Shattered Bonds

The Color Of Child Welfare


By Dorothy Roberts

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The story of foster care in the United States is the story of the failure of the social safety net to aid poor, largely black, parents in their attempt to make a home for their children.

Shattered Bonds tells this story as no other book has before — from the perspective of a prominent black, female legal theoretician. The current state of the child-welfare system in America is a well-known tragedy. Thousands of children every year are removed from their parents’ homes, often for little reason other than the endemic poverty that afflicts women and children more than any other group in the United States.

Dorothy Roberts, an acclaimed legal scholar and social critic, reveals the racial politics of child welfare in America through extensive legal research and original interviews with Chicago families in the foster care system. She describes the racial imbalance in foster care, the concentration of state intervention in certain neighborhoods, the alarming percentages of children in substitute care, the difficulty that poor and black families have in meeting state’s standards for regaining custody of children placed in foster care, and the relationship between state supervision of families and continuing racial inequality.



The Color of
Child Welfare


A Member of the Perseus Books Group


Facing the Racial Reality of Child Welfare

ONE SUMMER EVENING I DROVE TO ST. STEPHEN’S CHURCH in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, to attend a meeting of Black mothers whose children had been taken by the state child protection agency. They call their organization Operation MOSES, for Mothers Organizing Systems for Equal Services. A boy playing outside directed me to the church basement where I found a half dozen women sitting around a table. The women were strategizing about a citywide campaign to call attention to the crisis of children being removed from their homes. They greeted me warmly, grateful to have the ear of a sympathetic law professor. At one end of the table was an expanding file stuffed with court papers, newspaper clippings, and letters. They sat me at the other end so that I could face everyone.

Each woman told me about her battle with the child welfare system to get her children back. Jornell, the group’s founder, lost custody of her one-monthold baby when hospital staff reported her for medical abuse. This is his fourth year in foster care. Valerie relinquished custody of her three children to the child protection agency when she was living in a cold, roach-infested apartment and had no means to support them.* She had told authorities that she wanted them back in six months, but the agency moved ahead with termination of her parental rights. Devon had cared for her four nieces and nephews since they were toddlers, devoting herself to meeting their special medical and educational needs. She had seen them only twice since they were taken from her more than a year earlier because her apartment was too small.

These women’s stories reflect the color of the U.S. child welfare system today. More than a half million children taken from their parents are currently in foster care. African Americans are the most likely of any group to be disrupted in this way by government authorities. Black children make up nearly half of the foster care population, although they constitute less than one-fifth of the nation’s children. In Chicago, 95 percent of children in foster care are Black. Once removed from their homes, Black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than other children.

The child welfare system is the focus of intense public scrutiny, condemned by conservatives and liberals alike. Everyone agrees that foster care is overburdened and often damages children more than raising them in either their biological families or adoptive homes. However, the public debate has failed to examine why Black children are removed from their parents in such large numbers or what the consequences are for Black families and communities. Public sentiment and policy have chosen to focus instead on solving foster care’s problems by encouraging the adoption of more children.

The number of Black children in state custody—those in foster care as well as those in juvenile detention, prisons, and other state institutions—is a startling injustice that calls for radical reform. I would call it the system’s ugly secret, except that it should be obvious to anyone who has spent a day examining the statistics, visiting a child welfare office, or watching who goes in and out of juvenile court. The fact that the system supposedly designed to protect children remains one of the most segregated institutions in the country should arouse our suspicion.

In 1972, Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare, by Andrew Billingsley and Jeanne M. Giovannoni, traced the history of the government’s discriminatory treatment of African American children. Three decades later, racial disparities in the child welfare system have only become worse, and policy makers have rejected the concern they professed in the late 1970s and early 1980s for preserving Black families. Child protection policy has conformed to the current political climate, which embraces punitive responses to the seemingly intractable plight of America’s isolated and impoverished inner cities.

