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How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World
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Many believe the child welfare system protects children from abuse. But as Torn Apart uncovers, this system is designed to punish Black families. Drawing on decades of research, legal scholar and sociologist Dorothy Roberts reveals that the child welfare system is better understood as a “family policing system” that collaborates with law enforcement and prisons to oppress Black communities. Child protection investigations ensnare a majority of Black children, putting their families under intense state surveillance and regulation. Black children are disproportionately likely to be torn from their families and placed in foster care, driving many to juvenile detention and imprisonment.
The only way to stop the destruction caused by family policing, Torn Apart argues, is to abolish the child welfare system and liberate Black communities.
My book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, published in 2001, documented the racial realities of the child welfare system in America. At the time, more than a half million children had been taken from their parents and were in foster care. Black families were the most likely of any group to be torn apart. Black children made up nearly half of the US foster care population, although they constituted less than one-fifth of the nation’s children. That made them four times as likely to be in foster care as white children. Nearly all the children in Chicago’s foster care system were Black. The racial imbalance in New York City’s foster care population was also mind-boggling: out of forty-two thousand children in the system at the end of 1997, only thirteen hundred were white, though a majority of the city’s children were white. That year, one out of ten children in central Harlem had been placed in foster care.1 Today, stark racial disparities continue to mark foster care in Chicago, New York, and other cities.
I was floored by these astonishing statistics when I first encountered them in the 1990s while working on my first book, Killing the Black Body. I had been researching the arrests of numerous Black mothers across the country for being pregnant and using crack cocaine. Racist myths about them giving birth to so-called crack babies, described as irreparably damaged, bereft of social consciousness, and destined to delinquency, had turned a public health issue into a crime. I saw the prosecutions as part of a long legacy of oppressive policies, originating in slavery, that devalued Black women and denied their reproductive freedom. As I focused on the criminal punishment of Black women’s childbearing, I discovered a far more widespread repression of Black mothers for prenatal drug use: the forcible removal of their newborns from their custody.
The war on crack cocaine in Black communities in the 1980s and 1990s included testing Black pregnant women and their babies for drugs and reporting them to child welfare authorities at high rates. The government’s main source of information about prenatal drug use was hospitals’ reporting of positive toxicologies to law enforcement or child welfare agencies. This testing was performed almost exclusively by public hospitals that served poor communities of color. One study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 examined the results of toxicological tests on pregnant women who received prenatal care in public health clinics and in private obstetrical offices in Pinellas County, Florida. The researchers found that, despite similar rates of positive test results, Black women were almost ten times more likely than white women to be reported to government agencies. Neonatal wards in urban hospitals were filling with Black babies who couldn’t go home, labeled by the press as “boarder babies”—“taking up space that could be used for treating sick children,” the Los Angeles Times reported in July 1989. News stories typically blamed their “crack-addicted” mothers for abandoning them, failing to mention that most of the babies languishing in hospitals had been taken from their mothers at birth.2
Investigating the racial disparities in reporting newborns for drug exposure and separating them from their mothers led me to the broader child welfare system, which I argue in this book is more accurately described as the family-policing system. Its racial makeup immediately aroused my suspicion. If this system were truly devoted to protecting children and promoting their welfare, why weren’t the vast majority of its clients white? The United States has consistently reserved its best resources for white people; Black people have had to fight tooth and nail to gain access to services meant for whites only. Conversely, the institutions where government has confined Black people, like segregated schools, housing, and prisons, have been substandard. Why would this state system that takes children from their parents be any different?
