"The family policing system’s punitive design that’s targeted at the most politically marginalized communities is deeply rooted in a history of state violence," says author Dorothy Roberts. Catherine McQueen / Moment / Getty Images
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. Today, we are going to talk about reproductive justice, the foster care system, and some important history that I think is largely missing from the current discourse around abortion and adoption. We will be hearing from Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and most recently Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. To my listeners, trust me: to navigate the dynamics of this moment, you are going to want to read Torn Apart. I wish I could give everyone a copy. It’s especially relevant right now, as we are facing the end of Roe in a nation that terminates the parental rights of more people than any other country on Earth. Every year, agents of the state forcibly remove 250,000 children from their homes in the U.S. Another quarter of a million are removed informally, through coercive agreements that the system calls “safety plans,” which many parents accept in order to avoid going to court. If that sounds like a plea bargain, that’s because this process is incredibly carceral — and just like the criminal legal system, it is arbitrary, racist and violent. So-called child welfare services are systems of captivity and family separation, and as more people lose access to abortion care, we will see more captivity and more separation. So we have to talk about it now.
A lot of people do not understand the financial or racial dynamics of child removal in the United States, and that has led to some really bad analysis. For example, a lot of people were rightfully horrified over the language “domestic supply of infants” being used in the SCOTUS draft opinion, but some of the liberal responses I saw were also pretty horrifying: a number of people insist, for example, that there is no shortage of “adoptable” children in the U.S., because there are plenty of children in foster care. But children in foster care are not supposed to serve as an open adoption pool for anyone with money who wants a child. In fact, most of those children have parents and families who want them back. They are not the “domestic supply” of children the draft opinion referred to. I honestly find it disturbing that people are arguing that we don’t need a new stock of children for people with money who want a child to choose from, because there’s already an available catalog of kids. The correct position is that children should not be treated as a commodity that we need to stockpile, or that people are entitled to, simply because they have money and want a child. In Torn Apart, Roberts explains why what we tend to refer to as “child welfare services” can be more aptly described as “family policing” – and by the end of this episode, I think many of you will agree.
I have also seen some people suggest that white people do not want to adopt children from the foster care system because they supposedly want “healthy white babies.” And I think it’s really important to emphasize that, while I am sure some white people would prefer children who look like them, white adoptive parents have been seizing Black and Native children through the foster care system for years. With Roe still intact, the adoption industry often relies on the state’s termination of parental rights to produce adoptable children. But the adoption industry is not interested in most of the youth in foster care. Children under the age of four are the most sought after by adoptive parents. At present, states do not terminate the rights of nearly enough parents of children within that age range to meet the demands of a $15 billion a year adoption industry.
When Roe is gone, the same system that currently equates poverty with abuse, and snatches children on that basis, will ramp up its operations. Some people are imagining a post-Roe world where baby brokers are waiting by the phone for desperate, pregnant white girls to call their adoption agencies, when in reality, nothing is being left to chance. There is an apparatus that already works daily to snatch children from poor families and parents with disabilities, or from those who are grappling with addiction and other health issues. It will soon be poised to take the children of poor people who otherwise would have aborted their pregnancies — whether those people want to surrender their children or not. These extractive forces are fully operational, and, as is currently the case, we can expect Black and Native communities to bear the brunt of family separation in a post-Roe United States.
Now, in my experience, when people have a positive impression of the child welfare system, it’s usually the product of movies or television – particularly “copaganda” shows, which tend to monstracize parents whose children wind up in the system. On shows like “Law & Order,” even sympathetic characters whose children are taken away are usually depicted as posing some danger to their child, despite their best intentions. But that kind of propaganda is wholly divorced from the reality of the system. So, if you’re someone who has a positive, or even neutral impression of child welfare services and foster care, I am going to ask you to put aside everything you think you know about this topic, for the next hour or so, and try to keep an open mind, because with Roe on the way out, there is a lot that we need to get on the same page about.
For starters, I think people have a lot of illusions about the family policing system being grounded in a benevolent concern for children, and that has simply never been the case, so I asked Dorothy Roberts if she could walk us through some of the history that delivered us to this moment.
