Dorothy Roberts on how prison and foster care systems harm black mothers

Caught at the intersection of the prison and foster care systems, incarcerated black mothers confront stereotypes and punitive political impulses that render it all but impossible for them to retain legal relationships to their children, argues Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Dorothy Roberts, with appointments in the School of Law and the School of Arts and Sciences. In a new volume, Reassembling Motherhood: Procreation and Care in a Globalized World, published by Columbia University Press, Roberts has authored a chapter analyzing how prisons and the foster care system not only operate as mutually reinforcing funnels to one another, but also combine “to penalize the most marginalized women in our society while blaming them for their own disadvantaged position.” 

Dorothy Roberts, the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology, and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights

“According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2004, 11 percent of mothers incarcerated in state prisons reported that their children were in the care of a foster home, agency, or institution,” writes Roberts. In the chapter, “Marginalized Mothers and Intersecting Systems of Surveillance: Prisons and Foster Care,” Roberts explains that African Americans have long been overrepresented in prisons and foster care alike. “In the 1990s, although about 12 percent of the U.S. population was African American, about one-third of the children in foster care were black, and most had been removed from black mothers who were their primary caretakers,” she writes. “Likewise, about one-third of women in prison are black and most are the primary caretakers of their children.”

Child welfare interventions into families, such as removing children from their parents and placing them into foster care, are “typically viewed as necessary to protect maltreated children from parental harm,” Roberts writes. “But the need for this intervention is usually linked to poverty, racial injustice, and the state’s approach to caregiving,” which addresses families’ poverty not by providing social services and financial support, but instead by removing children from the home. Indeed, “[s]ince the 1970s, the number of children receiving child welfare services in their homes has declined dramatically, while the foster care population has skyrocketed.”

Further, Roberts explains, the government’s decision of whether to place a child in foster care is susceptible to racial stereotyping: For example, a study of Michigan’s child welfare system by the Center for the Study of Social Policy discovered that social workers expressed negative views of black families, mothers, and children. Statements by key policy makers and service providers reflected the belief that “African American children are better off away from their families and communities.” Those views yield real-world consequences, as a peer-reviewed study published in the Child Welfare journal concluded that “it takes more risk of maltreatment for caseworkers to place a white child in foster care than it does to remove a black child” from their home. 

Read more at Penn Law