What’s more, America has never viewed Black children as innocent victims in need of protection. White Americans literally see Black children as older than they are. In the criminal punishment system, Black children are far more likely than white children to be charged as adults, caged in adult prisons, and held in solitary confinement. Black girls and boys are even kicked out of preschool at higher rates. The police shooting of twelve-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, and the suicide of Kalief Browder after he spent years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island for allegedly snatching a backpack exemplify the violence the US state inflicts on Black children. “Kids were being sent away simply for being alive in a place where war had been declared against us,” writes Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. The claim that the United States runs a system for Black families that is immune from this vicious posture against Black children and operates instead out of concern for them seemed patently absurd. The fact that the family-policing system so disproportionately enmeshes Black families was the biggest clue that its aim wasn’t child welfare.3
Despite my training as a lawyer and my devotion to social justice activism, foster care’s racial dimension had escaped my attention. But all the people involved in this racial caste system—the administrators, social workers, therapists, lawyers, and judges, as well as the families policed by it—knew full well its discriminatory nature. Its racial divide was obvious to me as soon as I started observing child welfare proceedings in Chicago. As I later wrote in Shattered Bonds:
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.4
When I looked into what seemed to me a grave racial injustice, I discovered that no book had been published on the topic since Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare, by sociologists Andrew Billingsley and Jeanne M. Giovannoni, in 1972. The authors traced the history of the government’s discriminatory treatment of African American children, who were virtually excluded from openly segregated child welfare services until World War II. By the time I became acutely aware of the system in the 1990s, the political and demographic landscape of child welfare had shifted dramatically. As Black children began to fill the government caseloads in the 1960s, public agencies pivoted sharply from providing services to children in their homes to taking children from their parents. The total size of the foster care population and the share of Black children skyrocketed simultaneously. The number of children in foster care more than doubled in less than fifteen years, from 276,000 in 1985 to 568,000 in 1999, along with an exponential increase in federal funding for foster care. Propelling the spike was the massive removal of Black children from their homes.5
It would be a mistake to conclude that the increase in the foster care population was a response to the needs of Black children. The removal of Black children at four times the rate of white children could not be justified by any matching discrepancy in rates of child abuse and neglect. A rigorous 2006 study found that the spike in foster care caseloads was driven by increases in female incarceration and decreases in welfare benefits. More important, the skyrocketing foster care population was the result of a political decision to turn to child removal as the primary way of addressing the needs of Black families, who were most devastated by the state’s concurrent crime-control and welfare-restricting agendas. The racial politics of the 1980s and 1990s, which entrenched Black subordination through policies of mass incarceration and welfare restructuring, were also responsible for reinforcing the equally oppressive, but less noticed, system that had caught my attention—the family-policing system. The punitive approach that characterized criminal law enforcement, public assistance, and child welfare policies then continues to drive violent state containment of Black communities now.6
Soon after I began my own research, while teaching law in Chicago, I met a Black mother named Jornell who was fighting to be reunited with her two-year-old son, David. A chubby woman with an effervescent personality, Jornell was eager to tell me how she became entangled in the city’s child protection net. When Jornell became pregnant, she was living in public housing on Social Security benefits and was suffering from diabetes and problems with drugs and alcohol. She was relieved when she saw a flyer for a program called Healthy F.I.T., for Healthy Family Intervention Team, based at the hospital where she received prenatal care. 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,” the flyer promised. Jornell eagerly signed up. “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.”7
Because she was participating in Healthy F.I.T., Jornell was known to the hospital social workers even before David was born, in January 1998. They put the newborn on “social hold” until they could inspect Jornell’s living arrangements. Jornell wasn’t allowed to bring David home until four days after she was released. Then, when David was one month old, Jornell made a fateful mistake. She had taken David to the hospital emergency room several times when he had recurring digestive problems. One time, while he was being treated at the hospital, she gave the baby an enema. “The nurses were busy with other children and weren’t taking David’s illness seriously,” Jornell explained. At the time, she thought she was following the advice of a doctor who had seen the baby earlier. She later acknowledged that her judgment might have been clouded by the stress of a difficult pregnancy and delivery, complicated by her diabetes.
Alarmed by Jornell’s interference with David’s medical care, the hospital staff called the child abuse hotline. A caseworker with the Department of Children and Family Services, known as DCFS, determined that the report was “indicated”—there was credible evidence that David was at risk of harm—and took custody of the baby. He was placed in a stranger’s home with four other foster children. A month later, an internal review team overturned the caseworker’s finding of potential abuse. The decision reported 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 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. “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 had not been 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. It issued a list of steps Jornell would have to take to be rehabilitated enough for reunification: 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, meet with a psychotherapist regularly, and make scheduled visits with David under a social worker’s supervision. Then she would be evaluated by a parenting assessment team, composed of a psychiatrist, psychologist, child development specialist, and social worker. If she completed all the prescribed tasks successfully and passed the team’s assessment, she could have David back.
