Is Child Welfare Protecting or Policing Black Children?

A new book by the author of 'Killing the Black Body' claims child welfare is surveillance by another name and its disproportionately affecting Black families.

Little girl clinging to mom and holding her hand
Photo: Getty Images

All families deserve the resources to thrive. And many expect the government agencies that provide child welfare services to move heaven and earth to make sure that children and their families are well. But some experts say that instead of the child welfare system being one that makes it possible for children to thrive no matter the barrier, it often fails to consider the individual, cultural, and familial needs of children. Instead of working to keep families together so they can thrive as a unit, it often contributes to the destruction of Black and indigenous families.

Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law, sociology, and civil rights at the University of Pennsylvania, says the child welfare system intentionally targets Black families. Her new book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, says that the network of services called the "child welfare system" is more of a "family policing system than a source of support or protection."

"Child protective services (CPS) operates surprisingly like criminal law enforcement," Roberts told Kindred by in an interview. "Parents are accused, investigated, and prosecuted just like defendants in criminal court. Like police departments, CPS authorities increasingly use modern surveillance technologies to monitor marginalized communities. Like the prison system, the family-policing system frays family and community bonds."

Roberts says the child welfare system also operates in ways that are similar to police departments through service plans which she likens to probation orders, and punishment from the judicial system when parents do not comply with them. She says, additionally, child welfare and law enforcement often collaborate through sharing information, attending common trainings, and working together during home visits.

"The family policing system and the criminal legal system are part of the same carceral regime," says Roberts. "But because it seems to operate outside criminal law enforcement, family policing can have even more power than police to intensively monitor entire Black communities—while escaping public scrutiny and bypassing legal protections by claiming to protect the children who live there."

Definitions Matter

The U.S. Children's Bureau says the child welfare system is "a group of services designed to promote the well-being of children by ensuring safety, achieving permanency, and strengthening families." But for Black families, child welfare policies feel more invasive and harmful than helpful. There are many myths about the circumstances that cause children to be removed from their homes, including the idea that child welfare workers mostly save children and homes are only investigated if something goes wrong.

Roberts agrees that these are myths. "Most children who are in foster care were placed there because their parents were found to neglect them. Neglect is often confused with poverty," she says. "Both the subjectivity of neglect and its confluence with poverty are significant because they allow CPS decision-making to be influenced by biases against Black families and by parents' inability to afford the resources needed to care for their children."

Mainstream portrayals point toward physical and sexual abuse as the most common reasons for CPS intervention. These cases are rare. Almost 75 percent of child maltreatment accusations are neglect. But Roberts notes that the definition of neglect is vague and open-ended. Roberts says these criteria for neglect often overlap the housing, clothing, or food insecurity attached to poverty.

According to Roberts, arecent 50-state survey of child protection statutes found that most had vague definitions of neglect as constituting "failure to provide the proper or necessary support for a child's well-being." Others said neglect meant failing to provide children with specific material resources, such as "adequate nurturance, food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, and education."

In 2019, Child Protective Services received around 4.4 million referrals of alleged mistreatment but only about 17 percent resulted in a finding of abuse or maltreatment. Child maltreatment reports can come from professional sources, like education personnel, legal and law enforcement, or medical personnel, or nonprofessional sources like neighbors and relatives.

Stories like Syesha Mercado, whose son and days-old daughter were taken by the Florida Department of Children and Families after a "tip" that he was "suffering from severe malnutrition," is one of the most recent instances of state intervention in a Black family. Five months after their son Amen'Ra was taken their newborn daughter was removed and spent a week in custody. After a fight and public outcry, both children were eventually reunited with their parents. But their son was still in custody for a total of seven months.

Image of book, Torn Apart: How the child welfare system destroys black families and how abolition can build a safer world.
Basic Books

This and other stories validate Black communities' distrust of the system and what happens when medical professionals misdiagnose abuse. Roberts shares stories of others in her book—like Vanessa Peoples, whose involvement with child welfare started with a ticket she was given in the park and escalated to being hogtied by police during an unannounced home visit. She pled guilty to child abuse and reckless endangerment of a child to avoid prison and was eventually awarded an excessive force settlement.

One-third of all children experience a CPS investigation by their 18th birthday. But the rate jumps to 50 percent for Black children according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health called Lifetime Prevalence Of Investigating Child Maltreatment Among US Children. There's a long history of Black and indigenous families having their culture destroyed and their children removed from their homes through enslavement, forced labor through apprenticeship and boarding schools.

Investigating Stereotypes

Roberts says stereotypes around Black people and their capacity to be fit parents contribute to the child welfare system's willingness to remove Black children from their homes. Many of these stereotypes are aimed directly at Black mothers and suggest they are "defective" or "neglectful."

"Underlying the system's surveillance and destruction of Black families is the longstanding view in dominant American culture that Black mothers are unfit and that their children are better off under white supervision," says Roberts."This view has been bolstered by a set of disparaging images of Black mothers that can be traced back to the enslavement of Black people. These stereotypes of Black maternal irresponsibility help to shape the suspicions of doctors, teachers, and social service providers who report child maltreatment, the determinations of caseworkers to remove children from the home, and the decisions of judges about whether to keep children in foster care and to terminate parental rights."

Torn Apart isn't the first time Roberts made connections between enslavement and the experiences of Black Americans today. It's also not the first time she's addressed the child welfare system. Her well-known book, Killing the Black Body, paints a painful picture of the denial of humanity that Black people, especially Black women and mothers, face when seeking medical and reproductive care. Roberts shows how Black parents are categorized as unfit and incapable of taking care of their children or making their own reproductive decisions without state intervention.

She also notes that efforts to shift this system are anchored in the trauma Black families, especially Black mothers, experience. They start with daring to envision something different and knowing change is possible.

"Just imagine a society where the needs of children and their families are generously met and where the idea of tearing children from their families as the way to care for them is laughable," Roberts says in an excerpt from Torn Apart. "Ignited by Black mothers who have been separated from their children, a burgeoning movement is working to dismantle the family policing system and replace it with a radically reimagined way of caring for children, meeting families' needs, and preventing domestic violence"

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