Dorothy Roberts: The family policing system’s punitive design that’s targeted at the most politically marginalized communities is deeply rooted in a history of state violence. It’s rooted in the history of the separation of enslaved Black families. Throughout the first 400 years of this nation’s history, where breaking up families at the whim of enslavers was an integral part of the slavery institution. It was part of enslavement that white enslavers had authority over Black children and could therefore separate them whenever it was economically advantageous to them from the children’s parents. Families were routinely broken up sometimes at slave auctions that were held by judges where children were ordered to be purchased by white enslavers, apart from their parents.
It also is rooted in the history of the apprenticing of Black children after the civil war, when judges would order Black children to be given over to their former enslavers, as apprentices on grounds that their Black parents were neglecting them. It’s also rooted in the history of the U.S. military’s use of child removal as a weapon of war against Native tribes during the so-called Indian Wars. And then into the 1970s, the official federal government’s adoption policy, which they entered into a collaboration with the child welfare league, to remove Native children from their families on grounds of child neglect, and give them over to white adoptive families, or put them in white-run orphanages. This history of using child removal as a weapon of terror against Black people and Indigenous people is left out of the common narrative of child welfare agencies as benevolent rescuers, saving children from abusive parents.
KH: These histories are also being left out of a lot of conversations around reproductive justice right now in the United States. I have, however, seen many allusions to “The Handmaid’s Tale” in popular discourse recently, and I find it interesting that this book and TV show hold such a fixed place in the popular imagination. In matters of reproductive justice, it seems as though a lot of white women find the show’s fictitious, totalitarian society more politically relevant and personally relatable than the history and present condition of Black and Native women in the U.S. Even now, as people who act against laws governing bodily autonomy face criminalization, it is not criminalization and the horrors of the prison system that are being highlighted, but rather, imagery of domestic sex servants in red capes. I’m not opposed to theatrical imagery or evocative metaphors, but right now, we need a collective analysis rooted in tough realities that people don’t like to talk about, and I think we need to start there. I also agree with Dr. Roberts that we need to take a hard look at how the government’s treatment of Black women got us into this mess.
DR: I think we need to bring into focus, for a couple reasons, the long history of regulating Black women’s childbearing in particular, because overturning Roe will have a disproportionate impact on Black women, because Black women are more likely to seek abortions because they’re more likely to have unwanted pregnancies for all sorts of reasons, stemming from structural racism and poverty, and other kinds of structural impediments to reproductive freedom. Also because they are more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. And that includes the whole range of ways in which pregnancy can be dangerous. And because Black women are less likely to have high-quality medical care during their pregnancies, and also because of structural problems that make them less healthy when they get pregnant and have babies, or because of unsafe abortions as well. Again, maternal mortality relates to deaths from pregnancy-related causes. And then finally, they’re more likely to be punished for their pregnancy outcomes. And this brings me to the second reason why I think we need to focus on the history of Black women’s childbearing being devalued and regulated.
And that’s the way in which the right wing anti-abortion movement has been engaged in a concerted assault on reproductive freedom, both punishing women for their pregnancy outcomes like miscarriages and stillbirths, as well as punishing women for abortion. And this campaign, this strategy of making fetal protection more important than the lives and freedom of women and other pregnant people began with the prosecutions of Black women, who were pregnant and using drugs. And I’ve always seen that assault on Black women’s childbearing as being very connected to the assault on abortion, but it wasn’t really recognized as concerted-related types of assaults on reproductive freedom when these prosecutions began. I think today, it’s clearer that the criminalization of pregnancy, whether it’s for conduct during pregnancy, or whether it’s for a stillbirth or a miscarriage, or whether it’s for having an abortion, they all are part of the criminalization of pregnancy, generally.
And again, this entangled form of criminalization, this widespread criminalization, began with the punishment of Black women for having children. And so I think we need to focus on how the end of the right, the legal right to abortion, is a true atrocity against most people, but it is going to be disproportionately felt by Black women. But also, just as fundamentally, it is part of, and stems from, and is fueled by a particular kind of assault on Black women’s child bearing. That brings us to where we are today.
