pleased to have Lisa Sangoi, Co-Founder of the organization Movement for Family Power, speaking with us about how the drug war impacts the child welfare system -- or, as she and many others have begun to call it, the family regulation system.

I'd like to thank Lisa Sangoi, co-founder of Movement for Family Power, for joining us today. Now, Lisa, our listeners may be a lot more familiar with drug policy than they are with the child welfare system, so I'm going to start with some background. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about the current state of the foster system and how your organization, Movement for Family Power, is working to change it?

Lisa Sangoi  (1:43)  
Absolutely. And thank you for having me on this podcast and for making space for this really important discussion about the child welfare and foster system, which advocates, activists, parents impacted, and others are increasingly calling for it to be called the family punishment system or the family regulation system. I think if you are someone who is very passionate about compassionate drug policy, about a -- about a drug policy regime that's based in racial justice and human rights, gender justice, then you absolutely have to be thinking about the way the war on drugs, has really centered itself and grounded itself in the child welfare or foster system, or as we can, perhaps now for the rest of the podcast, call it the family regulation system. So this is a system that, much like the criminal legal system, overwhelmingly targets Black, Indigenous and Latinx parents and families. It is a system that wields enormous and violent power, just like the criminal legal system, the system has the power to take your kids away from you forever, it exclusively targets very low income people, people -- disabled folks and others living on the margins of society. And just from me telling, you know, you and your listeners, these basic sort of facts about the system that it's targeting Black and Indigenous and Latinx folks and parents, and it's overwhelmingly targeting women and disabled parents, low income parents, and that it's, and that -- that its main intervention is family separation, moving kids into other people's homes, paying other people to take care of someone's children, and not putting them in better situations, but putting them in much worse off situations. I think, just from me telling you and your listeners these basic facts, I imagine a lot of red flags go up, right? Any governmental system in the United States that is targeting Black people is probably not doing it in a fair and just way. Any governmental system in the United States that's targeting disabled folks based on a disability alone or low income folks, it's just probably not doing it in a just and good way.

Gabriella Miyares  (4:13) 
There's huge overlaps and impacts between the drug war and the family regulation system, both direct and indirect. Could you talk a little bit about, you know, how you've seen that in your work?

Lisa Sangoi  (4:27)  
So we hear a lot about how the criminal legal system targets drug users, targets people who sells drugs in extremely unjust ways and racist ways right targeting Black and Latinx and indigenous folks in a way it just wouldn't white and wealthier people. It turns out the family regulation system is doing the exact same thing. The drug use of wealthy and white parents is rarely--if ever--policed by the foster system. However, if you are a Black or brown parent, and a Black mama in particular, and a low income mother, this system will judge your parenting, police your drug use, and take away your kids in ways that are completely unrelated to whether your children are actually at risk of harm. So for example, pregnant and parenting Black and brown people are disproportionately drug tested at hospital maternity wards, they and their babies are drug tested without their informed consent. They're not at all told that the contents of their womb, their umbilical cord, their baby's urine will be inspected for drugs. And if those results, just, just pausing right there, that would never happen to someone on private insurance. Then when these results come back positive, child welfare -- family regulation, excuse me -- authorities are called immediately. Again, none of this information is shared with the family. Not only is this information not shared with the family, but the hospital, not only just drug testing the family but also trying to pull a lot of information that they can give to the family regulation agents and authority. So do you have housing? What is your housing access like? How many bedrooms do you have? How many people do you live with? You know, what does, what does your -- the sleeping arrangements look like for your child? You know, do you and your partner have issues? Do you guys argue? Has there ever been anyone -- for collecting all of this deeply, deeply personal information, you know, pretending like it is to help the family and then turns it all over to the family regulation system. And as I said earlier, the main form of intervention of the family regulation system is family separation, it is not to provide housing, right. It's not to provide food, it's not to provide childcare, it's not to extend health insurance, right. So in many states, women who have just given birth are often kicked off of Medicaid six weeks after giving birth. It's only its main intervention is family separation. And that's what it comes in and does, regardless of whether there is any actual showing of risk to the child. And I think the drug war has been enormously successful at saying this enormous huge war is necessary for the safety of children, right? The enormous amount of dollars that were ported to police in prisons very much justified on the backs of this idea of safety to children. And so it's really come as no surprise that, you know, the family regulation system is very much a place where we see this play out, right. And what the family regulation system does, is when we see a low income, Black or brown drug using parent, drug using Mama, and she doesn't have housing, or she doesn't have secure housing, right? What the system allows us to do is say, your housing situation is your fault, because you use drugs. And now we need to take your kids away from you. Because you have posed enormous risk to them, by using drugs and making them homeless. Now, let's actually think about what the root causes are of housing insecurity in this nation. It is the history of redlining. It is governmental policy, you know, from this country's founding up until present day, which ensures that white and wealthy people build up ownership and housing, right, at the expense of Black-- not only purpose at the expense of Black and brown people, but purposely withholding housing from Black and brown people. This is why people don't have housing. It's not because they use drugs, right? White people use drugs in the houses that the government has made sure that they can have. And so, you know, I think the family regulation system fits in very well with a larger project of maintaining a racial and economic order, which justifies the enormously unjust distribution of wealth and resources along racial lines.

