Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this is The Takeaway. Under the Trump administration, the US took a hardline, zero-tolerance policy towards immigrants crossing the southern border. Part of this policy included routinely separating minor children from their parents. The nation was appalled when the consequences of this policy became public. Former First Lady Laura Bush wrote in a 2018 Washington Post editorial, "This zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It's immoral and it breaks my heart." The outcry against family separation was so universal, the Trump administration eventually reversed course, but family separation continues to occur every day in this country.
Professor Dorothy Roberts: My name is Dorothy Roberts and I'm a professor of Africana studies, law, and sociology at University of Pennsylvania.
Melissa: Professor Roberts has authored a new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. In it, she explains how the policies of the child welfare system rip apart families, particularly Black families, and how this system is allowed to persist because it lacks the headlining attention given to family separation at the border back in 2018.
Professor Roberts: It's a system that's always been designed to weaponize children by threatening to take them away or removing them from families in the most marginalized communities from its very inception and it continues to do that. It accuses parents and investigates families. It separates them from their families and it monitors families.
It surveils entire communities with this threat of taking children away. In that course of things, it destroys Black families. Black families are a particular target of the child welfare system for decades. We could even go back to the period of slavery where families were separated by enslavers and courts, so this has always been the design and it continues to operate that way.
Melissa: You write in the book, "The view that Black children needed white supervision was bolstered by a mythology that disparaged Black mothers in particular." Can you say a bit more about the historic and contemporary disparaging of Black mothers?
Professor Roberts: Yes, I first encountered the child welfare system when I was doing research on my first book, Killing the Black Body. That book was about the devaluation of Black mothers' childbearing. I was mostly looking then at prosecutions of Black mothers for being pregnant and using drugs and other ways in which through welfare policies and reproductive health policies, Black mothers were disparaged and stigmatized.
We can think of, for example, the false image of the Black welfare queen, who supposedly gets pregnant just to get a welfare check and then waste it on herself, not caring at all about these children who, in this myth, she has just to rip off white taxpayers. Images like that, that stem from slavery initially and the control of Black women's childbearing, but also the control that the white enslaver had over the entire family.
Black parents were given no authority over their children. This idea that Black mothers reproduced damaged children has circulated ever since then in the mainstream US culture. All these policies I've talked about are a way of scapegoating Black mothers, blaming them for the disadvantages that their children experience in America that are caused by structural inequalities. That's essentially how the child welfare system, which I call the family policing system, works.
Melissa: Let's make that very concrete for folks.
Professor Roberts: Sure.
Melissa: Because when I hear you say it's systems that harm children, not parents, everyone can point to some local news story or some personal experience they have where there was a responsible adult, right? There was some adult who was responsible for children who did, in fact, harm those children because those stories are often very present in our local news. We hear them. They have faces and names. Make very concrete for me this idea that a system could come in and harm a child in a situation where the parents are not harming them. You wrote about some cases of this that just absolutely were both heart-wrenching and jaw-dropping, so maybe share one with our listeners.
Professor Roberts: Sure. Well, I begin my introduction, my first chapter, with the story of Vanessa Peoples, a young Black woman who was having a nice time with her family at a park in Colorado. Her toddler strayed away momentarily and someone called 911 when they saw this little boy actually following her cousin in the parking lot. It ended up with Vanessa getting a citation for child endangerment and then caseworker showing up at her door and eventually calling police on her, seven police officers coming into her home.
She ended up being hog-tied and carried out with her shoulder dislocated and then monitored by the child welfare system. I just spoke with Vanessa, actually, a couple of days ago. She's still having a hard time getting a job, finding housing because she's been registered as a child abuser all out of a simple incident of a child straying away. I talk about lots of other experiences like this. What the public sees in the newspaper are exceptional cases. Yes, they're horrifying cases.
They're usually, by the way, cases where the child welfare system failed. The vast majority of children who are taken from their families and put in foster care are there because of neglect, which is almost always associated with poverty. Neglect statutes in this nation define it as poverty, not having the material resources that children need. Most Black children who are taken from their families, their families monitored and even their families torn apart, it's because they don't have the material resources that they need.
A much better way of dealing with the needs of children would be to provide those resources. By blaming their parents and relying on threatening to take children away and putting them in a violent foster care system, we are not paying enough attention to what would actually reduce poverty, would actually produce the resources that children need, and would support families. The stories of the thousands of children-- and, by the way, studies now show that more than half of all Black children will be subject to a child welfare investigation before they reach age 18.