KH: Most people do not think of the child welfare system as a tentacle of the prison-industrial complex, but it is essential that we make that connection. The era of prison reform has outsourced a considerable amount of surveillance and control to other actors and agencies — such as doctors and social workers. Families are being policed with a racist lens, for signs of abuse or neglect, by a broad set of actors, many of whom cannot be avoided. This creates a minefield of potential contact with the family policing system.
DR: I think that it’s important to understand the way in which carceral logics spread across multiple systems and institutions in the United States. So what changes the terrain for how we approach the abolition of the prison-industrial complex is that when we recognize that similar ideologies and narratives and practices and policies are entangled in what I see as a carceral web, that includes not only prisons and police, but also the policing of families through the so-called child welfare system or Child Protective Services, and also the kind of policing that goes on in the health care system. And we could also add the education system, as well as others.
And one of the dimensions that this adds to the way we think about the prison-industrial complex is that it points out that even systems that are supposed to be protective and supportive and caring, like Child Protective Services and hospitals and medical centers and schools, are part of this carceral apparatus that uses a benevolent narrative in order to expand state surveillance and policing and punishment of the most marginalized communities.
The so-called child welfare system operates with a history and a logic and a practice that is extremely similar to the way in which police, criminal law enforcement functions. And that they really work hand in hand to police families in the same communities.
So let’s look at where their agents are targeted, and I’m talking about cops and case workers. They are targeted at impoverished segregated Black communities, and also at Indigenous communities. Those are where they do the most harm. And we can look at the over-representation of Black children and Native children and their families in the family policing system. So the same communities… and I’ll focus for a minute on Black communities, in particular. Black communities are inundated by agents of the state that surveil, monitor and disrupt, cage people and take their children by the criminal legal system, and by the so-called child welfare system. They also operate in very similar ways. So in the same way that the criminal legal system accuses people for so-called crimes that are largely the result of racial and class and gender inequities and the way in which crime is defined to target these people and these communities, and then they arrest people, they police them after arrest, they conduct investigations, they prosecute and they punish by caging people.
The family policing system operates on the same kind of carceral logic, which is that the reason why children in Black communities are suffering from unmet needs is because of their parents, not because of structural racism, racial capitalism and white supremacy. And so it accuses parents of child neglect. And neglect, by the way, is the main reason why children in Black communities are separated from their families. It then investigates the families intensively, including in ways that are even more disruptive and invasive than criminal investigation. They can come into families’ homes any time of the day or night. They rarely have a warrant, but they threaten parents and family caregivers that if they don’t let them in, they’re going to take their children away. They investigate throughout the home, intensive searches, they interrogate family members, they strip-search children, looking for evidence of maltreatment and they bring in other systems, the education system, the health care system, social services, to collect data. And by the way, this data collection is expanding just like it is in police departments by hiring computer companies like IBM, for example, to engage in massive data collection and surveillance and algorithmic predictions about which children are going to be at risk.
Then they supervise families, sometimes for years on end. They often take children away from their families, and almost like the death penalty as the ultimate punishment in the criminal legal system, there’s termination of parental rights or judges that permanently sever the legal relationship that children have to their family.
So every single way in which this terroristic family policing system works is mirrored in the criminal punishment system.
It’s also important to recognize that this kind of terror going on by state agents, whether they’re cops or case workers, that happens in Black communities is based on the same carceral logic, which is that the way in which to meet human needs and solve conflicts in communities, and needs that are unmet because of structural inequities that result from a racial capitalist system, that result from the fact that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any western nation. And we also cage more people and separate more families than any western nation.
But these unmet needs are then blamed on the people who are suffering the most from structural inequities. Then the state punishes them as the solution. This oft though impedes the awareness that we need radical social change, because so many people believe that the solution is to put people behind bars and to take children away and put them in foster care.
