Speaking to an intimate crowd at a Harlem bookstore on Malcolm X Boulevard this month, a prominent scholar on race and gender read from her latest book, describing a dire need to reframe America’s policies that profess to protect children.
Dozens had come to hear the University of Pennsylvania law, sociology and Africana Studies professor Dorothy Roberts speak in this historically Black neighborhood. The audience included former foster youth as well as mothers who had lost children following CPS investigations and turned to activism to help others avoid family separation.
“Every year government agents invade the homes of hundreds of thousands of families in poor and low-income communities without a warrant or any other kinds of judicial authorization, in the name of protecting children who live there,” Roberts told those assembled at Revolution Books.
“Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World,” was published by Basic Books and released this month. It argues that CPS workers interpret conditions of poverty, including lack of food, insecure housing and inadequate medical and mental health care, “as evidence of parental unfitness.” And instead of government agencies providing families resources, they “brandish a terrifying weapon” by threatening to take their children away.
“The child welfare system has unparalleled powers to terrorize entire communities, shape national policy and reinforce our unequal social order,” Roberts writes.
Roberts, 66, calls this America’s “family policing system,” a vast surveillance network hiding behind a “facade of benevolence.” Institutions “that are supposed to be caring places — schools, hospitals, medical clinics, social service offices — they’ve all been deputized agents for this family policing system,” Roberts said at the Harlem event.
Roberts has three related books, which she draws on for her current scholarship. Her seminal 2001 work “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare,” followed “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty,” published in 1997. The 2011 book “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century” argued that modern technologies that treat race as a biological trait — such as some genetic ancestry testing companies — threaten to perpetuate “monstrous” fictions.
“Torn Apart” acknowledges some of Roberts’ longtime critics. They include social work professors, legal scholars and former public officials who push back against any notion of “abolition” in the child welfare space. This school of thought rejects arguments that the child maltreatment category of “neglect” punishes parents simply for living in poverty, or that foster care systems are rooted in racial bias. They also object to some targeted efforts to correct the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children, saying such measures can be hazardous to children’s safety.
But on April 16, Roberts, a mother of four, was warmly received by several dozen gathered at Revolution Books, lined with posters reading “Redistribute Wealth” and “It’s Happening Here and It’s Up to Us to Stop It.” The event was co-hosted by Rise, which produces an online magazine with pieces by parents who’ve been investigated for child maltreatment. In recent years, the organization has broadened its reach, advocating to reduce the footprint of the New York child welfare system.
“This is probably the first book that I have really self-identified with,” said audience member Darlene Jackson, a former foster youth and Bronx city council candidate who has worked for one of the largest local child welfare agencies.
On her book tour, Roberts is reframing how the child welfare system has long been characterized. Political science scholar and public radio show host Melissa Harris-Perry gasped on air as Roberts described how more than half of Black children experience a CPS investigation, a potentially traumatizing intrusion resulting in years of court-ordered supervision.
“What? Wait, what, half?” Harris-Perry interjected.
“More than half, 53%,” Roberts responded. “Is it really the case, that half of Black children in America need the investigation of caseworkers — government agents in their homes — to be protected and safe? We have to reimagine what it means to keep children safe and this system isn’t doing it. It’s doing the opposite. It’s harming children and their families.”
In a discussion streamed live this month, New Yorker Staff Writer Jelani Cobb told Roberts that after reading her book, “You walk away with this profound sense of: ‘How could these things have happened, and how could I not have known?’”
From ‘Shattered Bonds’ to ‘Torn Apart’
Roberts’ earlier book “Shattered Bonds” highlighted then-overlooked racial disparities in the child welfare system. But it only mentioned “abolishing” the system once, in the introduction. Now, after participating in decades of what she describes as fruitless reform efforts — including nine years as a court-appointed monitor overseeing foster care reforms in Washington state — Roberts pushes that vision further.
“Our goal is not only to dismantle the current system, but also to imagine and create better ways of caring for children, meeting families’ needs, and preventing domestic violence,” she writes.
Roberts’ pathway involves “shrinking” the current system through legislation that limits the authority of CPS, such as bills barring involuntary drug testing of new and expecting mothers. She also calls for providing accused parents with quality legal representation earlier in the investigative process. Roberts says anti-poverty efforts must be expanded, in part by “diverting the billions of dollars spent on regulating and breaking up families to cash assistance, health care, housing, and other material supports.”
Lastly, she points to the necessity of “mutual aid,” grassroots groups networks that spread during the onset of the pandemic throughout New York City and beyond, providing child care, delivering medicine and groceries, and raising rent money for struggling residents.
“Abolishing family policing does not mean ignoring children suffering from deprivation and violence,” Roberts writes. “To the contrary, abolition means imagining ways of meeting families’ needs and preventing family violence that do not inflict the damage caused by tearing families apart.”
Describing the system as it currently operates, she cites the prevalence of CPS agencies working closely with police departments, and county workers who function as law enforcement — while denying parents the due process afforded to criminal suspects.
Roberts interviewed one young Aurora, Colorado nursing student, whose 2-year-old son wandered off during a family picnic. Although Vanessa Peoples quickly found her child, a stranger had called 911, and the resulting CPS investigation turned into a nightmare. According to body-camera footage, a local police officer accompanying a social worker grabbed Peoples by the throat, tackled her and pinned her to the ground, dislocating her shoulder as she screamed in pain.
The Aurora City Council later agreed to pay a six-figure settlement in the resulting police misconduct case. Yet the CPS case for child neglect persisted.
“Vanessa complied with every agency requirement and was released from probation several months early,” Roberts recounted. “But her arrest and record of child abuse continued to devastate her family.”
