Is our child welfare system “broken”? Or is it ripping apart Black families by design?
In 2001, University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts released a groundbreaking book, “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare,” laying out the case that most children in the U.S. foster care system are there not because of abuse, but for reasons that boil down to poverty. At the time Roberts was writing, one in 10 children in central Harlem was placed in foster care. Today, Roberts writes in her new book, “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World,” more than one in 10 Black children across the nation can expect to land in the system by age 18.
Just as the U.S. is a global outlier when it comes to mass incarceration, Roberts writes, “The United States extinguishes the legal rights of more parents than any other nation on Earth.” And as with so many other state systems, the brunt falls disproportionately on nonwhite communities.
As a reproductive justice advocate — Roberts’ 1998 book “Killing the Black Body” is another classic of its field — Roberts has written about the child welfare system within that Black feminist framework, arguing that true reproductive autonomy must include the right to parent the children one has and to keep those children safe. That’s a timely issue as we face the likely reversal of Roe v. Wade, with numerous conservatives, including Supreme Court justices, citing a dwindling “domestic supply of infants” relinquished for adoption as a partial justification for re-criminalizing abortion.
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As Roberts argues below, many of the children born of unwanted pregnancies if Roe is overturned are likely to find their way into the child welfare system. That makes it vital to understand, as Roberts argues more forcefully than ever before in “Torn Apart,” how the system is fundamentally designed not to promote child welfare but to police and punish the most marginalized communities in the nation.
Under that system, parents who come under scrutiny because, say, a teacher reports that their kids wore dirty clothes to school, are regularly sent on months- or years-long missions to complete an impossible array of tasks — regularly including classes on parenting, anger management and substance abuse, as well as mandatory counseling appointments, court dates and meetings with case workers — rather than receiving support that addresses their core problem: poverty. Mothers who suffer domestic violence have often been re-victimized by CPS agencies that charge them with child abuse for allowing their children to witness the abuse. Legal scholars who seek to expedite adoptions argue that entire city neighborhoods should be declared unfit for children. And meanwhile, the children placed in foster care often emerge traumatized, so isolated and unprepared for adulthood that many end up in prison, homeless or entangled in sex work.
But Roberts’ book also comes amid a new movement calling not for reforming broken system but abolishing it altogether, arguing that “The only way to stop the destruction caused by family policing is to stop policing families.” Roberts spoke with Salon this May.
I want to start by asking about your argument at the end of the book: that you can’t fix a system that isn’t broken. Few people know much about the problems in child welfare to begin with, let alone the argument that the system is functioning as it was designed.
I think you’re right that people aren’t aware of how the system operates. Many know there are flaws because of headlines: stories that refer to children killed in the home who were known to the system. But the way people usually respond is, “That means we need the system to take more children away from their families.” So to the extent they are aware of problems, the response is often to shore up the system.
What I’m trying to get across is that this isn’t a system designed to protect children at all. It’s designed to police the most politically marginalized families in the nation. It’s always been designed that way, from its origins centuries ago. And when you have a system that is fundamentally designed to oppress people, you should expect that its outcomes will be oppressive.
You’ve worked on this issue for decades. Is there one case that encapsulates so much of what can go wrong?
I tell the story of a Chicago woman named Jornell, who was instrumental to my understanding how the family policing system operates, especially in the lives of Black mothers. I met her in the late 1990s. She had a baby who was under investigation from the day he was born because she had participated in a hospital program for recovering substance users. So they were already paying close attention to her. One day when she brought the baby to the hospital for care, the staff felt she was overmedicating him and took custody. She fought for years and never recovered custody of her son.
This isn’t a system designed to protect children at all. It’s designed to police the most politically marginalized families in the nation, and it’s always been that way.
She gave me access to her case records and I could see that no matter what she did to get her son back, it was never good enough. She went through two drug treatment programs, even though she’d already recovered from using drugs when her son was born and he didn’t test positive. But they said she might relapse, so they made her go through a relapse program too. There were constant comments in her therapists’ records, as if they were looking for some reason to keep her son in foster care.
Even when they found that she was a loving mother, they would find some little quirk in her personality to claim that she should be kept under evaluation longer. One time she went into a therapist’s office and noted that the rug had been kicked up and she put it down. The therapist wrote that this showed she believed these little gestures could convince him she was a good mother, and that therefore she didn’t really understand what it took to be a good parent.
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Another case is the one that I tell in the introduction of “Torn Apart,” of Vanessa Peoples, a young nursing student who was undergoing a number of health challenges. She was at a family picnic when her youngest son strayed away after a cousin who had left, and a passerby called 911. Vanessa noticed right away that her son had strayed away and went after him, even saw the woman talking on the cell phone. And this woman refused to give her son back until the police arrived. The police eventually let her have her son back, but ticketed her for child abuse. That led to caseworkers coming to her home to investigate. They called the police for backup and Vanessa ended up being hogtied by seven police officers who arrived at her home, terrorizing her, her children and her mother.