The health care system then is entangled in both criminal punishment and family policing because doctors and other healthcare providers have been deputized to turn over their patients to these systems. There is a growing entanglement of hospitals and prisons with people moving between one or the other, in part because hospitals report patients that are seen to be disruptive to the police, but more fundamentally because jails and prisons are increasingly becoming the place where the most marginalized people get their healthcare, especially mental health care.
In the case of family policing, because of so-called mandatory reporting, this is the law that requires that people who engage professionally with children and their families must report their suspicions of child maltreatment to Child Protective Services. This requirement turns professionals who could support families, like teachers and doctors and social service providers, into deputized agents for the state. And this ends up driving many families away from the support that these professionals could provide, because they’re afraid that they will turn them over to child protective services and the families will lose their children to foster care.
Doctors and nurses and other healthcare providers are deeply implicated in this because they so routinely turn over families with unmet needs or where there’s some evidence of drug use in the family to child protective services, and they do this in an extremely racist way.
It is well-documented that doctors are far more likely to suspect child abuse and neglect in the case of Black families than they are in the case of white families. They’re much more likely to report Black parents to police and child welfare agencies.
KH: A 2021 study found that 72 percent of Black children in Los Angeles County will endure a Child Protective Services investigation at some point in their childhood. In Torn Apart, Dr. Roberts reminds us of the case of a famous white actress who was met with public sympathy after she accidentally dropped her five-year-old son on his head in 2019. The boy was hospitalized in intensive care with a skull fracture. A Black parent in the same situation would likely be met with suspicion, and could easily face a child welfare investigation, in the midst of an already traumatic event.
DR: Because of the class and race and gender biases in the way in which doctors report, it’s clear that they don’t really see themselves as mandated reporters that have to report every suspicion of child maltreatment they have. They see themselves as agents of family policing that targets the most marginalized communities, because those are the only people they report back to the system.
KH: Once an investigation begins, families quickly learn that in some ways, case workers can operate with greater impunity than police. In Torn Apart, Roberts wrote of a Black father whose caseworker told him, “I have more power than the president of the United States. I can come to your house and take your child away.” Case workers have considerable discretion in making subjective, on-the-spot decisions about whether there is evidence of maltreatment, and whether or not to immediately remove a child.
Roberts recalled an incident in Arizona in the summer of 2020, where eight employees of the Arizona Department of Public Safety were fired for posing for a photo in custom t-shirts that read, “Professional KIDNAPPER” and “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOUR children ARE?” The women were “DCS specialists,” meaning they investigated allegations from mandated reporters, neighbors and family members, as well as anonymous tips. The women claimed the shirts were an “inside joke,” but I doubt most of us can imagine joking about kidnapping people’s children, let alone making custom t-shirts for a photo op, so that the joke might be preserved for future enjoyment.
These women understood how they were viewed in the communities they policed, and rather than being disturbed that families experienced them as kidnappers, they found humor in that characterization. This attitude is comparable to that of many police officers, who often treat allegations of police brutality as a joke and mock those they harm and those who object to their harms. In fact, Roberts argues that the surveillance and interrogation of Black families by the family policing system “constitutes the stop-and-frisk of Black families that falls off the radar of public interest.”
The idea that individual parents, rather than our government, system or society, are responsible for the consequences of poverty is crucial to how all of this plays out. Why? Because without that fundamental assignment of blame, more people might ask, if the issue is that a family does not have enough money for groceries, or a big enough apartment, why can’t the money that would be spent on removal, foster care, court costs and whatever else, simply be given to families whose needs are not being met?
DB: I say that the state punishes families because they’re poor, not because they’re dangerous because of the way in which poverty is deeply confused with child neglect in the family policing system. First of all, state statutes define neglect very, very broadly. Many define it basically as caregivers’ failure to provide for the wellbeing of children, or they may specify certain kinds of needs that children have that are being unmet, like the failure to provide adequate clothing or healthcare or housing for children.
The reason why parents don’t provide those things to children is because they can’t afford to. And so, when they are accused of child neglect for failure to provide them, they’re basically being punished for being poor.