The new politics of child welfare threatens to intensify state supervision of Black children. In the past several years, federal and state policy have shifted away from preserving families toward “freeing” children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights. Welfare reform, by throwing many families deeper into poverty, heightens the risk that some children will be removed from struggling families and placed in foster care. Black families, who are disproportionately poor, have been hit the hardest by this retraction of public assistance for needy children. And tougher treatment of juvenile offenders, imposed most harshly on African American youth, is increasing the numbers incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. These political trends are shattering the bonds between poor Black children and their parents. Recent developments make it imperative to confront the racial disparity in America’s child welfare system now. Only by examining the role that race plays in the child welfare system can we understand how it operates to reinforce the inferior status of Blacks in America.

Yet most contemporary critiques of the child welfare system barely acknowledge the importance of race. Scholars who deal with Black children in the child welfare system tend to focus on social work practice—how children should be treated—rather than the politics of child protection—how political relationships affect which children become involved in the system. Their primary goal is to make services more sensitive to the needs and culture of Black families, not to question the fundamental conflict between the child welfare system and the integrity of the Black family and community. Child protection authorities are taking custody of Black children at alarming rates, and in doing so, they are dismantling social networks that are critical to Black community welfare.

Most authors frame the problem with child protection as a battle between bad government and innocent parents or between bad parents and innocent children. Advocates on the side of parents argue that overzealous efforts to combat child abuse are excessively intruding on family rights. They tell horrifying stories of government agents strip-searching children and dragging them away from their parents based on false, anonymous allegations. Their effort to find common ground among parents often hides the power of race and class in directing repressive government action. For example, one author warns that we must “stop this assault on the family—before all our children become state wards.” I choose to refute the myth that there is a universal system of child protection that treats all parents equally badly. Although all families risk being hurt by these arbitrary abuses of power, Black families are being systematically demolished. Two critical factors remain unaddressed: the system’s distinct racial harm, and the role race plays in perpetuating a destructive understanding of child protection that affects all American families.

On the other side of the debate are those who tell horrifying stories of victims of parental abuse and a system that does too little to protect them. These advocates wildly exaggerate the harm inflicted by most parents monitored by child protective services as well as the good that state supervision can do. By focusing myopically on extreme cases of child abuse, these accounts deliberately ignore the damage caused by carelessly removing children from their homes. Not only do they overlook the child welfare system’s devastation of Black families, but they devalue the family ties that are so important to the children they claim to support. In this book, I refute the even more dangerous myth that the child welfare system will improve children’s well-being by separating more children from their parents.

This book answers three questions that correspond to its main parts. Why are so many Black children removed from their homes and placed under state supervision? How will the current politics of child welfare affect the system’s racial imbalance? And why should we be concerned about the racial disparity in the child welfare system? I conclude by proposing steps that we can take to transform the system toward respecting the integrity of Black families while addressing the deprivation in many homes.

Shattered Bonds is a plea to call the child welfare system what it is: a staterun program that disrupts, restructures, and polices Black families. I hope to capture the injustice of a system that separates thousands of Black children from their parents every year and relegates them to damaging state institutions. There is little evidence that the foster care system has improved the well-being of Black children and much evidence that it supports the disadvantaged position of Black people as a whole. A recent book by a Harvard law professor advocating easier termination of parental rights is titled Nobody’s Children—as if children in foster care have no parents who care about them. The truth is that many poor Black parents fight desperately against a wealthy and powerful system to regain their children. They are often worn down by pointless and burdensome requirements, insidious financial incentives, and racial bias. I want to provide the missing voice of Black families torn apart by discriminatory and misguided policies.