She was able to keep her children out of foster care, but the whole encounter shows how Black mothers are dehumanized and how this system harms families in ways that can ruin lives. Vanessa now has trouble getting a job because she’s on the child abuse registry in Colorado. She cannot practice the profession she trained for. She’s finding it hard to get an apartment. And she and her children have been traumatized with lasting effects.
Vanessa stands out to me because she was punished not only for a lapse — which, in a white middle-class family, would never have led to that kind of state violence — but also for standing up for herself, because she protested when the caseworkers and police arrived at her home. It shows how, fundamentally, family policing and criminal law enforcement work hand in hand.
Both cases reflect the fundamental ways the system polices Black mothers in particular and harms Black children. They’re not aberrational.
What do people who have never come under that sort of scrutiny need to understand about how it works?
There are children in America who have unmet needs, and we should be concerned about that. But the answer isn’t to take them from their families. All that does is paper over the true changes we need to make. But it’s also important to note that there are many cases where impoverished Black parents lose their children for the exact same behaviors that wealthy white parents engage in and are not only not punished for, but are sometimes praised for.
A clear example is drug use. There are many Black children who have been taken from their parents because of evidence, or just suspicion, that their parents use drugs. At the same time, we see wealthy white people boasting about using drugs at home and nothing happens to them. A lighthearted New York Times article during the pandemic covered a forum where middle-class white parents talked about drinking in order to handle the stress of having their children at home. That would be unimaginable in poor Black communities, where drug use is frequently seen as a reason to take children away.
It’s important to reject this myth that children are in foster care because their parents abused them. Most of them are there because their parents simply could not afford the resources they need.
In the book I mention a Minnesota study that showed caseworkers an image of a bedroom and switched out a Black baby with a white baby; it found the race of the baby made a difference to their judgments about whether it was a “messy home” — something used frequently in caseworkers’ judgments about whether or not a child is being maltreated. Or examples like Vanessa Peoples, where Black mothers are blamed for allowing their children to stray away, while in more privileged communities, finding a lost child would be cause for celebration, not grounds to remove the child from the home. I also cite multiple studies showing that clinicians are more likely to suspect injuries to a child as resulting from child abuse in the case of Black families compared to white families.
It’s really important for people to reject this myth that children in foster care are there because their parents abused them. Most of them are there because their parents either could not afford the resources they need or simply because of discrimination against poor families, especially if they are Black or Native. The propaganda machine around saving Black children from their families has been very effective, and I think there are a lot of white liberals who want to believe this story: We have a child welfare system that’s saving Black children from dysfunctional homes. That is just simply false.
Can you talk about why you use the language of “family policing” instead of “child welfare”?
The names used to describe this system — foster care, child protection and child welfare — are all a kind of propaganda to cover up how the system actually functions. It isn’t designed to care for children. It’s designed to accuse family caregivers of harming children and then investigate and punish the family for harms to children that are actually caused by systemic inequities. When it accuses a parent of neglect — which is the main reason children are taken from their families in the U.S. — not only do child welfare agencies not provide what families need to meet children’s needs, they also divert attention from what it would really take to provide for children’s welfare. It blames parents for not having money for the material resources children need, instead of interrogating why we have a society where families are unable to afford basic needs.
You trace many aspects of these systems back to the worst atrocities in U.S. history: slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. You discuss some programs I was familiar with, such as the 19th-century Orphan Train project and the forced removal of Native American children, but also things I was not, like the role of “apprenticeship” programs in the post-Reconstruction South.
The enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Native people are both intimately, and I think inextricably, tied to the origins of our child welfare system. The ease with which Black children are removed from their homes and the power of the narrative that the child welfare system is saving Black children stem from the routine separation of Black families during the slavery era and the way in which enslavers had authority over Black families, including over their children.
The enslavement of Black people and the genocide of Native people are inextricably tied to the origins of our child welfare system.
What was more of a revelation to me was how the apprenticeship system was used after the Civil War to virtually re-enslave Black children. In that court-based system, there were judicial orders based on petitions accusing Black parents of child neglect that sent Black children to former white enslavers as “apprentices,” to work for them. It was part of the same white supremacist effort to take back the South, dominate Black people and exploit their labor that we hear more about with the convict leasing system and the “Black Codes” that allowed for the arrest of Black people for everyday activities.
But less attention has been paid to how the apprentice system stole child labor from Black families to be exploited again by the very people, in many cases, who had enslaved them prior to the Civil War. We’re talking about tens of thousands of Black children who were returned to former white enslavers through this system. It’s eerie how closely it parallels the contemporary child welfare system.
I don’t see how you could argue that the roots of today’s family policing system are in charitable organizations saving children from abusive homes, when this history of Black child apprenticeship is much closer to what’s happening today. Not to mention that the narrative about charitable organizations saving white immigrant children from abusive parents is also false, because impoverished white children were also being exploited for their labor by the system.
