Dorothy Roberts on the Punitive Logic of the Child Welfare System

Historians in the News
tags: racism, social services, Child Welfare

Dorothy Roberts is a professor of Africana studies, law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (Basic Books, April 2022).

Lyra Walsh Fuchs is Dissent’s associate editor.

Over 630,000 children, who are disproportionately Black and Indigenous, were “served by the foster care system” in 2020, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. That number doesn’t account for the many families placed under informal supervisory plans, or who received surprise knocks on their doors from caseworkers, often accompanied by police.

Dorothy Roberts and a growing number of activists across the country have another name for the child welfare system: family policing. Like prison and police abolitionists, they think that decades of reforms intended to improve the system have only entrenched its power, and that family policing should be abolished and replaced with redistributive policies and a true social safety net.

The idea that the U.S. child welfare system endangers children may seem surprising, especially to those who haven’t interacted with it, or to those who have read the tragic headlines that appear when a child is harmed. But as Roberts argues in her new book, “tragic cases of child abuse continue to appear even under the watch of the toughest child protection regimes. Children fall through the cracks not because child welfare agencies are devoting too many resources to family support. Children fall through the cracks because agencies are devoting too many resources to investigations and child removal.”

We spoke about the book, the contemporary child welfare system and its history, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s attack on trans kids and their families. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Lyra Walsh Fuchs: A lot of agencies and organizations in the “child welfare” realm have origins in the Progressive Era, when they formed out of concerns about child labor and living conditions in tenements. You write that there’s a different, longer history. How do you think we should situate Child Protective Services within the history of the United States?

Dorothy Roberts: It’s essential to see Child Protective Services as part of a long-standing agenda by a white, settler-colonial, and enslaving state to oppress Black and Native communities, to control them, and, in the case of Indigenous tribes, to decimate them. We must trace the roots of the current-day system to the enslavement of Black people and the routine forced separation of families at the auction block or whenever the enslaver thought it was beneficial to their interests. There was no concept that Black people had family rights. They had no autonomy over their families. Enslavers made it clear, through cruel and atrocious treatment, that they were the bosses of Black children.

After slavery ended, courts determined that Black parents were negligent and ordered their children to be indentured to former enslavers. In thousands and thousands of cases, Black children were forced back into work under the supervision of the very white men who had enslaved them. It’s really eerie how those court-ordered indentures prelude today’s court-ordered taking of Black children from their parents on grounds that their parents are neglecting them. In both cases, the so-called neglect stems from structural racism and the disadvantages that Black parents have in raising children because of lack of employment, education, and housing—disadvantages imposed upon Black families by a racial-capitalist nation.

At the same time in the nineteenth century that Black children were being separated from their parents either by enslavers or by the apprenticeship system, the U.S. military was waging war against Native tribes and using child removal as a deliberate and explicit weapon of war to destroy them. The children were initially sent to military-run institutions. Later, in the twentieth century, the U.S. government adopted an official adoption policy for Native children. They were removed from their homes and tribes at extremely high rates and placed with white adoptive families.

Those are the origins of our child-welfare system. The mythical narrative about rescuing children from dangerous homes emerged in the late nineteenth century, when charitable organizations began to advocate for a kinder way of addressing impoverished immigrant children’s needs. They began to create orphanages and foster-care institutions as a reform of the existing practice, which put poor children, along with their parents, in almshouses, workhouses, and poorhouses. This reform still relied on the philosophy that the way to address children’s poverty is to take them from their families and put them in institutions or in strangers’ homes—where these children were forced to work. Thousands of impoverished children were also shipped off on what came to be known as “orphan trains,” which took kids from neighborhoods on the East Coast and sent them west to work on farms owned by strangers who took them in under the pretext of rescuing them from negligent parents. But, in reality, they were taken because their parents were impoverished. Is this child saving, or is this child exploitation? Even the rosy narrative of state-run Child Protective Services and foster care evolving from the work of charitable organizations engaged in saving children, even that is actually a story of punishing poverty and exploiting child labor.

Read entire article at Dissent