Child neglect is defined that way because the family policing system is designed to punish poor people. It’s not designed at all to deal with affluent people, especially affluent white people. It never was. It was designed from the very beginning to be a way of surveilling and monitoring and punishing impoverished families, especially impoverished Black and Indigenous families.
So that’s the reason why we have statutes like this, because they’re structured in a way to uphold the very design of the system. And the vast majority of children who are taken from their families are taken because of allegations of child neglect, not allegations of physical and sexual abuse.
KH: Our society has shown itself to be capable of recognizing how violent and damaging it can be to forcibly remove a child from their parents. When Donald Trump enacted his family separation policy at the border, protests and public outcry highlighted the extreme cruelty of separating children from their parents. Many Republicans were unmoved, insisting that the children’s parents had broken the law. But to a great many people, it was obvious that regardless of whether or not migrant parents had broken any laws, or whether or not they had money, a plan, or someplace to go, separating children and parents was an unthinkable harm.
DB: There was a stark contrast between the widespread public outrage at the separation of families at the southern border, migrant families whose children were taken from them when they arrived as refugees seeking asylum at the border, compared to the relative silence about the trauma inflicted in Black communities every day by high rates of family separation, by so-called child protective services.
Now it was absolutely warranted that we should be outraged at the way in which the Trump administration heightened a policy that also existed under the Obama administration of family separation at the border, and many professional psychiatrists and other experts on childhood trauma pointed out that taking children from their family caregivers is deeply harmful to children. Some even pointed out that it violates UN conventions and that it is a form of torture.
But that kind of outrage hasn’t been directed at the way in which child protection services routinely take Black children away from their families, and take them away primarily because they are unable to meet some of their children’s needs, but also because of deep, deep anti-Black racism that has treated from the beginning of this nation Black families as if they don’t have loving bonds and as if they need white supervision in order to be fed.
KH: There are a lot of infuriating moments in Torn Apart, but one passage that had me particularly enraged recounts how a top welfare administrator told Roberts she was right about his department and how it treated families. But the administrator added, “Do you know how many people make money from this system? There’s no way they will let me destroy their income and profit.” After I read those words, I had to put the book down for a moment and collect myself.
DB: The child welfare system is also structured to incentivize, financially, taking children from their families and to profit from child removal. It is a huge apparatus that spends about $30 billion a year in federal, state and local funding, mostly to separate families and maintain children in foster care.
And there are thousands and thousands of people who are invested financially as well as ideologically in what should be called a foster-industrial complex. There are case workers and supervisors and administrators within child welfare systems, and then they enter into contracts, multi-million dollar contracts, with corporations that are designed to manage their foster care systems and profit from having more children in foster care.
They make money off of family separation and managing the children who are in foster care and the people hired to care for them, although I hesitate to use the word care because the way this system is structured is to de-incentivize true care for children who are taken from their families.
It is an incentive to spend as little as possible on caring for children and to continue to pull children into the system to make profit off of them. And it’s not just the fact that there are so many people employed by the system who make money or people who enter into contracts to make money from family separation, but also cities and states take the money that children should be receiving from social security benefits, disability benefits, and survivor benefits.
In many child welfare systems, the state becomes the financial representative for these children and steals the benefits that these children are entitled to and they claim that this is some form of reimbursement for caring for these children, although they took the children from their families and they are under federal obligation to provide for them.
So they shouldn’t be reimbursed from the children themselves for the costs of caring for them. And then they don’t even spend the money directly on the children. It’s not as if they set up some kind of trust fund for the children or some kind of account that is used to pay for goods and services for the children.
They put it into state or city coffers, and then spend the money on meeting budget shortfalls. So in all of these ways, this is a multibillion-dollar apparatus that profits off of taking children from their families and putting them in a dangerous, violent, abusive, disruptive foster care system that we know produces bad outcomes for children, including increasing their risk of being incarcerated.
