Torn apart: A skewed portrait of child welfare in America

In her 2009 book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, Dorothy Roberts drew attention to the disproportional representation of Black children in foster care and child welfare in general and helped make “racial disproportionality” a buzzword in the child welfare world. In her new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, Roberts revisits the issues addressed in Shattered Bonds and creates a new buzzword, renaming child welfare as the “family policing system.” Those who liked Shattered Bonds will likely love Torn Apart. But those who value accuracy in history or in data will find it to be sadly misguided, although it does make some valid points about flaws in the U.S. child welfare system.

Roberts starts with a horrific anecdote about a mother, Vanessa Peoples, who was doing everything right–she was married, going to nursing school, about to rent a townhouse and was even a cancer patient. But Peoples attracted the attention of both the police and child welfare and ended up hogtied and carted off to jail by police, placed on the child abuse registry, and subjected to months of monitoring by CPS after she lost sight of her toddler at a family picnic when a cousin was supposed to be watching him. But citing these extreme anecdotes as typical is very misleading. This particular story has been covered in numerous media outlets since it occurred in 2017 and continues to be cited regularly. One can counter every one of these horrific anecdotes with a story of a Black child who would have been saved if social workers had not believed and deferred to the parents. (See my commentary on the abuse homicides of Rashid Bryant and Julissia Batties, for example).

Roberts’ book restates many of the old myths that have been plaguing child welfare discussions as of late and that seem to have a life of their own, impervious to the facts. Perhaps the most common and pernicious is the myth that poverty is synonymous with neglect. Roberts embraces this misconception, suggesting that most neglect findings reflect parents who are too poor to provide adequate housing, clothing and food to their children. But parents who are found to have neglected their children typically have serious, chronic mental illness or substance use disorders that severely affect their parenting, and have refused or are unable to comply with a treatment plan. Many are chronically neglectful, resulting in children with cognitive and social deficits, attachment disorders, and emotional regulation problems. Commentator Dee Wilson argues based on his decades of experience in child welfare that “a large percentage of neglect cases which receive post-investigation services, or which result in foster placement, involve a combination of economic deprivation and psychological affliction…., which often lead to substance abuse as a method of self-medication.” Perhaps the strongest argument against the myth that poverty and neglect are one and the same is that most poor parents do not neglect their children.  They find a way to provide safe and consistent care, even without the resources they desperately need and deserve.

Roberts endorses another common myth–that children are worse off in foster care than they would be if they remained in their original homes. She argues that foster care is a “toxic state intervention that inflicts immediate and long-lasting damage on children, producing adverse outcomes for their health, education, income, housing, and relationships.” It is certainly true that foster youth tend to have bad outcomes in multiple domains, including education, health, mental health, education, housing and incarceration. But we also know that child abuse and neglect are associated with similar poor outcomes. Unfortunately, the research is not very helpful for resolving the question of whether these outcomes are caused by the original child maltreatment or by placement in foster care. We cannot, of course, ethically perform a controlled study in which we remove some children and leave a similar set of children at home. We must rely on studies that use various methodologies to disentangle these influences, but all of them have flaws. Roberts cites the study published in 2007 by Joseph Doyle, which compared children who were placed in foster care with children in similar situations who were not. Doyle found that children placed in foster care fared worse on every outcome than children who remained at home. But Doyle focused on marginal cases* and left out the children suffering the most severe and obvious maltreatment. In a brand-new paper, Doyle, along with Anthony Bald and other co-authors, states that both positive and negative effects have been found for different contexts, subgroups, and study designs.

There is one myth that Roberts does not endorse: the myth that disproportional representation of Black children in child welfare is due to racial bias in the child welfare system, rather than different levels of maltreatment in the two populations. After an extensive review of the debate on this issue, Roberts concludes that it focused on the wrong question. In her current opinion, it doesn’t matter if Black children are more likely to be taken into foster care because they are more often maltreated. “It isn’t enough,” she states, “to argue that Black children are in greater need of help. We should be asking why the government addresses their needs in such a violent way, (referring to the child removal). Roberts was clever to abandon the side that believes in bias rather than different need as the source of disparities. The evidence has become quite clear that Black-White disparities in maltreatment are sufficient to explain the disparity of their involvement in child welfare; for example Black children are three times as likely to die from abuse or neglect as White children. As Roberts suggests and as commentators widely agree, these disparities in abuse and neglect can be explained by the disparities in the rates of poverty and other maltreatment risk factors stemming from our country’s history of slavery and racism. Unfortunately, Roberts’ continued focus on these disparities in child welfare involvement will continue to be used by the many professionals who are working inside and outside child welfare systems all over the country to implement various bias reduction strategies, from implicit bias training to “blind removals.”