Melissa: Wait, what? Half?
Professor Roberts: More than half. 53% of Black children will be subject to a child welfare investigation, which is not a simple matter. An investigation is traumatizing. People come into your home. Sometimes caseworkers bring police officers with them. It happened to Ms. Peoples that I just mentioned. They search the home. They can come day or night. They strip-search children to look for evidence of abuse. They interrogate family members. They humiliate them.
This can lead to years and years of supervision, children spending the rest of their childhoods in foster care, and then aging out with nothing. An investigation is really serious. It cannot be. It cannot be, Melissa. Think about it. 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.
Melissa: You also write about this system because as you're describing it, both in the text and now, part of the question is, "Well, why?" One might certainly identify a baked-in, historic racism, but you will identify also much more contemporary patterns of these actions by the state that are related to the incentive structure around money. You call it the foster industrial complex. Can you build on that a little bit and talk about who it is who benefits quite directly and financially from the foster care system?
Professor Roberts: The foster care system is a $30 billion apparatus if you put together federal funding as well as state and local funding for it. Most of that money goes to separating families, maintaining children outside of their homes, in foster care placements, and also adoption stipends, but not on providing services to families and the resources they need.
Who benefits from this? Well, this money is going to a whole host of people, caseworkers and supervisors, administrators, and child welfare departments. More and more, it's going to private companies. This is a major form of privatization in our nation, where public child welfare departments are entering into multi-million dollar contracts with private, nonprofit, and for-profit corporations that manage their foster care systems.
These companies get paid for keeping children in foster care. There's a financial incentive to keep children in foster care longer, and also not to really pay a lot of attention to how they're being cared for because it's incentivized to keep the same foster caretakers in place, and not to have to worry about firing them or getting rid of them and hiring new people just to keep the process going. There's all these people who have investments in keeping children in foster care.
Then in addition to that, in most states is a process where the state becomes the financial representative for children in foster care and takes their Social Security disability and survivor benefits, claiming that this is to reimburse them for the money they're spending for the children in foster care. They have a federal obligation to take care of these children, so they shouldn't be taking the children's money from them.
Many of these children then age out of foster care at age 18 or 21 and are left to fend for themselves, their families having been disrupted. They may not have any social relationships with a caring adult to help them both financially and in terms of mentorship. They've lost the benefits that could have been saved for them that they could use to get on their feet and go to college and lead a thriving life. Many of these children end up unhoused and far too many, especially Black children, end up in the prison system.
Melissa: When you say "prison system," it brings me to the last piece here, which is the subtitle of the book, How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. You write in the introduction quite clearly about the reasons that you've concluded that reform is not possible and that abolition is what is required.
Professor Roberts: I wrote a book 20 years ago called Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, where I also advocated for abolishing the system, but I didn't really go in-depth into how that would happen and what that means. Now, having been more involved with the movement to abolish prisons and the prison industrial complex, I understand better the theories and principles and organizing around abolition.
That did influence a great ideal, my writing of Torn Apart. In the meantime, I also participated in a number of reform efforts. I spent nine years on an expert panel that was trying to reform the foster care system in Washington State after a judge held that it was violating the constitutional rights of children in the state. I know what it means to try to reform this fundamentally oppressive system. It can't be done.
As long as we have a so-called child welfare system that is designed to police the most marginalized families in this nation and threaten them with taking their children away, relies on child removal as the central way to address children's needs, we are going to continue reproducing this home harm to Black children, their families, and communities. We need to abolish it.
Now, that clearly cannot mean tearing down this multibillion-dollar apparatus overnight. What it means is working on policies and practices that would chip away at the power of the system. For example, by giving parents and family caregivers better legal representation, which is woefully lacking now, actually guaranteeing their constitutional rights to avoid searches and seizures in their home without probable cause.
The Fourth Amendment should apply to these investigations, although it is rarely effectively applied. It also just as importantly means working on building other ways, radically different ways of supporting families and caring for children. That means a major change in our federal policies. We should have policies like we saw during the pandemic where families get cash assistance without strings attached.
You shouldn't have to give up custody of your children in order to get help in caring for your children. It also means more local community-based efforts, mutual aid networks, for example, that provide the concrete material resources that families need that would be far more effective at keeping children safe than the kind of terroristic, brutal violence system that we have now.
Melissa: Professor Dorothy Roberts, author of Torn Apart, thank you so much for joining us today.
Professor Roberts: Thank you so much, Melissa. I really appreciate it.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.