Today, the Black nationalist charge of racial genocide from the 1970s sounds hopelessly extremist, yet many of the mothers I talked to were convinced that the child welfare system is waging a war to steal Black children. Although they are right that they are the victims of a racist system, this charge tends to inflame emotions and requires careful elaboration. My goal of developing a new case for protecting Black families against state intrusion is based not only on parents’ and children’s rights but also on the injury to the Black community as a whole. Racial inequities in the child welfare system, I will conclude, cause serious group-based harms by reinforcing disparaging stereotypes about Black family unfitness and need for white supervision, by destroying a sense of family autonomy and self-determination among many Black Americans, and by weakening Blacks’ collective ability to overcome institutionalized discrimination. By examining the evidence of racism in the child welfare system, telling the stories of disrupted families, and presenting a theory of community harm, I highlight the political role of the child welfare system in America, a role often obscured by a focus on its rescue of individual children from neglectful parents.

Some people think that the best way to help the thousands of Black children in foster care is to terminate their parents’ rights and place them in adoptive homes. These people do not see themselves as racists who are bent on destroying Black families. They may even endorse stronger social support programs for America’s struggling families. But they do believe child protective services must intervene immediately to save Black children from their current crisis. “These children can’t wait for social programs to eliminate poverty and racism,” these advocates argue. “We must act now to move them from their destructive families and neighborhoods into stable homes.” I hope this book demonstrates that this new cadre of child savers are wrong.

One hundred years from now, today’s child welfare system will surely be condemned as a racist institution—one that compounded the effects of discrimination on Black families by taking children from their parents, allowing them to languish in a damaging foster care system or to be adopted by moreprivileged people. School children will marvel that so many scholars and politicians defended this devastation of Black families in the name of protecting Black children. The color of America’s child welfare system is the reason Americans have tolerated its destructiveness. It is also the most powerful reason to finally abolish what we now call child protection and replace it with a system that really promotes children’s welfare.

* Because she is challenging the termination of her rights in court, “Valerie” asked me to use a fictitious name for her.


Destroying Black Families in the Name of Child Protection

JORNELL DOMINATES THE MEETINGS of the group she started for mothers whose children were taken by the child welfare department. A heavyset, lively woman, Jornell jumps into every discussion. She can barely contain her complaints about the department’s actions, advice to other mothers about their cases, ideas about what the organization could do to change the system. “I live for this now. I have no other life, I have no other purpose,” Jornell told me the first time we spoke. “My life is an ongoing battle to hold on to my child.”

Jornell had her first son, Ronnie, twenty-five years ago, when she was a fifteen-year-old high school student. She dropped out of school and moved in with her boyfriend’s mother, who took over raising the child. After getting her G.E.D. and some secretarial training at a local business institute, she worked at an assortment of temporary jobs—a receptionist at an insurance company, a clerk at the Stock Exchange, a secretary in the permit department of the Chicago Park District. But by the time she reached her thirties, Jornell was plagued with severe health problems that kept her from holding down a job. She was overweight and diabetic, and she had started drinking and smoking crack.

Jornell’s involvement in the child welfare system began as soon as her second son was born in January 1998. When Jornell became pregnant with David, she was thirty-six years old, living in public housing on Social Security disability benefits, suffering from diabetes, and addicted to crack and alcohol.* She decided to get help soon after she discovered she was pregnant, when a doctor told her there was a risk that her baby “would have a defect.” She joined a program called Healthy F.I.T., for Healthy Family Intervention Team, based at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, where she received prenatal care. According to the program’s flyer, Healthy F.I.T. “provides drug and/or alcohol assessment, treatment, and case management services for pregnant or newly delivered women receiving care within the Sinai Health System.” “I felt that I had a right to heal,” Jornell told me. “I didn’t want the drugs, I didn’t want the alcohol, I didn’t want to be mentally ill anymore. I followed all their recommendations. I went into long-term treatment. I did everything I was supposed to do—for myself, before the intervention. The intervention was supposed to assist me to be a family. But this is the worst entanglement anybody can become involved in.”