Determined to be reunited with her baby, Jornell complied with every single requirement. But the parenting assessment team kept finding reasons to recommend against reunification. In its first report, in January 1999, 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. Nevertheless, the team was concerned that Jornell’s “elevated mood and accelerated speech” might indicate a “subtle” mental disorder. It felt that her support network was too small. It didn’t trust her recovery—despite her successful completion of an intensive outpatient drug treatment program twice. It recommended 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 began to see a Black clinical psychiatrist in her neighborhood who understood her better than the one prescribed by DCFS. The new psychiatrist prepared several reports attesting to Jornell’s ability to care for David. But DCFS authorities didn’t appreciate Jornell’s attempt to direct her own treatment. When the parenting assessment team issued a follow-up report in December 1999, it chastised Jornell for choosing her own therapist. The team interpreted her impatience with the agency’s delays in reuniting her with her son as a failure to take full responsibility for her own parenting deficits. It recommended that the agency refer her to the “correct service providers” for more evaluations and treatment. “I followed all their recommendations. I went into long-term treatment. I did everything I was supposed to do—for myself, before the intervention,” Jornell told me. “The intervention was supposed to assist me to be a family. But this is the worst entanglement anybody can become involved in.”
Jornell’s frustrating experience with DCFS inspired her to organize a small group of Black mothers whose children had been taken by the agency. They called themselves Operation MOSES, for Mothers Organizing Systems for Equal Services, and exemplified collectives of Black mothers springing up across the nation that were dedicated to resisting the child welfare system’s destruction of their families. “I live for this now. 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.”
I first met with Operation MOSES on a summer evening in 2000 at St. Stephen’s Church in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest, most segregated Black neighborhoods. After walking down the steps to the church basement, I found a half dozen Black women sitting around a table. The women were strategizing about a citywide campaign to call attention to the crisis of Black children being snatched from their homes. They greeted me warmly, grateful to have the ear of an empathetic law professor. I was noticeably pregnant with my fourth child, who was due in September, and we instantly bonded as Black mothers concerned for the well-being of our children. At one end of the table was an expanding file stuffed with court papers, newspaper clippings, and letters. Jornell sat me at the other end so I could face everyone. Each woman told me about her battle with the family-policing authorities to get her children back.
By the time I met with Operation MOSES, I’d conducted several years of research on the family-policing system. I recognized the stories I heard in the church basement as typical of hundreds of thousands of Black mothers in Chicago and cities across the nation. Most of the mothers were raising their children as best they could and needed help with meeting their material needs. They were targeted for state intrusion, not because their parenting was egregiously lacking or harmful, but because their bonds with their children weren’t valued enough. Their children were taken not only because biased caseworkers discriminated against them, but also because the family-policing system was designed to regulate rather than support them.
BECOMING AN ABOLITIONIST
In my introduction to Shattered Bonds, I stated that we should “finally abolish” America’s destructive child welfare system. In this book, I renew my call to abolish family policing. This time, however, I argue for completely replacing it, not with another reformed state system, but with a radically reimagined way of caring for families and keeping children safe.