KH: When a loving family is separated, whether it is the parent or the child who is being held captive, or both, the state has an authoritarian level of control over the aggrieved parent. In prison, a person’s every move can be monitored or punished. As we have discussed on the show, women in prison are punished more frequently than men, and often, for smaller, informal offenses — including facial expressions that guards deem offensive. Parents whose children are taken from them via family policing also experience the policing of their entire being.
Parents whose children have been removed are given burdensome lists of assignments, which they are told must be completed prior to reunification. These tasks are often arbitrary, and expensive, and at times, virtually impossible. I have heard stories from formerly incarcerated parents about being expected to complete the same classes and therapy as someone who was not incarcerated. Roberts estimates that tens of thousands of children have entered the foster care system over the last decade solely because a parent was incarcerated.
Any failure to comply with a case plan can lead to the termination of parental rights, but even parents who do everything that’s asked of them can still be deemed unfit, at the discretion of caseworkers and agencies hired to assess parents. During such assessments, a parent’s frustration and heartbreak over being separated from their child can actually be used against them.
DB: One of the most pathological things about family policing is the way in which it punishes parents for their emotional outcry against the taking of their children, and this happens in so many ways. It happens when case workers write in mothers’ files that they are too emotional, too angry, too disruptive to be fit parents and should not get their children back.
It happens when they order parents to engage in forced therapy with therapists who are hired by the state and can become witnesses against the parents. And those therapists note in the records the way in which the emotions of parents can be seen as either not recognizing that they are to blame, the parents are to blame for the harms to their children or not being accountable for their deficits or showing that they’re too emotional to be good parents or wanting to blame the system for their situation instead of taking responsibility for it themselves.
And this not only is extremely unethical, but it also reflects the fundamental philosophy of family policing, which is to blame family caregivers for the hardships that their children face that actually stem from structural inequality. And so when parents point to the structural inequities that have led to their children’s unmet needs, when they point out the injustice of it, or when they’re simply saying, “This is what my family need,” they’re punished for it because it is seen to be a lack of recognition of their own deficits.
In other words, their failure to comply with this false and dangerous philosophy that parents are to blame for harms that are actually created by a racial capitalist system. So it’s not just that they’re punished for their emotions, which, they should be emotional. The state is taking their children from them, but they’re also punished for their resistance.
They’re speaking up against this false narrative, this false structure of family policing, this false ideology of family policing, that they are personally to blame for the suffering that their children encounter when they don’t have adequate housing or when they don’t have adequate clothing or they’re part of a defective educational system, or they can’t get healthcare.
You know that when parents point that out, they’re punished for it. They’re forced into compliance. This is the real sickness of this system that punishes people simply for telling the truth about what their needs are and why their children don’t have the material resources that they have and why their children are traumatized by this system.
KH: So I can imagine that some of our listeners may be coming around to the idea that this system is irredeemable, but they may also be wondering, then what? When a child is in danger, what are we supposed to do? First, I do want to remind folks who may have missed last week’s episode to please check out my interview with Morning Star Gali. The episode is called “Indigenous Abolitionists Are Organizing for Healing and Survival,” and I talk a bit in that conversation about the foster care system’s role in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relative crisis. We need to start from a place of understanding that family policing is part of the carceral system, and as such, it is a death-making force. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, children in the foster system are 42 percent more likely to die than children in the general population. So calling CPS really is similar to calling the police, in that trying to summon some basic assistance could end in tragedy for the very child we are concerned about.
So, that said, situations where children are at risk can be sad and desperate and terrifying, so that leaves us with the question, what is to be done?
DB: It’s true that there are many children in America who are in desperate situations, and most of that desperation stems from the kind of system we have in America and the philosophy that we have that blames the most marginalized people for that desperation, instead of looking at how we need radical change in our society.
Overall, we need to recognize that the so-called child protection system or child welfare system is an impediment to dealing with the desperation of children and dealing with families’ needs and conflicts. We need to replace it with an approach that would truly meet the human needs of families and would truly deal with conflict and violence in families.
So overall, we have to be working toward abolishing, dismantling the current dangerous system and replacing it with one that truly keeps children safe and truly supports families. It’s important to recognize that when children are taken from their families, again, mainly because the families are lacking some kind of material resource that they need, they are put into a very harmful foster care system where they’re traumatized by taking them away, but then their education is disrupted.