Because she was participating in Healthy F.I.T., Jornell was known to hospital social workers even before David was born. They put the newborn on “social hold” until they could investigate her living arrangement. She wasn’t allowed to bring David home until four days after she was released. When David was one month old, she brought him several times to a hospital emergency room when he had recurring digestive problems. While the baby was being treated at the hospital she gave him an enema. Jornell says she was following the advice of a doctor who had seen the baby earlier. She felt that the nurses were too busy with other children and weren’t taking David’s illness seriously. She now acknowledges her judgment may have been clouded; she was still recovering from a difficult pregnancy and delivery, complicated by her diabetes.

The hospital staff became alarmed at Jornell’s interference and suspected that she had already overmedicated the baby at home. They called the child abuse hot line. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, known as DCFS, investigated. A caseworker decided that the report was “indicated”—there was credible evidence that David was at risk of physical harm—and took custody of the baby. “They said I was an overly concerned mother,” is how Jornell describes the charges against her. David was placed in a foster home with four other foster children.

According to Jornell, she was so distraught by David’s removal that it took her until August to fill out a child protection appeal form she received from the court clerk. A month later, an internal review team overturned the caseworker’s finding of potential abuse. The decision stated that, according to a social worker who interviewed Jornell, “natural mother thinks very clearly and decisively, would not harm a child and is capable of caring for the child.” It also stated that a psychiatrist who had been treating Jornell disclosed that Jornell had drug and alcohol problems in the past, but had not used either for more than a year. “Natural mother is committed to being clean,” the psychiatrist reported. “NM has a problem with anger but is not aggressive (sic). In professional opinion NM is capable of parenting baby and has been consistent in interest of baby’s needs over her own during pregnancy.” Tests performed on David when he was born showed he was not exposed to drugs.

But DCFS did not return David. Instead, it filed a new report alleging that the baby would be at risk of harm if released to his mother because of her history of substance abuse and possible mental illness. The permanency plan had a goal of returning David to his mother after she completed the department’s recommendations for her rehabilitation. Jornell had to enroll in a drug treatment program, submit monthly urine samples for drug testing, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, see a parenting coach once a week, undergo a series of psychological evaluations, and meet with a psychotherapist regularly. Then she had to be evaluated by a Parenting Assessment Team, composed of a psychiatrist, psychologist, child development specialist, and social worker from a private center that contracted with DCFS. One reason Jornell had to undergo multiple evaluations was to rule out the agency’s suspicion that she was suffering from Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder that causes mothers to deliberately make their children ill because they crave the resulting attention from medical staff.

Jornell was determined to comply with every requirement. She even had to repeat the clinical evaluations when the judge presiding over her case ruled that the first two reports were unacceptable. She successfully completed an intensive outpatient drug treatment program twice.

Despite her compliance with the DCFS plan, the Parenting Assessment Team recommended in January 1999 against immediate reunification. On the positive side, the team found that Jornell displayed no symptoms of mental illness, was constructively using all the services offered to her, and had remained substance-free for more than a year. During supervised visits, she showed a caring and responsible attitude toward David. But the team also made negative findings. It detected in Jornell’s “elevated mood and accelerated speech” a “subtle” mental disorder. It criticized her answers on a parenting test as too rigid. It felt that her support network was too small. It suggested that she attend an additional rehabilitation program for relapse prevention. The team would reassess her case at the end of the year.

In the meantime, Jornell had four caseworkers, and her file was moved from the South Side of Chicago, where she lives, to a North Side DCFS office. She began to see a Black clinical psychiatrist in her community with whom she felt more comfortable. The new psychiatrist prepared several reports attesting to Jornell’s ability to care for her son. When the Parenting Assessment Team issued a follow-up report in December 1999, it chastised Jornell for choosing her own therapist and spending time on social causes. She had focused her attention on organizing mothers involved in the child welfare system instead of taking full responsibility for her own parenting deficits. It recommended that DCFS refer her to the “correct service providers” for more evaluations and treatment. By this time, David had been in foster care for almost two years.

