Reproductive Rights, Parental Rights, and Family Violence: A Dangerous Intersection

Joan Dawson

We are actually witnessing an erosion of protections of women and children in abusive relationships. Policies that reflect social biases paint women as “vindictive” liars, combine with the efforts of both alleged abusers to fight to regain control of their wives and children and fathers’ rights proponents are harming women and children trying to escape abuse.

This article was updated at 1:44 pm EST to insert a missing paragraph.

When do reproductive rights end? Do they end at birth? Do they continue throughout a child’s life? Do reproductive rights extend to parental rights? These are questions we are just starting to ask. And finding the answer can be, in many cases, the difference between life and death.

Most agree that women have a right to control their own bodies. However, recent research shows that some men sabotage women’s use of birth control and some use coercion to get a woman pregnant. Abusive men use these tactics to control women. And in cases where a woman then has children in an abusive setting, what are the woman’s reproductive rights and how do these intersect with her parental rights? Surely, charges of “failure to protect” can be used against her if she or the child is harmed. But what happens when women flee such relationships or try to deny abusive parents access to their children? Does either the judicial system or society support her in her efforts to protect her children? Do we believe her? Provide her with protection? Deny abusers access to children?

We are actually witnessing an erosion of protections of women and children in abusive relationships. In this article, I examine the ways in which policies that reflect social biases painting women as “vindictive” liars, combine with the efforts of both alleged abusers to fight to regain control of their wives and children and fathers’ rights proponents  are harming women and children trying to escape abuse.

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Approximately 100,000 contested child custody cases occur each year in the U.S. Two-thirds of these involve domestic violence, committed overwhelmingly (90 percent) by fathers, according to Harvard’s Jay Silverman, in a forward to the book Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody. Research finds that men who assault their wives are also likely to abuse their children. While we are likely to believe that the protective parent would gain custody, this is not often the case. In contested custody cases, men who seek custody get it up to 84 percent of the time. The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence estimates that approximately 58,000 children a year go into unsupervised, joint or sole custody with an abusive parent. What’s a mother to do to protect herself and her child?

Failure to protect

In a recent case our judicial system was tested and failed. Katie Tagle sought a restraining order on Jan. 21, 2010 against her ex-boyfriend Stephen Garcia to stop him from having unsupervised visitation with their nine-month-old child. She told the judge Garcia threatened to kill the infant. The judge thought she was lying. The court transcript records Judge Robert Lemkau as saying, “One of you is lying…” And later, “Mr. Garcia claims it’s total fabrication on your part.” Garcia also referred to it as “little stunts and games” that “she used” to deny him access to his son. Even when she mentions the evidence of the threats, he says, “Well, ma’am, there’s a real dispute about whether that’s even true or not.” And finally, “My suspicion is that you’re lying…” (said twice). He denied her the order (as did two other judges). Garcia took their son that day and drove off into the mountains. Ten days later they were both found dead.

If this were only an isolated case, it might end there. But it’s not.

Within two weeks of the Garcia-Tagle case, on February 8, 20-year-old Nicholas Bacon shot his nine-month-old son and then himself. Bacon had joint custody.  

Shortly after these two cases, 34-year-old Jesus Roman Fuentes shot his four-year-old son during a court-ordered visitation. The boy died at the hospital. The father, who had also shot himself, died this past week.

And following on these three cases, Mark Resch shot his seven-year-old son during a scheduled visitation and then committed suicide. The apparent motive was revenge against his estranged wife. In this case, the wife sought two orders of protection and police removed a gun from the household. Evidently, the family court judge still believed this man was a safe parent.

Mark A. Guenther was charged in the murder of his 18-month-old daughter this month. According to a commenter named Brokenhearten, who posted a comment on the news article:

Her mother tried and tried to get something done so that she did not have to go see her father. She had DFS out to his house, they found nothing…She filed for an order of protection on a couple different occassions…they were dismissed…She refused to let her see her dad until her back was up to the wall…the court systems had tied her hands and she had no other choices but to let her sweet baby go to her dads house and hope that everything was ok…

Once again, parental rights trumped safety and the system meant to protect children ignored the dangers identified by the mother.

Family court and fathers’ rights = A deadly combination 

Historically, battered women have had problems retaining custody of their children. Mainly this was due to how they present; in a word, poorly. They cry, they’re frightened, they appear anxious and even hostile. Now add to this mix the Fathers’ Rights movement, a group referred to as anti-feminist, backlash and even, the “Abusers’ Lobby” and you have what amounts to a catastrophe, if not a deadly combination, for women and children. (In contrast, positive parenting or responsible fatherhood groups often work as allies with women.)

The Fathers’ rights movement (along with many Men’s rights activists), has introduced policies such as “friendly parent” policies, joint custody, punishment for false allegations and various syndromes to family courts across the country (as well as in many Western countries and in India). Most of these policies seem beneficial on the surface — but have hidden dangers lurking underneath.

In today’s courts with friendly parent policies, a battered woman will look anything but friendly. So who gets custody? The one who appears most likely to share parenting responsibilities. Often enough, the batterer.