Gabriella Miyares  (9:51)  
Absolutely. And I mean, we often hear the drug war referred to as The New Jim Crow, because of how much it disproportionately targets, as you said, Black and brown communities in this country. And I think you've given a great overview of how the family regulation system is cut from the exact same cloth, you know, perpetuating those same systemic, racist, you know, policies. But you worked with DPA and the NYU family defense clinic to co-publish a report that actually detailed how the US foster care system became the "ground zero for the US drug war." So can you talk a little more about what, what you meant by that and what the report found?

Lisa Sangoi  (10:39)  
Sure. So I think what we meant by that is we wanted to communicate that the overwhelming number of cases in the foster system in the family regulation system are supported by drug war logic, up to 80% of cases will sometime in the duration of the case, involve an allegation of drug use. And even in that, in those small number of cases where the family regulation system is able to help somebody secure housing, or childcare or access to transportation so kids can get to school. Even that small number of cases where the family regulation system is able to remedy a lot of the issues it blames on parental drug use, which are actually poverty, not parental drug use, it will continue to keep the child away from the family if there continues to be evidence of drug use. And so, you know, we really see how successful all the hysterical academic and media, writing and literature around the harms of drug use, right? All the extremely exaggerated literature, that turned out to be completely false, right, this idea that there was a crack baby, totally false, complete lie, not an exaggeration to say those things. And of course, there have been successor ideas like that there's a meth baby or a opioid baby, you know, all of these things completely inaccurate, scientifically inaccurate, but they continue to drive family regulation, policy and practice. And, you know, I just want to take a minute and talk about the breadth of the foster system. Currently, in America, in the United States, over 50% of Black children have had their parents investigated for allegations of child maltreatment. And that is an enormously scary stat on its own. For folks that are thinking, well, investigation doesn't sound like a big deal, let me tell you, it is a huge deal, to have a family regulation agent knock on your door, and say, I need to come into your house and inspect every inch of your house and strip your -- strip the clothes off of your kid's body, and, you know, search and photograph their naked body. And if you don't let me do this, I will come back with the police and a warrant. It is it is just enormously scary. And this is an experience that, you know, some form of investigation has experienced that over 50% of black children in America have had, when we go to places like Massachusetts, we're talking about over 70% of Black children. Even for just the you know, America, children in the United States, not accounting for race, it's still over 30%. This system is enormously, enormously huge. Over -- I think it's over 2% of Black parents, Black children will have had their rights to their parents permanently terminated, which means the family regulation system gives you give the parent 15 months to fix whatever they found wrong, which, you know, as we all know, you know, being very sort of deeply grounded in drug policy, there's no sort of treatment timeline, right, no one has ever said 15 months is a magical number for substance use disorder treatment. The system says you have 15 months to fix whatever I think is wrong with you, and by the way, your substance use disorder is wrong with you your occasional non chaotic, non problematic substance, something wrong, that means something's wrong. You have 15 months to fix it or as I take your kids away from you forever. And this has happened to an enormous number of children in the United States and disproportionately Black children, Indigenous children, in fact making the United States the world's leader in having legal orphans that means the world's leader in having children who literally don't have parents, despite their parents wanting to be there for them, because the government has totally cut off their ties. So, you know, it's sort of in this way that that the foster system has really come to pervade people's lives. And it is a 30, over well over $30 billion a year, three-zero billion dollars a year that the governments, federal, state and local, spend on maintaining the system. That doesn't account for all the associated court costs of like, maintaining family courts, and employing all the various lawyers and social workers that are involved with this. To give you a sense of what $30 billion a year means, this makes the foster system one of the largest federal programs for low income children. So it's bigger than SNAP, supplemental nutritional assistance for for children. It's bigger than WIC, right, the program for low income mothers who are pregnant or have new babies. It's bigger than CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program. The foster system is, in fact, one of the largest open ended entitlement programs. That means this is like an open spigot, the government never cuts the money off, no matter how many kids you put in front of it. It's the largest open ended entitlement program for low income children. It's one of the largest in this country. And I think that tells you a lot about what this country's decisions are around low income people, which are, of course, deeply racialized decisions. Because, you know, this country is, has come to assume and make a reality that being low income means being Black or brown.

