‘Black Families Matter’

In a lecture organized by the Penn Program on Regulation, PIK Professor Dorothy E. Roberts argued that the U.S. child welfare system is designed to police Black families, not to protect children, and must be abolished and replaced with a new vision of family support and child safety.

Two side by side profile pictures of Cary Coglianese on the left and Dorothy Roberts on the right.
Cary Coglianese (left), director of the Penn Program on Regulation, and PIK Professor Dorothy Roberts.

The child welfare system in America is designed to police Black families, not to protect children, and it must be dismantled, PIK Professor Dorothy E. Roberts said in a lecture organized by the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR).

The lecture, “Black Families Matter: How the U.S. Family Regulation System Punishes Poor People of Color,” was part of the 2021-22 Lecture Series on Race and Regulation, organized by the PPR and co-sponsored by the Penn Law Office of Equity and Inclusion. Roberts’ lecture was also co-sponsored by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice, and Research.

In the Zoom event, Roberts examined the fundamental racism of the child welfare system, which collaborates with law enforcement to police families in ways that disproportionately and negatively affect people of color, and she discussed why this system of family regulation should be abolished.

The child welfare system relies on regulating families by “weaponizing their children with the threat of removal to impose intensive surveillance on every aspect of their lives,” Roberts said. She argued that reforms can’t fix this problem. “The system has absorbed decades and, in fact, centuries of attempts to reform it and what comes out of these reforms is a continuation of the basic way the system operates because it was designed to operate this way,” she said. “What we need is a total paradigm shift in the state’s relationship to families and a complete end to family policing by dismantling the current system and reimagining the very meaning of child welfare.”

Few areas of the law affect people’s lives so personally as the rules affecting families and the power of the state to intervene in family life and to separate children from their parents, said Cary Coglianese, director of PPR, in introducing Roberts, whom he called “one of the most acclaimed scholars of our time in the fields of race, gender, and the law.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Roberts’ groundbreaking study of family regulation, “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare.”

She described how she contemplated publishing a 20th anniversary edition of the book with a new preface updating the statistics.

“But my preface turned into a new book,” she told the audience. That book, “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World,” will be published by Basic Books this spring. “In it I renew my call to abolish the family policing system. This time, however, I don’t argue for replacing it with another reformed state system. I’m now convinced that we need to completely dismantle the child welfare system while we build a radically reimagined way of caring for families and keeping children safe.”

Book cover of "Torn Apart" by Dorothy Roberts
“Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World,” will be published by Basic Books this spring.

She said she first became aware of family policing while working on her 1997 book “Killing the Black Body.” She’d been researching the arrests of hundreds of Black women across the country for using crack cocaine while pregnant and investigating “how racism and the longstanding devaluation of Black mothers turned a public health issue into a crime.”

“The system’s racial divide,” Robert said, “was obvious to me as soon as I started observing child welfare proceedings in Chicago, where virtually every single family hauled before the court was Black. If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, and you sat in court, you would have to conclude that it’s an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.”

In many cities, child welfare agency involvement is concentrated in segregated and impoverished Black neighborhoods, so every child living there has a realistic fear that state agents may come to their home and snatch them away from their parents, she said.

“This to me is one of the main differences between the meaning of the child welfare system for Black children and white children in America. Most Black children know about the child welfare system and fear that it can come and interrupt their family’s lives. That’s not true for most white children in America,” she said.

The origins of the U.S. child welfare system can be traced to the forcible separation of enslaved families, the mass removal of Indigenous children who were placed in boarding schools, and the transport of impoverished European immigrant children on orphan trains to distant locations to work on farms, Roberts said.

“The whole point of the child welfare system has always been to regulate economically and racially marginalized communities,” she said.

Given its history and design, the child welfare system is structured to harm children by interfering with their health, education, and social relationships. Foster care drives many children into juvenile detention and prison. In fact, she said, the state often confines Black children who are adjudicated dependent and those who are adjudicated delinquent in exactly the same horrific and sometimes deadly institutions.

She gave two recent examples of Black teens who had been removed from their families and placed in “therapeutic” residential centers who were killed by staff, one after allegedly hiding an iPhone in his room and the other after throwing a piece of bread in the cafeteria.

“Foster care criminalizes Black children,” she said.

She went on to explain how child protective services (CPS) operates like its criminal counterpart. It investigates, accuses, prosecutes, and supervises families just like police, prosecutors, criminal courts, and parole officers. In fact, CPS investigations can intrude more deeply into the private lives of families, she said, and CPS agencies increasingly team up with police departments to surveil and regulate families.

“Comparing the powers of child welfare workers and police officers reveals a disturbing paradox,” said Roberts. “Child welfare authorities can wield greater control over families than cops while providing fewer legal protections to parents and children.”

In recent years there has been a growing movement to end family policing, led by Black mothers and youth who have been impacted by the system, she said. Their strategies include working to end mandated reporting; to give parents high-quality, multidisciplinary legal defense at every stage of the process, including before children are removed; to fund and engage in community-based mutual aid; and to put income and other needed resources directly in the hands of family caregivers.

“We need a common vision for meeting human needs, preventing violence, and caring for children, families, and communities,” she said. “And a first step that I hope to accomplish in my book “Torn Apart” is to help people understand that the child welfare system is a system designed to police families, not to protect children.”

The virtual talk then moved to a Q & A with audience members, asking questions ranging from how social work can be transformed to how institutions that house foster children are regulated to why funding foster care rather than providing resources to families has been the norm.

In wrapping up the talk, Coglianese asked Roberts to leave the attendees with action items that could be positive.

Among her suggestions was to become familiar with the organizations that are working to abolish the current system and replace it with a caring approach to families that meets families’ and children’s needs and prevents violence instead of just reacting to it. She urged law students to look into family defender services and asked everyone to think about ways that they and their communities can help each other to support families and care for children.

Roberts called for a vision of child welfare and safety that no longer relies on removing children from marginalized communities. “There’s no group that doesn’t care about its children. Those are horrible, racist stereotypes,” she said. “So how can we help children throughout our society thrive? That’s what we want to have: a society where taking away a child would be unimaginable because we have such a wonderful way of caring for each other.”

Dorothy E. Roberts is the George A. Weiss Professor of Law & Sociology and the Raymond Pace & Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights and professor of Africana Studies. She is a Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor with joint appointments in the School of Arts & Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. She is also founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science, & Society in the Center for Africana Studies.

Cary Coglianese is the Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science as well as director of the Penn Program on Regulation.

Video recordings of the lectures in the Race and Regulation Lecture Series are available on PPR’s YouTube channel.