Reimagining Child Welfare: The Ms. Q&A with Dorothy Roberts, Host of Podcast ‘Torn Apart’

Doroty Roberts (Courtesy)

Last month, Ms. sat down with Professor Dorothy Roberts, distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and the host of the new Ms. Studios podcast Torn Apart: Abolishing Family Policing and Reimagining Child Welfare, based on her 2022 book Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Create A Safer World

Roberts worked for decades to try to fix the child welfare system, but she came to the understanding that the system could not be fixed: It had to be abolished.

Torn Apart illustrates her vision for the future of child wellbeing. In this interview, we also discuss how abolishing the child welfare system is an issue of reproductive justice for women and their families, and the importance of educating about the injustices of the child welfare system.

All episodes of Torn Apart are available here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Anoushka Chander: What inspired you to write a book on reimagining the child welfare system? Why family policing as an issue and why now?

Dorothy Roberts: I began working on getting rid of racism in the child welfare system more than 20 years ago. I actually learned about how terrible this system is, back in the late 1980s, when I began research for my book Killing The Black Body. I started that former book project by investigating the prosecutions of Black mothers who were pregnant and using drugs. I interpreted it as punishing them for having babies and connected it to a long history of devaluing Black women’s childbearing. 

While I was investigating the prosecutions, I discovered this system of family policing that was removing tens of thousands of Black newborns from their mothers because of a positive drug test. And that’s what made me aware for the first time of how the child welfare system actually operates, and that it targets Black communities for investigation, surveillance, punishment, the terrible government intervention of removing children from their families, for reasons of poverty and structural racism. 

I began to turn my attention to that, and I wrote a book called Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare that was published in 2001. After I wrote that book, I spent a couple of decades working on trying to fix the system. I spoke to numerous groups of social workers, I did trainings for them to try to address the racial bias that’s been well documented in decision making in this system. And I worked for foundations, I wrote reports, for example, for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I worked for nine years as an expert on trying to reform the foster care system in Washington state, as part of a settlement after a judge found that it was violating the constitutional rights of foster children in the state. 

I came to the conclusion that it could not be fixed, because it is fundamentally a policing system that is based on accusations, investigations, and really terrorizing families by threatening to take their children away. I also learned about the importance of abolition and dismantling oppressive systems and replacing them with reimagine ways of meeting human needs. 

When it came to be the 20th anniversary of Shattered Bonds, and I was thinking of writing a new preface to update the book, I decided I needed to write a book that made the case for abolition, that more strongly argued that we need to completely dismantle this system, and reimagine what it means to keep children safe in this nation and how to truly improve their welfare by supporting them and their families.

Chander: You mentioned the impact that structural racism and carceral policies have had on Black motherhood. How is the issue of reforming and not even reforming but abolishing the child welfare system an issue of reproductive justice?

Roberts: Reproductive justice, from the very beginning in the mid 1990s, when the term was coined by a group of Black feminists, has always meant not only the human right not to have a child, not to be compelled to give birth, but also the human right to have a child and just as importantly, to be able to raise your child in a safe and healthy and sustained environment. 

Family policing is a violation of that human right to raise your child because it is focused on threatening to take children away. And in many cases, taking children away from their families, rather than building a society that truly supports families that truly for provides the resources and the social structures that are necessary to meet children’s needs. Abolishing the family policing system is an essential aspect of reproductive justice. 

When I was working on Killing The Black Body, I was writing about the longstanding devaluation of Black mothers. And that’s exactly what this system does. It targets Black mothers for accusation and surveillance and punishment, instead of supporting them. And instead of building a society that actually keeps their children safe, instead blames them for harms to children that are caused by structural racism and poverty and other forms of social inequity. The very foundation of reproductive justice is absolutely applicable to abolishing family policing.

I was writing about the longstanding devaluation of Black mothers. And that’s exactly what this system does. It targets Black mothers for accusation and surveillance and punishment, instead of supporting them.

