The Appalling Commodification of Children

U.S. Department of Labor photos coming from the investigation showing children working Grand Island, Nebraska, in 2022 (The U.S. Department of Labor blurred portions of the photos to protect the individuals’ identities).

This Spring has seen timely attention to the shocking use of child labour in the U.S. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the current situation of children in the U.S. and worldwide. Attention to children waxes and wanes: Engels and Dickens wrote about the deplorable, even murderous, treatment of children in ‘civilized’ Victorian England. Novelists, child victims, Freud and Freudians, attachment and infant researchers, contribute much to understanding what children endure, what they think, feel, and need. What is described here is not secret: for example, Amy Goodman and her colleagues (Democracy Now) consistently report about children worldwide. Suppression and distortion of this information is also a constant: there is much awareness of the backlash to Sinead O’Connor’s revelations about Church abuse, of the concealment of Indigenous deaths in residential schools, and Israel’s attempt to conceal information about its treatment of Palestinian children by labelling Defence for Children International a terrorist organization. This article about child commodification summarizes recent research on systemic policies since 1996 that have caused unprecedented and unparalleled cruelty to racialized and impoverished children in the U.S. .

This system of extreme abuse is orchestrated by the courts and includes collaborative and complementary agencies. There is a deception of legal legitimacy although the set-up violates the constitutional separation of the branches of government. Together, the various agencies implement disastrously unjust policies towards Black and other racialized impoverished people.

Daniel L. Hatcher, in his book Injustice, Inc. How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor, describes in detail a frankly apartheid system finely designed to milk every source of revenue from poor children. [1]. He describes “factory-like operations”, “industrialization of harm”, “child support mercenaries”. He quotes official contracts that describe foster children as “units”, children as “data match algorithms” for “predictive analytics”, and children as a “revenue generating mechanism.” Paraphrasing poet Walt Whitman: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking … [to] death, death, death, death.”

Courts for the poor are “rocket dockets”, designed for efficiency and profit. In one year one judge processed 5402 cases, two judges processed 23,923 cases. In Hatcher’s first day in court he represented several foster children in one afternoon. “The processing of their cases started in the basement of a historic Baltimore courthouse, constructed in 1896. After walking with a fleeting feeling of grandeur through the imposing entrance of granite and marble, towering columns, and carved lions, I abruptly encountered a line of mostly Black children shackled in chains as they were shuffled to delinquency proceedings. Upstairs was for affluent child cases, for families with attorneys, where decisions could take days of hearings, where “parents hire lawyers, and their cases are served by experienced judges who decide almost unlimited issues of child custody, divorce, alimony, child support, dividing payments for expensive summer camps and private schools….” Judges provide scheduled conferences, mediations, pretrial hearings.The courts for the poor are usually not decided by real judges but by “hearing officers”, “commissioners”, “masters,” or “friends of the court.” Pennsylvania only requires six hours of specific juvenile law instruction for these attorney but requires six hundred hours of direct training to be a licensed massage therapist. Parents are often forced to take unpaid time off their low wage jobs, and then wait for hours for their cases to be processed, and then decided in minutes, sometimes less. “Downstairs was a dank room with flickering florescent light encased in broken yellow plastic over stained flooring, crowded with worn metal tables and mismatched office chairs with torn vinyl – the ‘stip’ room. Most cases were decided without actual court hearing… One of the judicial masters sent a message demanding our immediate presence to quickly dispose of the cases because the Baltimore Orioles game was scheduled to start soon.”

Hatcher explains how this system works to maximize profit and commodify children. Starting in Ohio juvenile courts in 1996 and rapidly spreading to the rest of the country, a convoluted contractual process created interagency ‘subgrant agreements’ that enabled the courts themselves to take over various agency functions while simultaneously serving to review its own actions. The more poor children are taken into the foster care system and the more parental rights are terminated, the more money the courts and agencies can claim from federal Title IV-E Foster Care and Adoption and Title IV-D Child Support funds. In addition, the courts and agencies can claim veterans and social security benefits and innumerable kinds of fines and fees from impoverished parents and children: in Jackson County, Oregon, probationers must pay a $50 sign-up fee and a monthly fee to provide mandated community service work!

Courts contract “to make millions more from struggling children and families in child support proceedings.” They use children to obtain millions in revenue. The system includes prosecutors, probation departments, sheriffs, police, countless detention facilities, residential treatment centers, reform schools sometimes called “farms” or “villages” or “camps”, caseworkers and psychotherapists, non-profits. The Judicial Council of California publishes an annual report that isn’t about justice but best practices on collecting fines and fees. The statewide collections programs collected $1.163b in one year while pursuing an additional $8.6b in fines and fees. Ohio’s Lucas County reported $2m in foster care and child support revenue. Children must be poor to qualify for Title IV-E revenue. ”Rather than judicial independence and impartiality, the courts have a direct financial interest in the outcome of judicial hearings.” Once the children have been labeled and pulled into the system, the courts can keep processing them — at a constant risk of removal — to claim IV-E revenue for the courts’ operation.” (p. 34). Most of the grants and fees do not go to the children or families but to the courts and agencies for administering this system. Families are pulled into an inescapable vortex of impoverishment, imprisonment, and loss of parental rights. Predicably, child support orders and court appearances require parents to miss work and lose low-wage jobs, push them into debt, often leading to the arrest of fathers for inability to pay child support and court fees, and then limited by having a prison record.