Their social ties are disrupted. Their health care is disrupted by moving them away from their family caregivers and putting them in substitute care where rarely do they have a long-lasting caring relationship with foster caretakers, and far too often are put in prison-like institutions, especially if they’re Black teenagers, they’re very likely to end up in a very violent and dangerous uncaring prison-like institution.
So we have to take into account the harms of removing children from their homes and putting them in a fostering situation as well. Now, yes, there will still be then, although far fewer, but there’ll still be some families where there is no other option. But we have to work steadily to eliminate that, to provide for families in ways that don’t require this form of separation that we have now.
And I think people who believe there’s no alternative but to call CPS would be surprised to know that many children, most of the children in foster care now, could be safely returned to their families. If their families had adequate income, adequate housing, adequate healthcare, adequate childcare, adequate food. If we could provide that, either by demanding that this $30 billion that’s spent primarily on family separation is diverted to cash income to families without having to give up custody of their children or be investigated by the state. And also if we build up the already existing community-based mutual aid and other kinds of resources and supports that families could turn to. So we don’t have to rely on this terroristic harmful system, even now in many, many cases, but we do need to be working diligently toward building up even more ways in which families can be supported and children can be kept safe outside of this system that we’re simultaneously working to dismantle.
I’d also like to share, including an answer to people’s questions about what do I do, recognizing that this is an extremely dangerous system that targets the most marginalized communities and is an impediment to radical change. What can we do? And I would point out that there is a growing movement to abolish family policing that is engaged in concrete strategizing and collective action to dismantle the system and to replace it with a caring, humane, just approach to supporting families and keeping children safe. And some examples are JMac For Families that was founded by Joyce McMillan in New York City, who herself had her children taken from her because of an anonymous tip to a child abuse hotline that she use drugs. Now, she has a plan for enacting legislation that would take away some of the power of child protection agencies in New York City. There’s also the Movement for Family Power in New York City that has a lot of information on its website about organizing to abolish the system. There is another organization called the upEND Movement, which is also creating various forms of information about why we need to abolish this system, and you can learn more about it on their website. There’s another organization founded by someone named Sixto Cancel. The organization is Think of Us, which is led by youth who were formally entangled in the foster industrial complex and have written a report called “Away From Home“ that lays out the way in which institutions are harmful for children placed in foster care and gives recommendations about how to dismantle them.
These are just a few examples and I’m sure people can find even more, but going to any of the websites of these organizations will provide more information about how to get involved in ending this horrible atrocious terroristic system of family policing and moving toward a society that truly cares for families and children, and truly meets their needs and ends the violence that we have in our society, and that state and intimate violence that our system today only fuels and has not prevented. We can have a society that cares for people and engages in less state and private violence.
KH: I am so grateful to hear about all of that powerful work and I hope we can all rally around those efforts. I also want to underline another way in which the child welfare system operates like the police: Whenever there is media attention around the fact that CPS does not protect children, agencies insist they need more discretion and money. When crime rates are up, the police also claim the problem is that they need more money, and that we need to give less consideration to people’s rights. We see this in debunked police claims that bail reform has fueled crime. Similarly, when a child who has had contact with CPS dies, and the case gets media attention, state agencies often conclude that CPS showed too much respect for the rights of parents, and that caseworkers need to be even more aggressive about child removal. More discretion. More money. More captivity. Anytime a case or a moment clarifies that these entities do not create safety, we are told we must fortify them. The popular lesson is never that the needs of families should be met, and the conditions of poverty alleviated. That kind of change is never on the table and we need to stop accepting that as a given.
I talked about the adoption industry at the top of this episode, but most children in foster care will not be adopted. Foster children who are one to three years old account for 37 percent of all adoptions. Teenagers in foster care represent less than ten percent of those adopted. Even children who are reunited with their families are often traumatized by their time in foster care. A study by John Hopkins University found that children in the foster care system are four times more likely to experience sexual abuse. Somewhere between one third and one half of foster care youth will run away at some point while they are under state control. Youth who are Black, queer or trans are more likely to run away, as are young people whose parents’ rights have been terminated. On any given day, thousands of children are missing and unaccounted for in the foster care system.