Three things happened after the publication of Shattered Bonds that solidified my abolitionist stance. First, over the last two decades, I’ve participated in numerous reform efforts to improve foster care, address its racial disparities, and reduce its population. I served for nine years on a task force to implement the settlement agreement in a class action lawsuit brought in 1998 by children’s rights advocates against the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in Washington State, Braam v. State of Washington. The department’s treatment of children in foster care was so horrendous that the lawyers claimed it violated the state constitution. The named plaintiff, Jessica Braam, had been tossed among foster homes more than thirty times.8
In 2004, after six years of litigation, the children’s attorneys reached an agreement with DSHS to resolve the lawsuit by handing the problems over to a panel of five mutually agreed upon national experts. I accepted an invitation from the children’s attorneys to be one of their choices. The Braam Oversight Panel worked with the DSHS Children’s Administration and the children’s attorneys to develop a complicated plan with outcomes, benchmarks, and action steps to improve health care for foster children, lower child protection worker caseloads, enhance foster parent training, and decrease the number of children who ran away from foster care. For nearly a decade we monitored the state’s progress in performing the action steps, meeting the benchmarks, and achieving the outcomes. After dozens of meetings with administrators and attorneys at a hotel across from the SeaTac airport, we calculated some progress on some of the measures. But we were unable to fix the long list of deficiencies that harmed children placed in the state’s custody.
I’ve lost count of the trainings of caseworkers, administrators, lawyers, judges, and court volunteers I’ve conducted in the last twenty years on confronting racial disparities and biases in child welfare decision making. I wrote articles for scholarly journals and reports for foundations, organizations, and think tanks on policies that destroyed families, especially Black families, and made recommendations for reducing the casualties. I helped to make “racial disproportionality” a new buzzword for a problem in child welfare practice. No doubt some of the reforms I participated in helped raise awareness of the racism and harm in America’s child welfare system. None rendered a significant blow to the system’s fundamental design.
Second, in the last twenty years, the prison abolition movement emerged and came to occupy an increasingly prominent place in the popular consciousness. Some activists mark its launch at an international conference and strategy session, Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, held at the University of California, Berkeley, in September 1998. Formed in 1997, the Critical Resistance organizing collective gathered more than thirty-five hundred activists, former prisoners, lawyers, and scholars over three days “to address the alarming growth of the prison system, popularize the idea of the ‘prison industrial complex’ and make ‘abolition’ a practical theory of change.”9
Critical Resistance founders developed the concept of the prison-industrial complex to name the expanding apparatus of surveillance, policing, and incarceration the state increasingly employs to solve problems caused by social inequality, stifle political resistance by oppressed communities, and serve the interests of corporations that profit from prisons and police forces. Professor Dylan Rodríguez, a founding member of Critical Resistance, lyrically describes abolition as “a practice, an analytical method, a present-tense visioning, an infrastructure in the making, a creative project, a performance, a counterwar, an ideological struggle, a pedagogy and curriculum, an alleged impossibility that is furtively present.” Abolitionists believe we can imagine and build a more humane and democratic society that no longer relies on caging people to meet human needs and solve social problems.10
Third, organizing by parents subjected to the family-policing system grew dramatically, with Black mothers at the forefront. Back in 1999, Operation MOSES struggled to offer mutual support to its members as each one fought an uphill battle against a seemingly immovable behemoth. In the two decades since, parent-led organizations have emerged across the country and have begun networking with each other. Youth who were formerly in foster care are increasingly leading and participating in efforts to end family policing. Coupled with the rise of parent groups was the development of family defense: lawyers dedicated to representing parents in family-policing proceedings. I joined the inaugural advisory board of the Family Defense Center in Chicago, founded in 2005 by Diane Redleaf, a pioneer in representing parents in child welfare proceedings.
I have also served for more than twenty years on the board of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, whose mission is to shift public policy away from child removal and toward keeping more families together, including by educating journalists about the harms of family policing. Our work with parent organizers, along with reporting by alternative media outlets like Rise Magazine, which publishes the writings of system-impacted parents, is making a difference in the media. There has been an exponential increase in news stories about the injustices inflicted by child protective services (CPS), even in mainstream outlets, like the New York Times 2017 story “Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow.’”
As I write these words, I have seen in the past few years more support for dismantling the family-policing system than in all the prior years combined. Many activists have credited Shattered Bonds with inspiring them—the seeds I planted after meeting with Operation MOSES were beginning to sprout two decades later. I could not have predicted when I met Jornell and her ragtag band of Black mothers in a church basement that rebellious women like them would be at the forefront of a burgeoning movement to end family policing once and for all.11
From my vantage point at the intersection of these developments—a multitude of failed initiatives to fix the child protection system, a flourishing prison abolition movement, and nascent organizing to end family policing and to radically reimagine child welfare—I came to envision more clearly an abolitionist framework to contest family policing, one that integrates our understanding of police and prisons with the state’s surveillance, control, and demolition of Black families. The only way to stop the destruction caused by family policing is to stop policing families.