Dorothy Roberts writes extensively about the injustice, cruelty, and the personal heartbreak for Black children and their parents. Her most recent book is Torn Apart. [2] During the 1990s the newly-created diagnosis of “crack babies” was the usable racialized scourge to allow massive arrests and the forcible removal of newborns from parental custody. At the end of 1997, out of 42,000 children in the New York City child welfare system only 1300 were white. This was the time of Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms (cutbacks and work requirements) and Hillary talked about “super predators” and crack babies. Roberts writes state violence: Black girls and boys kicked out of preschool, the police shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice while he played in a park, the confinement of six-year-old Nadia King in a mental health facility for throwing a tantrum in kindergarten, the suicide of Kalief Browder after he spent years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island for allegedly snatching a backpack. She quotes a 2018 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, warning that the “toxic stress” children experience when separated from their parents “can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture,” potentially leading to “lifelong consequences for children…To pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.” She quotes the 2018 Washington Post psychological research article “What separation from Parents Does to Children”: “Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and – especially in young children – wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.”

Roberts writes that “it should not require a mountain of scientific research to demonstrate the anguish caused by forcibly taking children from their homes. We hardly need a psychological study to understand that ripping children from the familiar people in their lives and thrusting them into the care of unfamiliar ones is traumatizing.” She writes of child protection workers snatching children from their beds in the middle of the night, babies from maternity wards, toddlers from playgrounds, and children off school buses….” This is terrifying and agonizing for children and parents. Children are sentenced to life without parole, and 62% of these children are Black.

There are deep historical roots in American racism, slavery, and classifying Black people as 3/5 human without rights to their own children. From British Poor Laws there is the dehumanization of poor people rooted in the Poor Laws from the 14th century, 1834, and 1948, with parallels to Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform legislation with its work requirement and reduced payments. Pauperism was seen as a personal failure. Helping the poor encourages sloth, drunkenness, promiscuity. In British rural communities, employers received compensation when a child was hired, and thus employers profited by working children to death so that they could receive compensation for a new hire.[3]

While these court magistrates decide cases within minutes, mental health professionals also dispense diagnoses within minutes based on momentary impressions, foisting on children and parents alarming lifelong prognoses. Being ‘on-the-spectrum’ requires programmed treatments that bring more revenue into the child commodification system. The medicalization of diagnosis and treatment complements the commodifying reductionism of what is human. [4].

What is to be done? First, terminate the unlawful contract system that allows the courts to breach the separation of executive and judicial powers. Second, implement thoroughly informed best practices for all services involving children and families. Decades ago experts warned that the state repeatedly and unjustifiably removes children for neglect, especially poor and racialized children, while the state repeatedly fails to protect children whose very lives are obviously endangered. [5] The two sides of Nuremberg are applicable to the injustices reported here: the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Law codified racism against Jews, Roma, and Black people, while the post-WWII Nuremberg Defense ruled that following orders is not an excuse for individual culpability. Nuremberg chief prosecutor Robert Jackman said: “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. His discretion is tremendous… While the prosecutor at his best is one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when he acts from malice or other base motives, he is one of the worst.” He warned that financial motives is one of the greatest lures from the path of justice. [Hatcher,P 45-46}.


Paraphrasing the poet W.B. Yeats* All must change utterly.

*All changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born. From Easter, 1916

[1]Daniel L. Hatcher. Injustice, Inc. How America’s Justice System Commodifies Children and the Poor. University of California Press, Oakland, 2023.

[2]Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: how the child welfare system destroys Black families – and how abolition can build a safer world, Basic Books, New York, 2022.

[3]Quigley, William P. “Backwards into the Future: How Welfare Changes in the Millenium Resemble English Poor Law of the Middle Ages.” Stanford Law & Policy Review, vol. 9, no. 1, Winter 1998, pp. 101-114.

And see Marilynne Robinson, Mother Country: Britain, the welfare state and nuclear pollution, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1989.

[4] On medicalization and neurobiological reductionism, see for example Agustin Fuentes, Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies they Told You: busting myths about human nature, University of California Press, Berkeley. 2012.

Also, Richard Lewontin It Ain’t Necessarily So: the dream of the human genome and other illusions. New York Review of Books, New York. 2000.

[5] Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, Albert J. Solnit. Beyond the Best Interests of the Child, New York: Free Press. 1973.

Judith Deutsch is a psychoanalyst in Toronto. She is former president of Science for Peace. She can be reached at