You’ve written about this issue so authoritatively for so long. What made you want to revisit this at book length? Is it the potential today for talking about abolition?
Since I wrote “Shattered Bonds,” a few developments made me want to write a new book. One was that my own thinking changed over the last 20 years. I got very involved in various reform efforts, including working on the settlement of a big class action lawsuit in Washington state that lasted for nine years, but lots of other projects aimed at reforming the child welfare system. I became completely disenchanted because I could see that none of them were really getting at the design of the system. As long as this system relies on threatening to take children away, and is aimed at policing families, not supporting them, the reforms are not going to make a difference.
Another development has to do with this moment. I learned a lot more about abolitionist thinking and organizing over those 20 years, and came to see how it applies to family policing. There has been a huge increase in organizing among people, especially Black mothers, who want to end the family policing system. We are at a moment, largely because of Black Lives Matter and organizing by prison abolitionists, where more people are open to understanding how principles of abolition can lead to transformative change and to a world that is more caring, humane and just. All of that made me believe that it was time for another book that was more geared toward an abolitionist vision.
When people talk about abolition, or even just more family preservation, there’s an automatic response that it will lead to more abuse, more child deaths. You have argued that, paradoxically, the opposite is true: that overzealous CPS policing can make some cases of extreme abuse more likely, since CPS agencies overwhelmed by too many cases lack the ability to spot truly dangerous situations.
The fear people often raise when you make the argument for abolishing this harmful and oppressive system is that, despite all the evidence of the harms it inflicts, it would be dangerous to end it because we still need it for the extreme cases. People point to the cases that make it into the headlines, where a child known to the system is killed in their home. Instead of recognizing that this means the system failed to protect that child, the response is that we should invest more in this failing system.
Part of the problem is the difficulty people have in imagining another system, either because they are invested in this system or they can’t imagine something better. For some people, it’s a financial investment; this is a $30 billion industry that many people have a stake in. Then there are people who have an ideological stake in this system, because they want to believe that there are so many Black children in foster care because their parents aren’t fit. Then there are many people who simply have not imagined another way of caring for children and supporting families, because all they know is the system we have.
One way to address that is to point out that we already have examples of other ways of supporting families and keeping children safe that don’t rely on family separation and blaming family caregivers for what are actually social inequalities. When the formal child welfare system excluded Black families, we had a history of taking care of children through other means: extended kin networks; Black clubwomen providing daycare for struggling Black mothers; the Black Panther Party giving out free breakfast and health care; and mutual aid networks that sprung up during the COVID lockdown in New York City and provided groceries, diapers and health care to people when the child protection agencies were virtually shut down.
We have to be willing to let go of this oppressive system that has caused so much suffering, and work on building other ways of truly meeting children’s needs.
Anna Aron’s article about the “unintended abolition” in New York during the lockdown shows that, despite dire predictions that there would be a huge spike in child abuse because children were not being investigated, instead, children were kept safe at home because of the outpouring of material resources for families by mutual aid networks and because of the concrete supplemental income that they got from the federal government.
There’s lots of evidence that we don’t have to rely on a system that is hurting people. We have to be willing to let go of this oppressive system that has caused so much suffering, and work on building up other ways of truly meeting children’s needs.
How should we think about these issues while facing the likely end of Roe v. Wade and how Supreme Court Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Samuel Alito have seemed to argue that the existence of adoption precludes the need for a right to abortion.
The idea that we don’t need a right to abortion because women can give up their babies for adoption, first of all, ignores the oppression of forcing anyone to go through a pregnancy and give birth. But it also ignores the way in which the entire system of adoption is based on unequal social hierarchies and usually has a coercive aspect. If the state is compelling women to go through pregnancies and give up their children, that is a form of compulsion. It also reflects the coercive aspects of the adoption industry in general, in that it’s usually less privileged people putting their children up for adoption to more privileged people. Even in his footnote, Alito’s reference to the “supply” of infants for people who want to adopt them indicates that view of children as commodities for the benefit of more privileged people who seek to adopt.
I’m also not sure we can separate private adoption from public adoption of children through foster care. Because if Justices Alito and Barrett are actually envisioning that millions of women who seek abortion will turn to adoption instead, some of those children are going to be put in the foster care system. And if we look at what goes on in the foster-industrial complex, there are tens of thousands of children who are neither adopted nor returned to their families. Many of them age out of foster care without any legal family ties whatsoever, and the system boots them out without the support they need. Many of them become homeless. They have no income and no college degree. Some of them don’t even have a high school diploma.
We have to take into account how the family policing system treats children whose family ties have been terminated, and to recognize that children in foster care who are “available for adoption” are only available because a judge has permanently severed their relationships with their families. This vision that Alito and Barrett have of adoption coming in to save the day after the right to abortion is ended ignores the violence that makes children available for adoption in the first place.
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