Joint custody is another policy that sounds fair in principle, but experts warn it is not ideal for couples with high conflict. Family court is, however, known to be “the place” for couples with moderate-to-high conflict. Most couples (roughly 85 percent) resolve parenting plans themselves. Those that can’t, and often enough those with some prior history of abuse or control, go to family court. Fathers’ rights groups would like to see family courts enforce presumptive or mandated shared custody. Experts in domestic violence would not.

Domestic violence experts also cringe at the idea of punishing false allegations, something the fathers’ rights groups actively promote. Since accusations of abuse can be difficult to prove – with evidence and witnesses – this can serve to punish parents for alleging abuse. Punishment deters reporting. Parents can be fined, jailed or denied custody if the judge doesn’t believe their accusation. Domestic violence expert Barry Goldstein says, “Research has established that fathers in contested custody cases are 16 times more likely than mothers to make false allegations. It is not that men are more dishonest, but 90 percent of contested custody cases involve abusive fathers seeking custody to pressure their partner to return or punish her for leaving. Although fathers are more likely to make false charges, courts are more likely to believe them.”

Parental alienation (PA) or parental alienation syndrome (PAS), the idea that a parent poisons the mind of the child(ren), is another idea introduced within the last two decades by fathers rights groups. Developed by Dr. Richard Gardner, PAS is highly controversial. Proponents claim parents (mostly mothers) turn their children against the other parent. Opponents claim PAS can mask child abuse. Indeed, research by Jay Silverman found 54 percent of cases with documented abuse were in favor of abusers. PAS was used in nearly every case.

In many of the cases I’ve cited, had the women tried to deny the fathers access to the children, they could’ve been countered with “alienation” or the judge could’ve immediately transferred custody over to the more “friendly” parent.

In a case stemming from November, for example, Danielle Horvat fled with her three-and-a-half-year-old boy, Garrett Aguilar on a day that she had a dispute with the boy’s father, David Aguilar. She stopped at one domestic violence shelter. Despite the fact that police did not investigate her claims of abuse, the court immediately transferred custody over to the father, as they often do when parents flee.

The incredible lightness of domestic violence

Thanks to the aid of the Internet, (mostly) men that make claims of being falsely accused or alienated find support, encouragement and targets for their anger — which is aimed at their exes, or women in general and feminists in particular. Individuals and groups that promote studies referring to domestic violence as 50-50 or “mutual” also find supporters within this crowd. Many of these claims are based on studies that rely on self-reportage or pick up common couple violence. Their limitations include using self-report; not picking up severe violence or homicide; not putting violence into context (was it used for self-defense?); and not including violence during separation (the most dangerous time for a woman). What the promotion of these studies has done is introduce the element of doubt. If you combine this with women’s low credibility (due to societal bias and the biases of the legal system), you have danger.

Take the case of Timothy Frazier. In May 2009, Frazier convinced police his ex-girlfriend Candice Dempsey was a threat to their 21-month-old son. While Frazier made it very clear to police he did not have custody, police readily handed his son over to him. Two weeks later, both were found dead. 

Even when the woman is believed, it is not often the father will have his parental rights terminated. Last year, Octavious Dupree Gilmore punched his ex-girlfriend in the head and threatened to kill her, their two kids and himself.  The Gaston Gazette reported him as saying, “”…(I)f I can’t have you, nobody can,” Gilmore allegedly told her. “I’ll kill you, the kids, then myself.” He was charged but later released. According to the article, he was told to “have no contact with the accuser outside of their child custody agreement,” (emphasis mine). Despite an assault and death threats, the judge believed this man to be a safe parent.

In another case, charges of domestic violence were not given much weight, as they were not placed in context of the abuser’s history. Craig Alan Wall, Sr. was a suspect in his 5-week-old son’s death. He violated a protection order when he went to his son’s memorial. The prosecutor never mentioned that Wall was a suspect in his son’s case or that he had served a 14-year prison sentence for armed robbery. The judge released Wall on $1,000 bail. Two days later, he stabbed his ex-girlfriend (the child’s mother) to death. She was 29 and left behind a 6-year-old son.

Fathers rights do not trump women and children’s safety

In many of these cases, the women are doing what they are “supposed to do:” reporting domestic violence, filing orders of protection, using shelters, and so on. And yet, despite jumping all the hoops set up for them, in many of these cases, the system is failing them. The women in question are not finding justice for themselves or their children. As a result, we find women who feel forced to stay with an abuser or forced to share parenting rather than not be able to protect her children at all. These women are not “failing to protect,” but the judicial system is failing to protect them and their children from further harm, abuse and death. (For citations to research on women losing custody, see www.leadershipcouncil.org) [Note: organizations like Justice for Children do report men experiencing similar situations, but overwhelmingly we witness women facing this type of bias and injustice in family court.]

Many of the fathers rights guys think their reproductive rights extend to their parental rights. This should also be the case for women — and, indeed, many mothers’ rights groups have sprung up in defense of these rights. So the question remains: When do our reproductive rights end? How can we we prevent women from losing custody of the very children they bear? How can we help them protect themselves and their children from harm? How can we help women receive justice in a judicial system that may not believe their claims and may actually punish them for making abuse allegations?  Fathers do have rights, no doubt, but their rights do not trump women and children’s safety. That is the balance — the justice — that we must seek — and it’s a matter of life and death that we do so soon.

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.