Gabriella Miyares  (16:49)  
Oh, that is a mind boggling number. And I want to share with our listeners another pretty crazy statistic, which is the fact that, you know, as you said, the federal funding for this system is just completely out of control. And the federal funding for removing children from their families alone increased by 20,000% between 1982 and 2003. So obviously, like you said, you know, the federal government is prioritizing a system that, you know, the workings that remove children from their families, you know, kind of breaking families apart rather than keeping them whole. And so I wanted to get your thoughts on, you know, if that funding wasn't going towards family separation, where do you think those funds would be better reallocated to best support families?

Lisa Sangoi  (17:44)  
You know, yeah, that number that you state is totally wild. And I just want to say something about that quickly, which is, you know, it historic, interesting historical note is that, you know, while many legal systems in America have always targeted Black families and separated Black children from their parents, faster than the foster system was not actually one of those systems until the 1960s and 70s. Black children who were, you know, allegedly at risk of harm from from their parents, the foster system just did not pay them any attention till the 1960s or 70s. And it's sort of a complicated reason about not complicated, but maybe more than we want to go into in this podcast about why the foster system did bring Black and brown children under its purview. But it's important to know that once Black children did come under the purview of the foster system, that is when you see the 20,000% increase, right? Historically, the system was always bad, it was always rotten, they had always done bad things. But the way we saw the system grow exponentially, and become violent exponentially, is very much because the system began to target Black families and Black Mamas and Black children. Now, the $30 billion a year, you know, where else can we spend it? So I'm just going to return to housing. Currently, the United States spends about $30 billion a year subsidizing through various private and public programs housing for low income folks. The United States spends $90 billion a year through the mortgage interest tax deduction, through the way taxes are set up for when you die and you're wealthy and you're passing your money along to people -- the United States spends $90 billion a year on subsidizing housing for high income people. So I think if we were to reinvest all the foster system money, that 30 billion, into housing for low income people that would amazing and it would not get us to where white and wealthy people are in terms of this country's commitment to investing in their housing. And mind you that $90 billion a year does not include the historical money, you know that through the GI Bill and other programs went into white communities to build up white homeownership. And I also bring up housing because over 30%, and it's interesting, there's a lot of three zero numbers right now I'm noticing, over 30% of children in the foster system, and this is verified by multiple studies that are all cited in the report that we all published together, over 30% of those children could go home to their parents, if their parents just had housing. It's not really a contended number. You know, we all, everyone who works with [this] just sort of knows that. So you know, there are a lot of places that that $30 billion dollars could get reinvested: housing, healthcare, childcare. But there's two points I want to make about that. Number one, that it's not enough, right. 60 billion for housing is not nearly enough, right? We should be demanding 90 billion the way white and wealthy people in this country have it, or perhaps even more, given the historical divestment in housing for Black folks and low income folks and brown folks. The other point I want to make is, you know, as the Drug Policy Alliance has challenged us all to think about, right? It is not like a system of governmental assistance for housing is totally benign. And, and, and gentle and just, and awesome, right, or, or health care or public benefits. And so also just very critically, it is I I'm hesitant to simply say, let's reinvest that 30 billion in government assistance for housing, because we know those systems can actually be very criminalizing. 

Gabriella Miyares  (21:56)  
Yeah, no, I think you brought up a really important point, which is that, you know, as we're seeing in the project that DPA has released, Uprooting the Drug War, the drug war has infiltrated all of these systems, so it's one of those things where if you're going to give extra funding to the system, what's the use, if it's, if it's, you know, kind of been poisoned in that way. But you brought up a, you know, the fact that a lot of these systems are very criminalizing. So I wanted to talk a little bit about alternatives.