When I attended her administrative case review in August 2000, now two and a half years after David entered foster care, Jornell had done everything DCFS demanded, and she was anxious to regain custody of her son. She didn’t hide her frustration with the process. The purpose of the review was to give someone from DCFS an opportunity to go over the status of reunification efforts with Jornell and her caseworker. The agency reviewer opened with a compulsory litany of procedural rules. When asked if she understood, Jornell replied, “I’m becoming a veteran at this. This is my fifth ACR.” The reviewer started the session by stating, “Our first task is to schedule another review in six months.” “When will I get David back?” Jornell burst out. “I just read that half the kids in foster care end up in jail. I don’t want that to happen to David.”

The disproportionate number of Black children in America’s child welfare system is staggering. Black families are overrepresented in child maltreatment reports, case openings, and the foster care population. Spend a day at dependency court in any major city and you will see the unmistakable color of the child welfare system. Dependency court is where judges decide the fate of children who have been taken into state custody because their parents are charged with abusing or neglecting them. Nearly every family in these urban courts is Black. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor Black families. The racial disparity of children in protective custody mirrors the far more publicized racial disparity in our nation’s prison population.

* Jornell gave me permission to use her name. I am using a fictitious name for her son.


THE CHILD WELFARE SYSTEM has always discriminated against Blacks, but its racism looked very different a century ago. Black families were virtually excluded from openly segregated child welfare services until the end of World War II.1 Wealthy do-gooders began a charitable mission in the late nineteenth century to save poor children from parental cruelty and indigence. The orphanages they established to rescue destitute immigrant children refused to accept Blacks. The few “colored orphan asylums” were woefully inferior and overcrowded. By the time of the 1923 census, thirty-one northern states reported a total of 1,070 child-caring agencies. Of these agencies, 35 were for Black children only, 264 accepted all races, 60 took nonwhite children except Blacks, and 711 were reserved for white children.2 Needy Black children were more likely to be labeled delinquent: “the major child caring institution for Black and other nonwhite children was the prison.”3 In the early part of the century, Black people relied primarily on extended family networks and community resources such as churches, women’s clubs, and benevolent societies to take care of children whose parents were unable to meet their needs.

The child welfare system began to recognize Black children in the 1930s when services shifted from institutions to foster care and from private to public agencies.4 Religious charities, which dominated child placements in large cities after World War II, continued to practice blatant racial discrimination. In New York City, for example, Jewish and Catholic agencies used religious preferences to close their doors to the city’s predominantly Protestant Black children.5 In 1973, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s participation in the agencies’ racial discrimination. Although Wilder v. Sugarman was finally settled in 1988, the fight continued into the 1990s over the city’s violations of the settlement agreement. In place of the segregated services, the city permitted an informal system that distributed children to foster care agencies based on gradations of skin shade and hair texture.6

The proportion of Black children in the public child welfare caseloads steadily increased in the years after World War II. The segment composed of nonwhite children almost doubled between 1945 and 1961, from 14 percent to 27 percent.7 Twenty-four percent of the children served by public agencies in 1961 were Black. The child welfare rolls steadily filled with Black children over the next two decades. Then in the late 1980s two things happened to cement the child welfare system’s current relationship to Black Americans: both the total size of the foster care population and the share of Black children exploded. The number of children in foster care has doubled in the last two decades, from 262,000 in 1982 to 568,000 in 1999.8 The enormous growth in foster care caseloads in the late 1980s was concentrated primarily in cities, where there are sizable Black communities.9 In 1986, Black children, who were only 15 percent of the population under age eighteen, made up about onequarter of children entering foster care and 35 percent of children in foster care at the end of that year.10 Today, 42 percent of all children in foster care nationwide are Black


On Sale
Feb 23, 2009
Page Count
352 pages
Civitas Books

Dorothy Roberts

About the Author

Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society. The author of five books, including Killing the Black Body, she lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   

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