America’s Child Welfare System Doesn’t Keep Kids Safe

Reproductive justice scholar Dorothy Roberts' new book analyzes the violence it inflicts on Black families—and makes a call for abolition.

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America’s Child Welfare System Doesn’t Keep Kids Safe
Image:Chris Crisman/Basic Books

A few weeks before Vanessa Peoples was hogtied by Colorado police and taken to jail, her toddler wandered away from a family picnic. Though Peoples quickly caught up to him, a stranger who found the child called the cops, who in turn wrote the Black mother of two a ticket for child neglect.

On the day of her arrest in 2017, caseworkers paid a visit to her home to follow up on the citation. Peoples, who is partially deaf, was in the basement doing laundry and didn’t hear their knocks. When the officials spotted one of her sons through a window, they called the police, who entered the home, sparking a confrontation. Peoples’ shoulder was dislocated as her hands were bound behind her back and connected to her ankles. Police carried her out of her home, tied up, she later said, “like an animal.” In order to avoid a prison sentence, Peoples pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment. Later, she received a settlement from the police department after filing an excessive force suit.

Dorothy Roberts recounts this story in her new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, which was released Tuesday. Peoples’ is one of countless families, mostly poor and disproportionately Black, whose lives have been upended by encounters with child protective services—encounters that can be triggered by incidents as minor as a mischievous toddler making a moments-long escape. Through exhaustive research and analysis, Roberts argues that the child welfare system would be better understood as a “family policing system,” and that children could be safer overall were it to be abolished.

“When you take into account how similar the so-called child welfare system is to criminal law enforcement,” Roberts told Jezebel during a Zoom interview, “it’s very clear that they are operating under the same carceral logic, and they also operate hand-in hand. They’re symbiotic systems.”

The statistics cited in Torn Apart are alarming: More than half of all Black children in the U.S. are subjected to a child welfare investigation before they reach adulthood. The figure for white children is around 28 percent, and overall, more than a third of all American kids are investigated by child protective agencies by their 18th birthdays. A majority of these investigations are closed without any finding of maltreatment, but the process alone subjects parents to massive stress, and has been found to increase rates of depression in mothers without improving outcomes for families. In cases in which authorities decide that reports of mistreatment are substantiated, disparities persist. Black children are overrepresented in foster care, and parental rights in Black and Native American families are terminated at more than twice the rate of white families. Each year, a total of around 250,000 American children enter foster care, with another 250,000 entering the poorly documented “shadow” foster care system, in which caseworkers convince parents to turn their children over to family or friends in order to avoid official involvement with the child welfare system.

Roberts is a celebrated scholar and University of Pennsylvania law professor. Much of her work examines reproductive issues, and her 1997 book Killing the Black Body, which analyzed America’s history of abusing and criminalizing Black mothers and attempting to curtail their rights to bear and raise children, has become an anti-racist classic. Her research, which found her investigating the “crack baby” myth and the higher levels of drug testing of pregnant Black women and their newborns, led her to the child welfare system. Roberts first examined it at length in her 2002 book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Now, she’s become one of the most prominent voices in the movement urging the abolition of the child protective system as we know it.

The number of children in foster care has fallen over the years between the publications of Shattered Bonds and Torn Apart, though Roberts noted that, in some areas, rates are once again rising. Still, the system is too-little changed. “The fundamental philosophy remains the same,” said Roberts, “which is that the way to deal with the needs of children and families is to accuse them of child maltreatment, investigate them, threaten to take their children and supervise them, remove children and put them in foster care, and, in too many cases, permanently destroy the family.” Rates of racial disparity in the system have shrunken, but remain glaring.

“When you take into account how similar the so-called child welfare system is to criminal law enforcement, it’s very clear that they are operating under the same carceral logic.”

Many of these disparities are rooted in the disproportionate rates of poverty that Black families experience. The majority of children in foster care were removed from their homes not due to abuse, but after the state determined that they were suffering from neglect. Many of these cases of neglect land on the radar of child protective services after families find themselves unable to pay their rent or utility bills, buy food or clothes, or persuade their landlords to make necessary home repairs. While less than 8 percent of white Americans live in poverty, more than 18 percent of Black Americans do.

With poverty also often comes increased contact with professionals who are mandated reporters of potential child abuse or neglect. Caseworkers have been found to hold biases against Black families: In Torn Apart, Roberts describes an experiment in which caseworkers were shown the same digitally altered image of a messy home, featuring either a Black or white baby. When presented with the Black child, they were more likely to determine that the baby was being neglected.