The roots of harm
In Harlem earlier this month, Roberts traced the origins of Black family separation from the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1600s to the racist stereotypes that shaped more recent history.
During the 1980s “crack epidemic, government policies were fueled by lies that Black women cared more about drugs than their own babies, she said.
This view echoes a 2018 series of New York Times editorials, which described how tropes that “demonized black women,” were spread by the media, fueling “the moral panic that cast mothers with crack addictions as irretrievably depraved and the worst enemies of their children.”
Similarly, Roberts argues the Reagan-era myth that Black women had children to draw down government checks helped prime the welfare reforms of the mid-1990s.
“All of the disparaging myths about Black mothers that were like, we don’t really care about our children,” Roberts said, “those are stereotypes that began during slavery era.”
In an interview with The Imprint earlier this month, Roberts described the response to her book tour as overwhelmingly positive, though she noted “probing” questions. One young woman asked how to broach the subject of “abolition” with her parents who worked as child welfare professionals. She’s also been asked how she would address severe child abuse in family homes.
In “Torn Apart,” Roberts briefly addresses that issue, noting those extreme tragedies cause “foster care panics” that overload CPS with less serious allegations to investigate: “The deaths of children known to the system don’t prove that we need more family policing. They prove that family policing doesn’t protect children.” She also calls for more examination of “transformative justice approaches” to address family violence — methods relying less on prisons and law enforcement and instead drawing on friends, family and community members to devise effective interventions.
In “Torn Apart,” Roberts describes how some prominent law and social work scholars have strenuously disagreed with her since the publication two decades ago of her first book. Roberts dubs them the “disparity defenders.”
“We’re going to see the efforts of child welfare policymakers and administrators to try to discredit the notion of abolition,” she said. “This is already happening.”
Indeed, the debate over issues Roberts raises has intensified within the child welfare field in recent years.
A September essay titled “What Child Protection is For” published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute and co-signed by more than a dozen university professors, former state and federal policymakers and advocates for faith-based child welfare services cited “Shattered Bonds,” stating “the claims made by those calling for the abolition of our child protection system range from questionable to demonstrably false.” In October, a group of eight scholars writing for the Research on Social Work Practice journal published a roundup of research that also cautioned that abolition was based on “false assumptions.”
The lead author on the American Enterprise statement, institute Senior Fellow Naomi Schaefer Riley, recently reviewed “Torn Apart” in the Wall Street Journal, stating that Roberts “cherry-picked” decades-old studies with tiny sample sizes. (Roberts says in response “I invite readers to consider my arguments in ‘Torn Apart’ and to read the numerous recent and rigorous studies I cite for themselves.”) Noting Roberts’ influence, however, Schaefer Riley warned that Biden administration policymakers seemed to be echoing the law professor’s views in public statements, threatening to “keep Black families — all families — from getting the help they need.”
There are still other signs that the mainstream may be shifting in Roberts’ favor.
Roberts is credited with helping to popularize the terms “family policing system” and “family regulatory system” among activists and some legal advocates. And last year, Columbia University’s law school hosted a symposium honoring “Shattered Bonds” on its 20th anniversary, with scores of attorneys, law professors and activists praising its influence.
A 2001 Kirkus review of her first book claimed “she tends to romanticize the poor, assigning to them no accountability for their current circumstances.” Yet, Kirkus — a prolific publisher of short reviews known to influence book distributors and librarians — found her latest book “a compelling argument” for a new system. Time Magazine Senior Correspondent Janell Ross credited Roberts with a large following due to her “track record of writing about social problems in ways that both researchers and laypeople recognize to be real.”
Child protection or ‘family policing?’
Perhaps the most consequential sign of the shifting terrain is the rising grassroots activism that barely existed when Roberts began her research 25 years ago, which she said is one of the reasons she wrote her latest book.
Groups like Rise, JMacForFamilies, the Movement for Family Power and the UpEND Movement — along with an energized legal defense community and growing attention from philanthropic and civil rights institutions — gave her hope. She also cites local efforts worthy of expanding, including diaper giveaways and campaigns to change city and state laws, such as those headed by New York City’s Joyce McMillan. In Roberts’ book, the founder of JMacForFamilies and a well-known parent advocate recalls how a past CPS investigation once derailed her life.
“I worked in the banking industry, and I had a place to live, a car, and a great credit score,” McMillan told Roberts. “When they left me, I was addicted to drugs, I had no credit score, I lost my place to live, and ultimately was incarcerated. For an agency that calls itself a helping system, not only did they not help my children, they definitely tore me apart. They shredded me.”
After she finished her reading in Harlem, Roberts asked her Rise co-panelists Halimah Washington and Naashia Bettis to talk about their community work. Bettis and Washington quickly pointed to the pervasive CPS contact in historically Black New York City neighborhoods, which Rise highlighted in a report published last year.
The organization conducted focus groups and surveyed dozens of parents impacted by the child welfare system to learn more about their experiences and what resources were available that did not involve an agency with the power to remove children.
“Families have to interface with that system in everything that they do. Whether they’re going to the doctor, whether they’re taking their children to school, whether they’re receiving public benefits — they might be under investigation right now,” Washington told bookstore visitors. “It doesn’t make any sense at all, for a person to have to be under investigation, and have to deal with the trauma of surveillance and investigations in order to receive services that should just be given to people freely.”
Rise is now training impacted parents to support their peers with open cases before the Family Court, a model that is spreading nationally.
Roberts applauded Washington’s assertion that the “family policing system” needs to be “burned down” and “dismantled.” The crowd in Harlem snapped and applauded in agreement.