Dorothy Roberts

I think it’s essential for us to see the movement for reproductive justice to be intimately connected to the movement to abolish family policing. There’s also this very direct connection right now, between the right to abortion and the right to raise a family. And that comes out of the Dobbs decision. Judge Alito, in the majority opinion, promoted the argument that the answer to compelling a pregnant person to give birth was to give up the baby for adoption. And that was an argument that anti-abortion advocates have been making for a long time. The Dobbs decision puts front and center this question of what happens to babies who are born when the pregnant person has been forced to give birth, and it provides adoption as if it’s some wonderful market based solution that’s a win-win for everybody. 

That completely ignores how the family policing system actually works. It ignores that most people who have babies after they’ve been prevented from getting an abortion keep their babies, but they will experience more struggles, especially if they’re impoverished or low income in taking care of their child, which puts them at risk of having their children removed by the family policing system. So Dobbs, by allowing for states to ban abortion is more likely to increase the struggles that families will face and increase the risk that they’ll be subjected to family policing, and child removal. It’s a way in which we can see that denying the human right to abortion is connected to family policing. 

Chander: Tell us a little bit about what you teach at Penn and how that is related to Torn Apart.

Roberts: At Penn, I teach a course on reproductive rights and justice. I teach it as a first year elective, and it’s been very popular. Last time I taught it, I had over 100 students in the class. We study major Supreme Court cases that are related to reproduction and sexuality and childbearing and parenting. I include a section on family and policing, which is part of the casebooks treatment of parental rights. Students read a chapter from Torn Apart in order to understand how the system actually works. We learn about sterilization abuse, about the prosecutions of women for being pregnant and using drugs, as well as the right to abortion, and restrictions on abortion, and adoption. And so family policing, I think, ties together all these different aspects of the course.

Chander: You sat down and spoke with dozens of experts on and impacted families on this issue of family policing in the child welfare system. What was your experience like bringing your book to life with these voices and your voice and telling this story over four episodes in the Torn Apart podcast?

Roberts: It was important to me in writing Torn Apart to include the voices of parents and children, who have been harmed by the family policing system, as well as those of experts, sociologists, and historians, social work experts and others. I invited them and we recorded about hour long interviews with a number of people who I thought made great points in the book Torn Apart. They were very compelling, very knowledgeable, the parents and youth. 

So Vanessa Peoples and Sixto Cancel, who was a young man who started an organization who experienced foster care—those are two voices of people impacted by the system, along with Joyce McMillan, whose daughters were taken from her in New York City. She went on to found a fantastic organization called JMAC For Families. They provide very compelling voices of people who were harmed by the system, and have become outspoken voices against it, voices for change. 

I also was able to bring in the voices of attorneys, who represent families, and other experts, including historians and sociologists, and legal experts who have studied this, this system for a long time, as well as being involved in working toward abolishing it. Weaving together those voices, as well as my voice, and filling in more information about the system, it was a very creative and exciting process that I really, really enjoyed.

Chander: I want to ask about what your vision is for the future of child welfare—not the child welfare system, but the well-being of all children and families in the United States. How can we better empower families and children—Black families and children, low-income families and children—across the nation?

Roberts: That’s the whole aim of my book, along with the work of many other family policing abolitionists is to reimagine, and build a society where children’s needs are actually met. Children are kept safer by supporting their families rather than punishing their families by supporting families rather than breaking them apart. Sometimes people misunderstand what it means to abolish this system and think that means abandoning children. It’s the opposite. 

The goal is to build both national policies, but also community based resources for families so that they can take better care of their children, rather than a system that we know affirmatively harms children, tears families apart. What abolition means is dismantling a system that’s based on accusing and investigating and surveilling and punishing and tearing apart families. 

The goal is to build both national policies, but also community based resources for families so that they can take better care of their children, rather than a system that we know affirmatively harms children, tears families apart.

Dorothy Roberts

Just as important, and at the very same time, is building its replacement, building community based resources for families. Changing national policy so that families have secure housing, so that when a family is evicted, or has insecure housing, the solution isn’t to take their children away and put them in foster care. It’s to provide the housing that families need. And this is true for every aspect of so called child neglect: providing the health care that children need, the clothing that they need, the nutrition that they need, getting all of their material needs met, rather than blaming their families for failing to meet those needs. 

That’s something that has to happen at the policy level to provide income for families and to change policy so that we have all of those material needs that families have met, but also building at the community level mutual aid networks where community members support each other, where people aren’t afraid to seek help for fear that their children will be taken from them. 