Then there are healthcare workers, who are among the professional groups most likely to report suspected maltreatment. When presented with Black and white children with similar injuries, doctors have been found to more frequently diagnose Black children as being the victims of abuse, but actual abuse is more likely to be found in the comparatively smaller numbers of white children that medical professionals report to investigators. Pregnant Black women and their infants are also more likely to be drug tested, and a positive drug test can land newborns in foster care. This is despite the fact that, as Roberts notes, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists announced in 2020 that “leading medical organizations agree that a positive drug test should not be construed as child abuse or neglect.”

In her book, Roberts traces the history of the child welfare system to slavery and the American Indian Wars. The separation of Black families was first institutionalized by the slave trade, as spouses, children, and parents were sold away from each other. In order to justify the destruction of familial bonds, myths pathologized Black families. “Their griefs are transient,” Thomas Jefferson wrote of enslaved Africans. “Those numberless afflictions which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.” More than a century later, a white essayist wrote that Black women don’t have “the brooding mother-love and anxiety which the white woman sends after her children as long as they live.”

“There’s this very long-standing idea that Black families are dangerous for children,” Roberts said. “So the racial makeup of the child welfare system also has the impact of persuading the public that it’s better to take these children away from their families. They must be safer, they must be better cared for in other families, than with Black caregivers.”

For Native Americans, family separation has also long been a tragic norm. Native American children were carted away to boarding schools that operated with the express purpose of severing their ties to their families and cultures, in order to forcibly assimilate them into white society. Later, children were removed from their homes and placed with white foster and adoptive families. By the 1970s, it’s estimated that between a quarter and a third of all Indigenous children were being removed from their homes and being placed largely with white institutions and families.

To Roberts, it seems unlikely to be coincidental that Blacks and Native Americans—the two groups historically most targeted for family separation—remain the demographics whose families are most often disrupted by the state today. “I personally have, over 20 years, engaged in many reform efforts that haven’t worked, and I have come to the conclusion that this system, like the prison system, isn’t broken,” she said. “It’s working the way it was designed from the very beginning to work. So we need to dismantle it and replace that with a radically reimagined way of supporting families and keeping children safe.”

Conventional wisdom holds that when it comes to removing children from their homes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Few crimes against children spark more outrage or news coverage than the deaths of children at the hands of their parents, and understandably so—stories of child abuse are uniformly horrifying. The harm caused when children are taken from their homes, however, tends to receive less attention. “Violence perpetrated by the child welfare system, even though it’s often in conjunction with police officers, is seen as protecting children,” said Roberts. “And if there are a few cases here and there where the violence gets out of hand, it’s still [considered] overall better to have the system.”

“this system, like the prison system, isn’t broken. It’s working the way it was designed from the very beginning to work.”

Throughout her book, Roberts highlights the ways in which the child services system parallels and intersects with policing, from terminology—termination of parental rights is considered the family court “death penalty”—to the fact that caseworkers often work with police officers, particularly when venturing into Black communities. Victims of crime find themselves scrutinized by child welfare agencies, too. Domestic violence survivors who’ve turned to hotlines or police have had their children be removed from their care, even though the kids themselves were not physically harmed. “Of course,” said Roberts, “this deters mothers from seeking help, because they’re afraid their children are going to be taken away from them.”

As Torn Apart illustrates, the foster system exacts a high toll. Death rates for foster kids are 42 percent higher than rates for non-foster children. They’re four times more likely to attempt suicide, and rates of suicidal ideation increase with each subsequent placement. Foster children experience PTSD at rates higher than veterans who saw action. As adults, they are more likely to be incarcerated, to use drugs, and to live in poverty. Researchers have been able to determine that poor outcomes are not necessarily caused by the experiences that led to state involvement in these kids’ lives—instead, the experience of foster care itself places children at risk.

Roberts is aware that, despite all the evidence of injustice, abolition of the child welfare system can be hard to envision—but examples already exist. In the nation’s wealthy, white communities, rates of child welfare involvement are extremely low. Communities that can afford to erect barriers between themselves and the state—via private child care, mental health treatment, drug and alcohol abuse support, and abundant housing and food—show that it’s possible for children to be kept safe without resorting to traumatic family separations.

Torn Apart also recounts the story of a different experiment in abolition: New York City in the early days of the pandemic. When the city shut down, its Administration for Children’s Services severely curtailed operations, pausing home visits and many of its standard surveillance efforts, while continuing to investigate any child deaths that occurred. Observers predicted that kids, kept home and away from mandated reporters, would face higher rates of maltreatment at the hands of abusive parents. Instead, the child death investigations decreased, and no new wave of abused children emerged when operations ramped up again. Later, the ACS commissioner himself reported that the agency had found no increase in abuse, and said that the lockdown had likely been “a very positive thing” for children who were able to spend more time with their parents.

During those frightening early days when ACS was largely dormant, new systems sprang up instead—like income support from the federal government, and mutual aid networks that provided food and diapers. “I think it’s a great lesson,” said Roberts, “that we don’t need this intrusive, destructive system to protect children.”

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