Behind the Racial Disparities in the US Child-Welfare System

WDorothy Roberts was a Professor of Law, Sociology, and Civil Rights at the University of Pennsylvania. She had just completed a book talk at Revolution Books in Harlem, which is aptly called Revolution Books. According to the organizer of the event, there were fire-code limits for in-store audiences. Several people watched from chairs the store’s owners placed on the sidewalk, within earshot of a speaker and in view of a screen in the front window.

There’s a reason Roberts has such a large following: She has a track record of writing about social problems in ways that both researchers and laypeople recognize to be real. Roberts’ new book is Torn apart: How the child welfare system destroys black families and how abolition can create a safer world, applies that scrutiny to the American child-protective system—a web that Roberts believes doesn’t deserve that name. Child-welfare workers, especially Black child-welfare workers, are penalizing families because they’re poor, she argues. Only about 17% are taken from their homes because they have been accused of being subject to physical or sexual abuse. Roberts claims that this problem has become more serious since Clinton-era welfare reform decreased direct aid to low-income families. Roberts points out that major U.S. metropolitan areas have seen 60% of Black children in some way with child-welfare staff.

In this conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, as Roberts lays out a disturbing portrait of child welfare in an ostensibly free and wealthy nation, she also finds some evidence that there’s reason for hope.

TIME: How did you first hear about government attempts to enforce child welfare standards?

ROBERTS:When I was writing my book, I became intimately familiar with the child welfare system. The Black Body is DeadThis book, published 1997. I was researching on Black women being prosecuted for using drugs and pregnancy at the time. And that’s what led me to look into the child-welfare system. [I]It was quickly apparent that Black children were overrepresented in the system. There was this huge racial disparity, which I then came to see as Black communities being targeted by what I’m now calling “family policing.”

In other words, it’s not just that there are statistical disparities. There are Black communities—especially segregated, impoverished Black neighborhoods—where there is intense concentration of child-welfare-agency involvement, and children are at high risk of being subjected to investigation, to being removed from their homes, to spending a long time in foster care, and for their parents rights to be terminated.

These disparities are apparent at each level of agency action.

Yes. There are differences in all child-welfare decisions, as well disparities in bad outcomes. One of the most striking findings in a recent study is that more than half of all Black children will experience a child-welfare investigation by the time they reach age 18—53%. That is an astonishing amount of state intervention in Black families. Black children also have a higher chance of being taken from their homes and placed in foster care than children who are white. They’re more likely not to go to college after experiencing foster care, more likely to go to prison. The outcomes can also be disastrous.

These disparities are so common.

I think that the main reason is because the system is designed to deal with the hardships of children who are disadvantaged by structural inequality—including structural racism—by accusing their parents and separating families. I’m saying it that way because some people will say, ‘Well, Black children are more likely to have all these interventions because they have greater needs.’ But, first of all, why do they have greater needs? The second reason is that their greatest need is met with a violent and traumatic response: family separation. It’s because of the design of the system to treat poverty in this way. This is not the only thing that’s important.

Learn more America’s Long Overdue Awakening to Systemic Racism

Is it because stereotypes are so powerful that child welfare workers have to take Black children away from their parents?

There are longstanding stereotypes that Black parents don’t really love their children, that it’s easy to separate the bonds of Black parents and children, that Black children are better off in the care of other caregivers—especially white caregivers. You could list all the stereotypical portrayals of Black mothers as being unable, negligent, pathological and incapable of taking care of their children. And those stereotypes influence people’s decisions about child abuse and neglect. There’s a whole slew of studies that show that doctors are more likely to suspect child abuse if the child is Black than white, with the exact same injuries. This could be traced back to slavery.

We invite you to walk us through this history.

We have to get back to where it all began. Right? [That’s]The enslavement and sale of Black children, in which their parents were treated as chattel property. Parents did not have the right to take custody of their children or allow them to rear them as they wished. The enslaver could also decide to separate the parents for his or her economic gain. Part of it also is the sense that children are better off away from their families, and that there isn’t a tight loving bond between Black children and parents. And so there’s less of a sense of the problem that happens from family separation. This is due to the fact that Black children were removed from their parents in the slave era.

Also, the post-Civil War period and the apprenticeship system saw Black children being returned to former slave owners by judges on the grounds of neglect. Even if you think about the Black “welfare queen,” the idea was she only had children to exploit white taxpayers. It’s easy to make stereotypes about Black mothers or Black parents. I mean, the stereotype about the Black father is he’s not around at all. So all of those, I think, play into why we have a child-policing system today that investigates a large number of Black families and removes so many—one out of 10 Black children—from their home to be placed in foster care.

Learn more I searched for answers about my Enslaved Ancestor. Then I found out that there were many more questions.