A BENEVOLENT TERROR
On a summer day in 2017, a Black family was enjoying a picnic in a park in Aurora, Colorado. Among the dozen or so relatives who gathered there was Vanessa Peoples, a twenty-five-year-old nursing student, and her two sons, Malik and Talib, ages two and four. Vanessa was undergoing treatment for leukemia. She also suffered from asthma and was prone to seizures, and her illnesses had turned her naturally lanky frame rail thin. Vanessa, the boys, and Vanessa’s husband lived with Vanessa’s mother, Patricia Russell, in a modest, single-story brick house on a tree-lined street on Delmar Parkway in Northwest Aurora. All the adults pitched in to care for the rambunctious little boys. That day was supposed to be a relaxing retreat from Vanessa’s exhausting schedule of classes, cancer, and caregiving. Had Vanessa known that the outing would lead to the most terrifying experience of her life, she would have stayed at home.1
Vanessa had asked one of her cousins to keep an eye on the toddler, Malik, while she played with his older brother, Talib. The cousin decided to leave the park without telling Vanessa, and as the cousin walked toward her car, Malik traipsed behind her. Vanessa grabbed Talib to run after them. Before Vanessa could reach them, a woman who happened to be passing by snatched up Malik. Vanessa could see her talking on her cell phone as Vanessa approached. “Ma’am, that’s my son,” Vanessa told the stranger holding her child when she caught up to them, only a minute later. But the woman refused to let him go. She had called 911 to report Malik as being unattended. Vanessa was in no shape to physically pull Malik from the woman’s arms, so she waited for the police to intervene. But when an officer arrived, he questioned Vanessa and demanded proof that she was Malik’s mother. The officer finally let Vanessa take Malik back when relatives gathered around to vouch for her. As the officer was leaving, he handed Vanessa a ticket for child neglect.2
- “Mind-blowing…a devastating indictment of the [child welfare] system.”—Ibram X. Kendi, Guardian
- “Roberts’s work [is] grimly essential as both prophecy and cautionary tale…It’s not unusual for an academic to say they want to inspire movements, but to an extent more sweeping and durable than most, Roberts has accomplished that.”—Irin Carmon, New York
- "This compelling narrative delivers data rich analysis that reflects decades of research, observation, and advocacy for Black children and mothers. It exposes the ugly demographics and politics of America’s destructive family policing child welfare system...Necessary reading."—Library Journal
- "Compassionate, clear, and compelling."—Kirkus
- "Roberts buttresses her impassioned call for dismantling the child welfare system by skillfully situating it within a larger web of institutions intended to surveil, control, and punish Black Americans. This illuminating and alarming study shatters the 'facade of benevolence' surrounding foster care."—Publishers Weekly
- “Torn Apart is a brilliant and impassioned call for abolition of our racist and disastrous systems of family policing. Better than anyone else could, Dorothy Roberts shows convincingly why we must reimagine child welfare and develop new systems for meeting human needs, preventing violence, and caring for children, families, and communities."—Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
- "Dorothy Roberts has brilliantly illuminated the Black experience in America for decades. Her new book on America's punitive child welfare system is a bold and critically important reimagining of how to better protect children. Her thesis on how the legacy of slavery and carceral systems have impacted Black families is rooted in decades of rigorous examination, research, and reflection. This is a compelling, thoughtful, and urgent work."—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy
“Once again Dorothy Roberts offers us a bold, visionary critique of the contemporary institutional consequences of colonialism and slavery. Her penetrating analysis of the family policing system and its masquerade as child protective services not only persuades us that reforms alone will forever reinforce the system’s racist and repressive foundations, it also compels us to imagine new modes of care and frameworks for abolitionist futures.”
—Angela Y. Davis, author of Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
- On Sale
- Oct 3, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books