Lisa Sangoi  (22:27)  
I want to, first of all, it occurs to me that I have sort of been speaking on this podcast for a while without really crediting all the people who have come before me, and there is nothing that I am saying, no idea, no concept, no analysis, that does not come from an activists, apparent impact that has been fighting the system, and allied activist scholar like Dorothy Roberts or Chiara Bridges. So I really want to just encourage folks who are wanting to learn more about this, to learn more about all those people and the enormous work that they've been carrying in really very, very difficult conditions. So in terms of alternatives, um, I think, you know, first and foremost, I think it is really important that we are clear that the current system we have, was not designed to prevent harm. It was not designed to interrupt cycles of harm, and it was not designed to heal harm. It does none of those things, right. So rates, the the rates of children that die at the hands of their parents, it's an incredibly, incredibly small number. We have 70 million children in the United States, and we've got 1000 to 1500 that die every year from maltreatment by their parents. That number has stayed steady for a very, very long time. And a lot of fancy, like scholars and foundations and things have tried to study whether there is a correlation between a city's number of children that are in the foster system, and the number of that children, or severe harm to children by their parents, and they have not been able to find a correlation. And it turns out it is because the system was meant to monitor and police and regulate Black and brown people and low income people. This system was meant to justify massive racial and wealth inequality, right, the system was not meant to address harm. So I think we need to be crystal clear on that. So when folks are saying Well, what do we do about the kids that are being harmed? It's, of course yes. What do we do about that? This system is doing nothing about that. It is certainly not healing hard, but it certainly not interrupting so cycles of heart. The second point I want to talk about is that we have to really be clear on our analysis that there is structural harm, which is overwhelmingly what the system is calling parental fault. And the vast, vast, vast majority of kids in the system would not be there, if their parents were not low income if their parents were not Black. Their parents were not Latinx if their parents were not indigenous. And so, now, when we move to this very small number of children, who are potentially at risk of harm by their parents, I think, you know, there are folks who have always, all over the world, in their communities, kept their children and their families and their community safe, and done it outside of really oppressive systems, like the family regulation system. And so we're not really starting at zero, we actually have a wealth of experience and knowledge to draw from. We also have our comrades in the restorative and transformative justice movements, who are really tackling this in the criminal legal system, contacts from whom we have a lot to learn from. I so I personally, you know, I personally don't identify as a healer, I don't sort of identify personally, as a builder, I think, I think my skills are very much in sort of creating space, and amplifying the work of healers and builders. And I will say, it has been amazing doing this work, to see what people are doing on harm reduction for harm. So I have been in touch with drug user unions who have childcare co-ops, that where folks can drop off their kids, you know, when they feel like they may use in problematic or chaotic ways, and it would not be safe for a child to be around them. Here in Washington DC, where I live, there was a mutual aid network, there continues to be a mutual aid network run out of the seventh ward, where they very explicitly when COVID hit, we're offering COVID safe childcare for parents who felt like the stress was bringing them to a breaking point. So it's all to say, there are so many people that are doing that really hard work of figuring out how do we keep our people, our children, our community safe. We have so much knowledge to draw from not just in the United States, but around the world. And lastly, you know, we all have to work together to figure that out, right. This country has spent has been building the current family regulation system since the 1850s. So how many years is that? What is it nearly 200 years? How about we take the next 100 years to figure out just and loving communities of care for our children and our families and our communities. So we we are all of all of us who are doing this work to fight family regulation system, I think we have largely been working in varying conditions of isolation, and also without a lot of resources and support. And I you know, I can speak for myself and many of my comrades that I think we really appreciate folks who want to show up, right, show up humble and throw down with us. And there are just so many ways to do that. So, you know, just to give some concrete ways if you are in New York State or even you know it wherever you are in the country if the injustice of hospital drug testing of pregnant people new Mamas and their babies at birth and feeding of children into the foster system straight from the womb. If that is something that feels really awful to you, you want to do something about it. There's a campaign right now in New York State. That J Mac for families, Movement for Family Power Drug Policy Alliance in the Bronx Defenders Family Defense Practice are leading to really raise awareness about this injustice and to call for accountability for all the harm that hospitals and CPS, excuse me, the family regulation system is doing. And one, one aspect of this is requiring is legislation that would require hospitals to obtain the informed consent. So literally just ask somebody can I drug test you, can I drug test your baby, which believe it or not, they're not doing right now. Require them to seek the informed consent, you know, and let them know the result of this test may be called into the foster system. And you have a right to tell us, we cannot test you. And we cannot reject you for medical treatment. So if you want to throw down on that campaign, you can visit our website, go to the campaign's tab, click on reimagined support, there's a sign up sheet there. Another campaign, that Movement for Family Power is working on with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, and activists all over the country is to challenge the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which is a super, super violent law that has accelerated this really atrocious practice of the termination of parental rights. And so we are all together, building a national campaign to repeal this awful law and raise awareness around the unjustice of termination of parental rights. And you can email repeal asfa, r e p e a l a s f a, if you'd like to get involved with that campaign. We're inviting people to email that email address and we're going to be responding to people this summer about how they can get involved. There are also you know, people who are writing about this addresses who are activating around it really encourage you to learn from people. Elizabeth Brico writes a lot about the intersection of the drug war and the foster system. If you just Google Elizabeth Brico the name you will find so much on talk poverty on filter. Her blog buddies battleground is really amazing. Dinah Ortiz has written quite a bit about this and does a lot of amazing activism. The North Carolina Survivors Union has been doing a lot of awesome activism around foster system injustice and actually defeated a terrible bill in the North Carolina legislature last year, which was very much a drug war foster system. Bill. There's just there's so many people doing amazing work there as the parent legislative action network in New York City which is headed by Joyce McMillan. And you can visit her website J Mac for families. If you or someone you know who is who is actually you know, and and is working with parents who are facing the system and you're trying to think through like well, how can I help people navigate this awesome system? Bobbie Butts and Vonya Quarles in Riverside California are our, our you know, doing really groundbreaking work in in participatory defense and family defense case and family court cases. And so you can reach out to them through Facebook. If you look at Family Reunification, Equity and Empowerment for Starting Over Inc. Those two organizations. Michelle Chan in Contra Costa County, California is doing a lot of organizing to folks who've been impacted and protesting outside of courthouses to impeach corrupt Family Court judges. Kelis Houston in Minneapolis, Minnesota is pushing for the African American Family Preservation Act, given the vastly disproportionate number of targeting racist targeting of Black children and families in Minnesota by the family regulation system. Elephant Circle, Indra Lucero in Colorado, Denver is doing really amazing work there, because Colorado explicitly in its statute up until recently said that your baby testing positive is per se child maltreatment. So they are doing work to fight the child welfare system there. There's just a lot of really, you know, I'm not I wish I could just sort of talk and talk and give a very comprehensive list. It's probably not what you're wanting me to do. So I'll stop but there's so much good work that's happening. In terms of reading definitely pick up Dorothy Roberts Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. And it's actually a new edition is coming out this year to celebrate its 20th anniversary with Dorothy Roberts seminal scholar on race and the law calls for abolition of the system. Chiara Bridges has done a lot of amazing writing at the intersection of repro justice in the foster system. Her book Policing Poverty Rights, Super, super important to read. Yeah, I could, I could really just keep going. But I'll stop. 