In Part III, entitled “Design,” Roberts attempts to trace the current child welfare system to the sale of enslaved children and a system of forced “apprenticeship” of formerly enslaved Black children under Jim Crow, whereby white planters seized custody of Black children from their parents as a source of forced labor.** As she puts it, “[t]hroughout its history US family policy has revolved around the racist belief that Black parents are unfit to raise their children. Beginning with chattel slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow, civil rights, and neoliberal eras, the white power structure has wielded this lie as a rationale to control Black communities, exploit Black labor, and quell Black rebellion by assaulting Black families.” In other passages she adds other groups to the list of victims, adding “Indigenous, immigrant and poor people to the list of communities that are being controlled by the “family policing system.” But most of her statements refer to Black victims only.

Roberts’ attempt to connect slavery and Jim Crow practices with child welfare systems highlights a major flaw of the book. She herself explains that due to racism the child welfare system served only White children when it emerged in the nineteenth century with the creation of child protection charities and the passage of state laws allowing maltreated children to be removed from their homes and placed in orphanages. Foster care was established in the middle of the century and also excluded Black children. The system did not begin serving Black children until after World War II, so it is difficult to understand how it could stem from slavery and Jim Crow practices. It seems much more plausible that the child welfare system arose from basically benevolent concerns about children being maltreated, and that with the rise of the civil rights movement, these concerns were eventually extended to Black children as well.

While Black children’s representation as a share of foster care and child welfare caseloads rose rapidly starting in the 1960’s, and Black children are much more likely to be touched by the system than White children, the system still involves more White than Black children. According to the latest figures, there were 175,870 White non-Hispanic children in foster care (or 44 percent of children in foster care) and 92,237 Black (non-Hispanic) children in foster care, or 23 percent of children in foster care. Moreover, the disparity between Black and White participation in child welfare and foster care as a percentage of the population seems to be decreasing.*** So the idea that this whole system exists to oppress the Black community and maintain white supremacy seems farfetched.

Roberts’ attempt to make Black children the focus of the book results in some awkward juxtapositions, like when she admits that though the Senate investigation of abuses by a for-profit foster care agency called MENTOR “highlighted cases involving white children, we should remember that Black children are more likely to experience these horrors in foster care—not only because Black children are thrown in foster care at higher rates, but also because government officials have historically cared less about their well-being.” A page later she states that the “child welfare system’s treatment of children in its custody is appalling but should come as no surprise. It is the predictable consequence of a system aimed at oppressing Black communities, not protecting Black children.” It is hard to understand how White children being maltreated in bad placements supports this narrative.

Fundamental to Roberts’ critique is her system is “not broken.” “Those in power have no interest in fundamentally changing a system that is benefiting them financially and politically, one that continues to serve their interests in disempowering Black communities, reinforcing a white supremacist power structure, and stifling calls for radical social change.” Even if one believes there is a white supremacist power structure, it is hard to see the direct connection between the abuses Roberts is highlighting and the disempowerment of Black communities; it seems more likely that the more abusive the system, the more protests it would generate. And at a time when the federal government and some of the wealthiest foundations and nongovernmental organizations are echoing much of Robert’s rhetoric, her reasoning seems particularly off-target.

Roberts makes some valid criticisms of the child welfare system. Her outrage at the terrible inadequacies of our foster care system is well-deserved. She is right that “The government should be able to show that foster care puts Black children [I’d say “all children”] on a different trajectory away from poverty, homelessness, juvenile detention, and prison and toward a brighter future.” Any society that removes children from their parents needs to be responsible for providing a nurturing environment that is much, much better than what they are removed from. And we are not doing that. As Roberts states, “The state forces children suffering from painful separations from their families into the hands of substitute caretakers…..who often have unstable connections, lack oversight and may be motivated strictly by the monetary rewards reaped from the arrangement.” As a foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I was driven to despair at my inability to get my superiors to revoke the licenses of such foster parents; the need for “beds” was too great to exclude anyone was not actually guilty of abuse or severe neglect. Roberts is also right to be concerned the outsourcing of foster care to private for-profit organizations that may be more concerned with making money than protecting children, sometimes resulting in scandals like the one involving MENTOR Inc., which was found to hire unqualified foster parents and fail to remove them even after egregious violations like sexual assault.