For example, right now, we have a system of mandated reporting, where professionals like teachers, and doctors and nurses and psychologists and social workers are all supposed to report their suspicions of child neglect and abuse to authorities. And we know that this turns them into reporters that people are scared of. They’re afraid that if they go to them, and fully divulge the needs that they have, that their children may be wrongfully taken from them. Instead of providing these professionals that are supposed to be helping and supporting families, providing them with the resources they need, we tell them to instead turn the families over to caseworkers who aren’t going to provide what families need. 

Abolishing the family policing system, and instead replacing it with an approach to families that support them would allow us to turn schools and medical clinics and social work providers, social service programs, into hubs where families could get the help that they need the resources that they need on a voluntary, non-coercive basis. And then we also have to invest in transformative justice approaches to violence and families, whether it’s intimate partner violence or violence against children, we know that the approach that we have now, which largely relies on police and prisons, and family policing isn’t working. And in some ways, it’s been shown to harm families even more. 

Transformative justice approaches get to the root cause of why there’s violence and families and develop transformative ways of holding people accountable without the added harm and violence of policing. All of this is part of what abolition requires.

Chander: What do you hope listeners take away from the podcast? And what are some routes that you can give them to assist in the abolition of child welfare system and transformation?

Roberts: I do hope that after the audience listens to the podcast, they’ll read my book and other books that have been written about family policing, and be compelled to want to do something to end the system and to reimagine child welfare and child safety. One thing they can do is to learn more about organizations that are advocating for this change and working toward it. I mentioned JMAC For Families, which is an organization founded by Joyce McMillan in New York City. There’s also Movement for Family Power, which is an organization in New York as well. There’s the upEND Movement, which is based in Texas. But all of these organizations have websites and have a national reach. 

There are family defender offices, all over the nation. In Philadelphia, there’s Community Legal Services, and Kathleen Creamer, who’s the attorney in charge of that, is one of the guests on the podcast. There are family defenders in Brooklyn, in the Bronx and Harlem in New York City and most major cities, their legal services or legal aid offices now are building units that are dedicated to defending families against the family policing system. So listeners can look into those as well. 

Rise Magazine is a magazine that is run by impacted parents and they have tools on their website for how to abolish the family policing system. I have to give a plug for the Juvenile Law Center. I’m on its board here in Philadelphia. And they have recently taken up an abolitionist approach to ending the injustices to children in the juvenile legal system, the criminal legal system and the family policing system. 

So learning more about these organizations, asking these organizations what you can do to support them, through donations, through work, through spreading the word about them, is something that listeners can do. 

Also have an eye out for legislation that’s being proposed. In New York City, JMAC for Families has proposed a number of bills that would chip away at the power that the family police have, for example, giving parents their Miranda rights and applying the Fourth Amendment to searches of homes, which rarely is acknowledged but parents have the right to a warrant and to an attorney when someone comes to search their home. It’s under the Fourth Amendment. Ending involuntary drug testing of pregnant people and newborns. Ending mandated reporting. Abolishing the Adoption and Safe Families Act which was passed in 1997 and speeds up termination of parental rights. These are all legislative efforts that people around the country are promoting. Wherever you live, you can look out for legislation like this. 

And then just more broadly, supporting policies that meet the needs of children and their families without harsh, terroristic, punitive government intervention, you know. Support income supplements to families. Support providing food, good nutrition, high quality education and housing to everybody who needs it. These kinds of policies that support families are ways of opposing the family policing system as well and building a reimagined way of truly caring for children truly keeping children safe and supporting their families.

Listen to the Torn Apart podcast wherever you get your podcasts or at—all episodes are live now!

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Anoushka Chander is an intern at Ms. Studios and an Assistant Producer for the new Ms. podcast Torn Apart: Abolishing Family Policing and Reimagining Child Welfare. She is a junior at Harvard College studying Social Studies and African American studies with a focus on women’s rights, racial justice, and the law. She is a trained lobbyist for voting rights, gun violence prevention, and racial justice. An intersectional feminist, she is excited to champion the voices of youth of color in every space.