Punishing Mothers and Children Is a Strategy of Colonizing

Punishing Mothers and Children Is a Strategy of Colonizing
Today’s punishment of communities for generations via punishing mothers is not new. The U.S. legal system’s punitive engagement with mothers and families can return our attention to the punishment of communities by the legal removal of children first practiced with forced Indian boarding schools by the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Photo by Dennis Oliveira/UpSplash

Women in prisons are significantly mothers. According to recent research, more than 60% of the women in prisons have children minors for which they are the sole caregivers. Combined with the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, many mothers in prisons experience the U.S. government’s termination of their parental rights when their children have been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.

Over the last 15 years, studies show that of the sisters behind cement walls, 60%–70% are convicted of nonviolent crimes. These rates illustrate that incarceration is not about hampering violence. Rather, punishing mothers and their children ensures that the communities from which they stem are punished and that the communities experience that punishment for generations.

Today’s punishment of communities for generations via punishing mothers is not new. The U.S. legal system’s punitive engagement with mothers and families can return our attention to the punishment of communities by the legal removal of children first practiced with forced Indian boarding schools by the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The history of taking children from communities, communities stigmatized by the White supremacy culture of colonizers, was a strategic legal assault on indigenous nations through punishing families. The legal legitimizing of taking children away from their communities was normalized across more than 100 years; forcing the removal of children from their kin is still a widespread experience across this country.

The focus of this month’s column shines a light on the legal and symbolic links between forced Indian boarding schools and today’s punishment of mothers through the use of incarceration and removal of their children. Legally, the laws ensure that mothers from contextually stigmatized communities—BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities and poor neighborhoods—are disproportionately incarcerated and then have their children removed.

Our Black and Latinx sisters are disproportionately incarcerated compared to their population size. That is, while Black and Latinx sisters are minorities in terms of population size in the United States, we fill up prisons at a disproportionate rate.

Researchers show that BIPOC women are far more frequently punished through incarceration than White peers. The heritage categories and counts that are available in studies illustrate this in terms of the composition of U.S. women’s prisons: Black 17.6%, Latinx 18.7%, White 47.3% and Other 16.3%.

Not discussed in this month’s column are the thousands of children from BIPOC communities and poor neighborhoods who are removed from their families without their mothers punished with incarceration even though this also illustrates the legal and symbolic links between forced Indian boarding schools and contemporary practices that target BIPOC communities and poor neighborhoods. 

The symbolic link between forced Indian boarding schools and today’s punishment of mothers is, perhaps, the most important to clarify. The colonizing of BIPOC populations is reflected in today’s removal of mothers from their communities, the removal of children from their families and the dismantling of communities for generations. The disproportionate incarceration of BIPOC and poor mothers as well as the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 are colonial tactics for colonial visions of the future.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs forced boarding schools to remove children from their families who were contextually stigmatized. These schools also dismantled so much of our indigenous nations with generational injury. These removals, past and present, share the same colonial features of targeting non-Whites for a White supremacy vision.

Forced Indian boarding schools began in the 1860s and forced enrollment ended in 1978. At the time, after nearly 100 years, native parents were provided the legal right to deny the U.S. government’s removal of our children. About 100 years prior, however, colonizing North America was under way through dominating natural resources, use of war, use of encouraged settler attacks and engaging in rigged governmental negotiations with indigenous nations.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs launched forced schools as a strategy of the war efforts against indigenous nations. This is chronicled in great detail in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s book An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. The launching of forced schools was an added strategy for genocide. The resistance of indigenous nations was countered first by war and then by the removal of our children.

The newly forming U.S. government’s legal system cloaked the colonizers’ actions, shrouding genocide in a coat of supposedly noncultural, objective legal legitimacy to eradicate indigenous resistance.

Integral to the U.S. legal system, like much of Western culture, is the social construction of the legitimacy of laws. Laws are culturally invented, yet are also leaned on as circular evidence of legitimate government action: The laws say we can engage in genocide, therefore genocide is appropriate.

The colonizing actions at the forced schools included physical, sexual and cultural oppression, all of which is well documented. By the 1920s, more than 60,000 children were forced into schools, including toddlers. Less well documented are the deaths of the children in the schools.

With the leadership of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a federal review of the forced schools was launched this year. Furthermore, just last month, Nebraska unveiled a plaque to recognize the deaths of hundreds of children in their state’s schools. Also, those who survived and aged out of the schools have participated in documenting their experiences and the generational trauma that these schools systematically ensured.

In contemporary times, we refer to the U.S. legal system in terms of various courts such as the criminal, juvenile and family courts. These separately named and functioning courts share a foundational history of colonialism.

While there are established timelines for the start of incarcerating women in the United States, the launch of the juvenile court and so forth—all discussed in Our Punitive Society, which my mentor Randy Shelden and I released this year—these courts share the earliest U.S. legal theme of reacting to oppressed communities with the removal of the children from their kin.

Systematically destroying indigenous families can be argued as the early family and juvenile court laws; the removal of indigenous children from their families for genocide is the ultimate punishment basketing the creations of the courts to come in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Three intersecting forces mirror to us the designs of the forced boarding schools blueprinted into the 21st century: 1) the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the contemporary exhuming of our children’s bodies intersects with 2) the historical dismantling of communities, past and present, and 3) the supposed appropriateness of disproportionately punishing some populations through the mechanism of incarceration punishment. 

The first 100 years of indigenous resistance received the wrath of colonizers; colonizers expanded their genocidal methods to the forced schools as an additional approach. Attacking families and children, the core of any nation, was the U.S. government’s approach to slowing the continuous indigenous resistance.

There is no arms resistance today against the ongoing colonizing actions of the U.S. government. Instead, our communities tell our stories, advocate in policy outlets and heal our bodies even in the face of insidious reverberations of colonizing that show up in our rates of diabetes, early death, missing women and more.

Yet, there is still the presence of the punishment for BIPOC families and children through the cloak of supposedly noncultural, objective legitimacy in criminal and family court laws that permit the incarceration and removal rates that we see today. It would almost seem that the colonial tactics still see BIPOC communities as threats of resistance. 

Legitimizing the removal of children through laws implemented against mothers from contextually stigmatized communities should create discomfort among readers. Colonizing through the use of the legal system today involves the removal of mothers, their children and the echoing harm to communities for generations.

Ultimately, punishing oppressed populations through laws is with us today. Exacting force over indigenous nations, exacting force over BIPOC communities through punishing mothers, these mirror one another. We must be thoughtful in order to extract legitimacy for oppression from U.S. laws.

Resources for readers to engage in rectifying the legal and generational impact of forced Indian boarding school include the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and the Red Road Project. Resources for families who have mothers in prison include the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the American Civil Liberties Union.


  • Morghan Vélez Young

    Morghan Vélez Young, Ph.D., is an educator and researcher focused on transformative opportunities for those involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. She consults and trains through BROWNGIRLHEALING.org and lectures in the Anthropology Department at Fresno State. Contact her at mvelezyoung@csufresno.edu.

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