In many ways, the presidency of Donald Trump is about turning back the clock ― returning the nation to a time with fewer consumer protections, minimal abortion rights, diminished opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities, and even less preservation of endangered environments. Last week, Trump signaled a desire to turn back the clock on our approach to child welfare, too.
Among the president’s invited guests for his 2018 State of the Union speech, seated right next to his wife Melania, was a young white family — an Albuquerque, New Mexico, police officer, his wife and their baby girl. Here is their story, as Trump told it that night:
Last year, Ryan was on duty when he saw a pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin. When Ryan told her she was going to harm her unborn child, she began to weep. She told him she did not know where to turn, but badly wanted a safe home for her baby. In that moment, Ryan said he felt God speak to him: “You will do it — because you can.” He took out a picture of his wife and their four kids. Then, he went home to tell his wife, Rebecca. In an instant, she agreed to adopt. The Holets named their new daughter Hope.
This was, for Trump, an uplifting story — a tale of “the goodness of our nation,” a family finding “their new daughter.” He made no mention of the other family that was broken apart. He named both Officer Holets and his wife. He recited the name they gave to the child. But he did not name the baby’s mother, Crystal Champ, or even mention that her partner, the baby’s father, Tom Key, was with her when Holets proposed to adopt their child.
There was a time in America when this story wouldn’t have been unusual, a time when women down on their luck, or reeling from the effects of bad decisions, or just plain poor, regularly had their children taken from them and placed in “better homes.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of children from urban slums, many of them with living parents, were shipped west on “orphan trains” to start new lives with farm families — and, not incidentally, provide much-needed labor for the “settling” of the West.
The orphan trains were discontinued by the 1920s, as demographics and values shifted and more resources became available to help urban families, but child removal as a means of social engineering went on. Here in the United States, Native American children were frequently taken from their families to be raised by whites, a practice that was curtailed by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, but persists to a lesser extent today. In Britain and Ireland, young unwed mothers were for decades coerced into giving their children to two-parent families. There as in the United States, the interests of mothers and the interests of children — and of adoptive parents — were seen as opposed.
In recent decades, national child welfare policy has shifted dramatically, emphasizing the bond between parent and child and the importance of keeping families intact when possible. If a parent is in crisis, the thinking goes, the first priority is to ameliorate that crisis. If a mother feels she cannot keep her baby, it’s best for both child and mother to help her create the conditions under which she can.
But as Trump told the story, when Officer Holets looked at Champ and Key, he didn’t see a family in crisis and in need of assistance. Instead, he saw a woman failing to take care of her unborn child, and he saw his new daughter. And so in this anecdote, he didn’t offer Champ and Key drug rehab, or medical care, or shelter, or money, or parenting classes, or even short-term foster care. He just showed them a photo of his family and urged them to give him their child to raise as his own, forever. (And if other kinds of help actually were offered then or later, the president didn’t think it worth noting.)
There was a logic to his act, of course. Champ and Key had no home; Holets had one. They had no stability and few resources; he had plenty of both. The argument that their child would have a better chance, a better life, with him was — and is — an easy one to make.
But that’s only the case if we treat the birth of a child to a family in crisis as a mistake to be rectified. And if we adopt that position, then every birth is a moment for cold calculation: Is this family good enough for this baby, or is there another family somewhere who would be better?
That calculation becomes even more fraught when, as here, an authority figure suggesting that the child be removed stands to gain from the decision to remove it. Officer Holets and his wife had been discussing adopting in the future. Crystal Champ and Tom Key were addicted to opioids and had been caught in the commission of a crime. He had the power to arrest them (although ultimately he did not charge them). Under such circumstances, the decision to give up a child could hardly be freely made, and the decision to urge adoption was hardly disinterested.
This is not merely a story of compassion and love. It is also a story of a man with a badge and a gun seeing an expectant mother in crisis and deciding — in that moment — that the best choice was to take the baby for himself.
It’s not hard to see why President Trump was drawn to this story. For him, the world is divided into the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy, and the interests and the concerns and the rights of the latter group deserve no consideration. And so, of all the tales of heroism and bravery and selflessness that he could have lifted up when he mentioned the opioid crisis, this is the one he chose to tell.
Crystal Champ remained homeless and addicted for weeks after she gave birth to Hope in mid-October. It wasn’t until a CNN article about Hope’s adoption went viral two months later that Holets launched a GoFundMe campaign for Champ and her partner, and facilitated an introduction between them and a drug treatment provider. As of last week, Champ and Key had been sober for 40 days, but Hope lives with the Holets family now. Like so many babies before her, she belongs to someone else.
Angus Johnston is a historian of American student activism and social movements. He teaches at Hostos Community College in the City University of New York.