Roberts also raises valid concerns about children being sent to residential facilities, often out of state, that resemble prisons rather than therapeutic facilities. But she ignores the need for more high-quality congregate care options for those children who have been so damaged by years of maltreatment that they cannot function in a foster home, no matter how nurturing. Instead, she repeats the usual litany of scandals involving deaths, injuries, fights and restraints, without noting the undersupply of truly therapeutic residential settings, resulting in children sleeping in office, cars, and hotels or remaining in hospital wards after they are ready for discharge. Ironically, she supports defunding the system, even if that would mean even worse situations for these children.

Roberts decries the fact that parents sometimes relinquish custody of their children in order to get needed residential care, arguing that “rather than providing mental health care directly to families, child welfare authorities require families to relinquish custody of children so they can be locked in residential treatment centers run by state and business partnerships.” That statement is completely backwards. The child welfare system does not provide mental health services but, like parents, it often struggles to secure them for its clients. Some parents are forced to turn to the child welfare system because their insurance will not pay for residential care for their children. That is not the fault of child welfare systems, which clearly do not want to take custody of these children. The underlying problem is the lack of adequate mental health care (including both outpatient and residential programs), which has destructive consequences for the foster care system. This is exacerbated by the lack of parity for mental health in health insurance programs. It’s hard to believe Robert is unaware of these well-known facts.

Roberts is correct that parents as well as children are shortchanged by inadequacies in our child welfare program, such as the “cookie cutter” service plans which often contain conflicting obligations that are difficult for struggling parents to meet. But she is wrong when she says that parents need only material support, not therapeutic services. But this error flows logically from her concept of neglect as simply a reflection of poverty. In fact, many of these parents need high-quality behavioral health services and drug treatment, which are often not available because of our nation’s mental health crisis, as well as the unwillingness of taxpayers and governments at all levels to adequately fund these services.

In her final chapter, Roberts concludes that, like the prison system, the child welfare system cannot be repaired because it exists to oppress Black people. “The only way to end the destruction caused by the child welfare system is to dismantle it while at the same time building a safer and more caring society that has no need to tear families apart.” In place of family policing, Roberts favors policies that improve children’s well-being, such as “a living wage and income support for parents, high-quality housing, nutrition, education, child care, health care; freedom from state and private violence; and a clean environment.” I agree with Roberts that aid to children must be expanded. The US is benighted when compared to many other Western countries that invest much more heavily in their children through income support, early childhood and K-12 education, healthcare, and housing. But family dysfunction occurs even if a family’s material needs are met. That is why every other developed nation has a child welfare system with the authority to investigate maltreatment allegations and assume custody of children when there are no other options. Moreover, some of the countries with the strongest safety nets for children also have higher percentages of children living in foster care than the United States.****

Torn Apart is a skewed portrait of the child welfare system. In it Roberts restates the common but easily discredited myths that poverty is synonymous with neglect and that foster care makes children worse off than they would have been if left at home. The underlying flaw in her account is the idea that this system exists to repress the Black community, even though it was established solely for the protection of White children. Roberts makes some valid criticisms of child welfare systems and how they shortchange the children and families they are supposed to help. But when she talks of dismantling child protection, she is proposing the abandonment of abused and neglected Black children in homes that are toxic to them, an abandonment that will perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of abuse and neglect. These children are our future; abandoning their well-being to prioritize that of their parents is a bad bargain with history.

*Doyle’s study included only those cases that would have resulted in foster placement by some investigators and not by others, leaving out the cases in which children were in such danger that all investigative social workers would agree that they should be placed.

**In various places, she also attributes it to different combinations of slavery and apprenticeship of Black children with the transfer of Native American children to boarding schools, the exclusion of Black children from charitable aid and the servitude of impoverished White children.

***A recent paper reports that disparities between Black and White children began to decrease in the twenty-first century in nearly every state, closing entirely in several Southern states.

****Unicef’s report, Children in Alternative Care, shows that Denmark has 982 children in “alternative care” per 100,000 and Sweden has 872 per 100,000, compared to 500 per 100,000 for the United States.