Gabriella Miyares  (34:36)  
That was fantastic. And I think you know, it's so important for people that have no idea where to start, to have a list of resources like that is incredible. And we'll be including links to all of the organizations you mentioned. And if you want to add any more, I'll add them into the episode description so that people can access those easily. Do you have any kind of final thoughts for our listeners, before we leave you?

Lisa Sangoi  (34:59)  
We invite you to read our report, it looks super long, but trust me, it's very skimmable. It's got lots of graphs and photos and big pull out block quotes. It's just a good way to sort of get some political education around the injustice. There is an associated video on our website, the Drug Policy Alliance also put out an awesome publication. So I think, you know, political education in this injustice areas really, really important, so just really encourage you to be learning as much as you can. And then join us on one of our campaigns we'd love to throw down with you.

Gabriella Miyares  (35:36)  
Great, and we just wanted to thank you again, Lisa, for all the work you do and your organization's work. It's just so valuable to have you as a partner in this fight.

Lisa Sangoi  (35:48)  
Thank you. Thank you to Drug Policy Alliance. We so appreciate your guys's partnership in this work.

Gabriella Miyares  (36:00)  
A huge thanks again to Lisa Sangoi for joining us and to all of the incredible work done by our partners at Movement for Family Power. To learn more about their work, visit and be sure to follow them on Twitter @MOVfamilypower. To learn more about how the drug war hurts families across child welfare and many other systems visit Thanks to all of our listeners, stay safe and stay well.

Outro  (36:32)
Drugs and Stuff is brought to you by the Drug Policy Alliance. If you like what you hear in the podcast, do us a favor and rate the show on iTunes. Give it five stars and a nice review. Also, we'd love to hear from you. Tweet at us @drugsnstuffDPA, use the hashtag #drugsandstuff. And check out our website to see the other work we do, sign up for our emails, and donate. Special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller, and to the hard working staff of the Drug Policy Alliance for all of their work. Thanks for listening.

Strengthening Families