Shattered and Torn
In a new book, Dorothy Roberts extends her landmark critique of the US child welfare system.
Dorothy Roberts, the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and director of the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society, was planning to write a new preface for a 20th anniversary edition of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002), a searing examination of how the US child welfare system victimizes Black families. But, an hour into a conversation with her editor at Basic Books, they both realized that a preface wouldn’t be enough: Roberts needed to write another book.
Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World incorporates new data and heartbreaking examples of the effects of what Roberts calls the “family policing system.” It links the system with slavery and other historical injustices, as well as mass incarceration. And it argues for the abolition of the apparatus of governmental surveillance, mandated reporting, foster care, and other intrusive policies in favor of cash payments and community support for struggling families.
Roberts talked about the book’s conclusions and her hopes for long-term change with Gazette contributor Julia M. Klein.
How does Torn Apart differ from Shattered Bonds?
The main purpose of the first book was to document the racial inequities in the child welfare system and to make a claim that it was a system that targeted and oppressed Black communities. It turns out I did use the word abolition, but I didn’t really spell out what abolition would mean. Another critical development over those 20 years was the emergence and flourishing of the prison abolition movement. I’m seeing a growing recognition that the principles of prison abolition also apply to the child welfare system.
You’ve written that the movement to abolish child welfare was started by mothers who lost their own children to the system.
I have always felt that I cannot develop abstract theories about injustice or what justice would require. I spent time with Black mothers whose children were in foster care and [who] were fighting to get their children back. I was very much influenced by the way in which they thought about this system not as a social service provider, with people who were helping them, but as agents of the state who were destroying their family and making it harder for them to take care of their children.
What are some of the new ideas in Torn Apart?
I not only focus on the racial disparities of the system—the fact that Black children and also Native children are grossly overrepresented, they’re more likely to be subject to investigations, they are more likely to be placed in foster care, their parents’ rights are more likely to be terminated. What is new is that I move from there to show the harms that this targeting of the most marginalized communities in the nation causes to families and to entire neighborhoods and communities and to explain how this is a form of state oppression against these communities that has always been designed not to protect children, not to keep them safe, but to disrupt their families and to keep surveillance and monitoring over them and to threaten them continually with the risk of the state taking their children away.
So, I make a stronger, very well-documented case that this is a targeting for repressive purposes. Since I wrote Shattered Bonds, there have been more studies showing that foster care is harmful to children. It interferes with their education, it interferes with their family and other social relationships, and it is a pathway to juvenile detention and prison. And I argue that foster [care] is structured to produce these outcomes.
Are you saying that the very intent of family policing, as you call it, is racist?
I don’t speak much about intent because that tends to connote that we have to prove that there is a racist motive in the minds of the people who are enacting these oppressive systems. I like to talk about the design of the system. Certainly, if we look back at the roots of these systems, we can find evidence that there were explicit white supremacist motives. The experience of forcible family separation of Black people goes back to the very origins of this nation, and the enslavement of Black families. It is one of the most horrific aspects of the slavery institution, and a critical aspect of the way in which the US state has treated Black families—as if our family bonds are not important.
Has the situation on the ground gotten worse since you wrote the first book—more harms, more separations?
The trend has been the continued higher rate of investigation and separation over the last 20 years compared to white families. The disparities in foster care placement have been reduced. When I wrote Shattered Bonds, Black children were four times more likely than white children to be placed in foster care. Now they’re twice as likely.
However, there have been increases in the investigation of families, which are also extremely traumatic and can lead to years of monitoring by so-called child welfare agents, with the threat of child removal always hanging over these families. A recent study found that more than half of all Black children will be subject to a child welfare investigation by the time they reach 18.
Some of that must be due to new laws expanding mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect.
Many people think of [mandatory reporting] as this wonderful protection for children. But what it actually does is throw families that simply have needs—for material resources like food and clothing and housing—into a system that doesn’t provide those resources. In addition, it is highly discriminatory. Many studies have shown that Black families are more likely to be suspected and reported for both physical child abuse and for neglect. For example, some public hospitals routinely test impoverished Black mothers and newborns [for drugs] and report them to Child Protective Services.
Can you talk about the continuities between family policing and what you call the carceral system?
Family policing is very similar to criminal law enforcement because it involves accusing people of offenses, monitoring them, investigating them, prosecuting them, and punishing them. It also is entangled with law enforcement because case workers routinely take police officers on their investigations, police officers conduct child welfare investigations themselves, and there is increasingly joint monitoring of families. Another parallel is that the same segregated, impoverished Black communities that are heavily surveilled by police officers are the ones [where] we find intensive child welfare intervention as well.
Is it your contention that most of the problems in these families are due to some combination of poverty and racial discrimination?
Yes. The vast majority of children in foster care and families who are investigated are entangled because of neglect, which is defined in many states as conditions of poverty. These are families who have serious needs because of structural inequalities in America. Only 17 percent of children in foster care in the United States today are there because of sexual or physical abuse.
So the efficient thing to do for most families is to provide aid?
Yes, studies just coming out have shown that the COVID rescue plan that put cash directly into the hands of parents helped to reduce child poverty in the United States.
But what about children who are in danger because of domestic abuse, mental illness, or other such problems?
Abolishing the system doesn’t mean neglecting the children who are in immediate and serious danger. Right now, we don’t have the resources, the services, the approach that would be able to address all of them. But many of those families could be addressed with the appropriate high-quality services, [including] transformative justice processes that hold people accountable and actually help families heal. Mothers are afraid to report [domestic violence] because they might lose their children. We reach them by creating community-based networks of resource providers—not investigators, not child removers. Don’t put children in foster care because their families are houseless or have inadequate housing. Provide the housing. Provide high-quality mental health services by people that families can trust who aren’t going to report them. Some of this is long-term. This is culture change, this is ideology change, this is social change.