Adults who spent time in foster care as children have been reported to develop PTSD at twice the rate of U.S. war veterans, and 35 percent meet the criteria for substance abuse disorders prior to turning 18. 33 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who are experiencing homelessness have spent time in the foster care system. Current and former foster youth also face higher rates of incarceration. One study found that “over half of youth in foster care experienced an arrest, conviction, or overnight stay in a correctional facility.” Another survey found that by their 25th birthday, 81 percent of young men who were formerly in foster care had been arrested, and 35 percent had been incarcerated.
So, beyond feeding the adoption industry, why does our society do this? What does this system actually maintain or allow, given that it doesn’t actually protect children? The truth is, it allows people to go about their lives, in a society that generates so much harm, by disappearing children. By disappearing a child, the state also disappears any perceived crisis around a child’s well-being. The so-called child welfare system is a scam, and it can dupe desperate people, who want to rescue, or simply improve the situation of a child who may be in trouble. When the system ensnares a child, it exacts control over targeted individuals while also restoring the status quo. If the parent wants their child back, then the state has assumed control of that parent’s actions to a large degree. As Dr. Roberts discussed, there is a long history of the U.S. government taking Black and Native children hostage as a form of social control. But another important, immediate impact, from the state’s standpoint, is that to the people who raised the alarm, the situation has been resolved. Even if the child’s removal was not the outcome they had hoped for, the crisis, if there was one, is no longer theirs to attend to. They can go on with their lives, and reproduce capitalist relations as usual, without worrying about the child’s welfare. Because the child is gone and normalcy has been restored.
If this sounds similar to how jails and prisons function, when police disappear people who need help from our communities, that’s because it’s the same system at work — and that system offers violence, including captivity, as the solution to all ills. This is no way for us to live in relation to each other. This is no way to love or protect children. We need to rethink the way we solve problems within our communities, and we have to alter the social and economic contexts that generate suffering and despair. Because if we don’t, the system will run clean up here and there, disappearing children and adults as needed, to keep everyone cooperative. And as reproductive rights are stripped away, this process will be ramped up to separate even more families. But we can reject this cycle. We can abolish the prison-industrial complex, and all of its tentacles, including the family policing system. We can adopt new practices that address the harms in our communities with prevention and healing in mind, rather than submitting to an endless cycle of disappearance.
I want to thank Dorothy Roberts for joining me to discuss the lessons of her incredible book, Torn Apart, which I hope you will all pick up. It is essential reading for our times. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
Don’t forget to check out these books:
- Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World by Dorothy Roberts
- Shattered Bonds: The Color Of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts
- Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty by Dorothy Roberts
- JMacForFamilies works to abolish the current punitive child welfare system and to strengthen the systems of supports that keep families and communities together.
- Movement for Family Power works to end the Foster System’s policing and punishment of families and to create a world where the dignity and integrity of all families is valued and supported.
- The upEND Movement works to protect children, keep them in their homes and with their families, and change the structural barriers and inequities that set families up to struggle before they even enter the child welfare system.
- Think of Us is a research & design lab for foster care, driving equitable systems change so that the youth and families most impacted by foster care have the greatest power and opportunity to reshape it.
- Away From Home is an in-depth report on the experiences and perspectives of young people who have recently lived in institutional placements in foster care.
Prior episodes to check out:
- People in Prison Organize Collectively for Survival. We All Need to Learn How.
- Indigenous Abolitionists Are Organizing for Healing and Survival
- Police feed the foster care-to-prison pipeline by reporting on Black parents by Shanta Trivedi
- Foster Care as Punishment: The New Reality of ‘Jane Crow’ by Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
- Children in foster care 42 percent more likely to die than children in general population by Ken Downey Jr.
- What Does Age Have to Do With Adoption? (Partners for Our Children)