When I’ve reported on the child-welfare system in the past, officials would frequently say to me that they had made significant efforts to remove fewer children from their homes or to place children with extended family members. The idea that children of color need to be “rescued” or “civilized” by wealthier white families, they would often tell me, was racist, outdated, and had proved deeply damaging. In private conversations with child welfare insiders do you think the emphasis on children of color shifts?

Yeah. Yes. [child-welfare researcher] conferences I’ve attended, where there’s the question of whether Black kids should be taken from their homes to address their needs, you don’t hear any discussion about what harm [may come]The children were taken away from their families. There’s also a study that was conducted in Michigan where they found that at every level—policy makers [and] people who worked in the child-welfare system, including supervisors and caseworkers—there was this assumption that only sometimes gets articulated, that Black children would be better off away from their families or communities. Some children in certain cities are placed with relatives. Not all of them are put in white homes. But that doesn’t mean that those stereotypes don’t still exist.

It was shocking to see the contents. Torn apart that the most common reason for a child being removed from their parent’s custody is allegations of neglect, not abuse.

Oh, absolutely. Most children placed in foster care have been taken into care because of allegations of neglect by their parents. This means the parent did not provide the necessary resources, such as adequate housing, clothes, and medical care.

It seems like you’re talking about the need to be more aware of the possibility that the infrastructure to theoretically protect children might be operating more like a policing force that punishes need.

II think you’re right, in a way it’s to punish parents who don’t conform to certain norms. Texas is an example. Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to caseworkers to investigate the families of children who were provided with gender-affirming care, that’s a very clear case of attacking families who aren’t seen to conform to certain norms. But there’s also a way in which the system has been used historically and today to blame parents for hardships to their children that are caused by poverty and other kinds of structural inequities. By blaming the parents you’re diverting attention away from the structural reasons for these unmet needs.

We need to consider the Texas directive’s impact on the response. However, not many realize that the child welfare system has essentially been penalizing Blackness and poverty for well over 100 years.

It is also worth noting that when the Trump Administration increased family separation at the borders, there was an outcry from the public with experts drawing attention to the trauma for children. [of]They are taken from their parents. Some others pointed out that this was also a form torture according to U.N. Conventions. This should be noted. We should object to Governor Abbott’s directive, but the same kinds of incursions on Black families have been happening at a higher rates for decades and it has never gotten that level of public outcry.

Learn more Black Families Are Outraged About Family Separation Within the U.S. It’s Time to Listen to Them

What can be done? Children of all races, ethnicities and nationalities are at greatest risk within their families.

Fundamentally, we need a completely different approach to child welfare and child protection that doesn’t rely on accusations and investigation and punishing families. A holistic approach to child welfare and protection must be based on caring for the children and their families and providing them with all they need. The United States is the Western country with the highest rate of child poverty. The United States also has the highest number of children removed by any Western nation, despite its claim to child protection. [In] a nation that truly provided income support, the kinds of health care, affordable housing, equal high-quality education for all—the vast majority of children in foster care today would not be there.

It’s true?

Research shows that about a third to three quarters of the foster children right now would be able to return home to their parents if there was adequate housing. The perceived need to separate the family would be reduced if the current approach was changed. There would still be children that are severely neglected, physically, or sexually abused. But the system we have now doesn’t prevent that from happening. The system reacts, sometimes too quickly. It seems like almost every time you hear about a child killed in the home—which is rare—it’s a child known to the system. And that’s part of the story, how the system knew about [the situation]. This means that something is seriously wrong. These are the most serious cases.

The solution is not in putting people behind bars or taking their children away. We need a fundamentally different way that actually gets to the roots of why there’s so much violence in our society. The gross inequalities of our society are the reason for the high level of violence in the United States.

Do you have any predictions for the future?

Well, one positive development. More people are coming to grips with the fact that this system has been so designed to harm and oppress children and people, it cannot be corrected. [that]An abolitionist approach is needed. Child-welfare agencies and policy makers are keen to learn more. And I think that there’s a growing movement to figure out how to dismantle the system. Anna Arons was a NYU professor that I relate in the book. [who] wrote an article where she talks about New York City’s accidental abolition during the COVID lockdown. These were just a few of the predictions made about children. [who were]Because child protective services were basically shut down, children could be subject to abuse in their own homes. Well, it turns out that there’s no signs that abuse went up at all.

Even during extreme stress,

Professor Arons argues that the reason why is because there were so many mutual aid networks that sprang into action and we’re distributing ten of thousands of dollars worth of resources to families. Cares ACT was another component. This cash aid went directly to families. I think it makes sense that that’s what kept children safe—arguably better than Protective Services.

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