In this Episode:
Professor Roberts shows that the child welfare system was designed from its beginning to oppress marginalized communities. She explores the child welfare system’s roots in slavery, settler colonialism, and white supremacy, and explains how the system is constructed to target Black and other marginalized families for disruption. She argues that the origins of family policing can be traced back to the separation of enslaved children from their mothers on plantations and the return of freed Black children to former enslavers as court-ordered apprentices. In conversation with experts, Roberts uncovers how over time, the child welfare system went from neglecting Black children to over policing and separating Black families. She also investigates how family policing and taking children has been a tool to suppress Black resistance against racial oppression and continues to surveil, regulate, and punish Black families today.
Meet Dorothy Roberts
Dorothy Roberts is a distinguished professor of Africana Studies, Law, and Sociology at University of Pennsylvania. She is also Founding Director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society. An internationally acclaimed scholar, public intellectual, and social justice activist, Roberts has written and lectured extensively on the interplay of race, gender, and class inequities in U.S. institutions. She is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and National Academy of Medicine, and author of the award-winning Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001); and Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2011), as well as more than 100 articles and book chapters,including “Race” in the 1619 Project. Her latest book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (2022), culminates more than two decades of investigating racism in family policing and calls for a radically reimagined way to support children and their families. Torn Apart won the 2023 American Sociological Association Distinguished Scholarly Book Award Honorable Mention, was a finalist for an LA Times Book Prize and C. Wright Mills Award, and was shortlisted for the Goddard Riverside Stephan Russo Book Prize for Social Justice.
- “If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit” The Family Separation Crisis in the US Child Welfare System
- Even Child Welfare Workers Say Their Agency is Racist
00:00:00.0 Malcolm X:
Poor education, you can only work on a poor-paying job, and that poor-paying job enables you to live, again, in a poor neighborhood. So, it’s a very vicious cycle, and usually, these bad housing conditions result from the fact, as Mr. Grey has pointed out, of absentee landlords, people who are rich and live downtown and let you and I live up here in the shack…actually, it’s a form of 20th century slavery.
00:00:35 Dorothy Roberts:
This is Torn Apart: Abolishing Family Policing and Reimagining Child Welfare. I’m your host Dorothy Roberts, a professor of Africana Studies, Law, and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the book Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. In Episode 2: Design, I’ll explore the child welfare system’s roots in slavery, settler colonialism, and white supremacy, and explain how the system is constructed to target black and other marginalized families for disruption.
The radical black activist Malcolm X explained how housing segregation works to oppress black people and keep them locked in poverty. He called it a form of 20th century slavery. Malcolm X described the child welfare system in those same terms. In his autobiography, Malcolm X recalled the nightmare that happened to his family when the welfare people began to pry into his home in East Lansing, Michigan after his father was killed in 1931. Malcolm’s mother Louise Little was left to care for eight children on her own.
Unable to keep a job on account of racism and her deceased husband’s reputation as an organizer, she was eventually forced to rely on government welfare checks to feed the family. That gave workers from the welfare department license to come around regularly to inspect the house and interrogate Malcolm, his mother, and his siblings. The welfare workers set their sights on removing Malcom and his seven siblings from their mother’s custody.
I think they felt that getting children in foster homes was a legitimate part of their function and the result would be less troublesome, however they went about it, he wrote in his autobiography. The workers finally got their way. They orchestrated her involuntary commitment to the state mental hospital at Kalamazoo based on examinations by a court-appointed doctor, and Malcolm and his younger siblings were scattered to foster homes. Here’s how Malcolm analyzed the child welfare system’s design.
I try to believe that if ever a state’s social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours. We wanted and tried to stay together. Our home didn’t have to be destroyed, but the welfare, the courts, and their doctor gave us the 1-2-3 punch, and ours was not the only case of this kind. A Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. We were state children, court wards. He had full say-so over us. A white man in charge of a black man’s children, nothing but legal modern slavery, however kindly intentioned.
I think we should trace the origins of family policing to the enslavement of black people. One of the most awful atrocities inflicted by the slavery regime was the physical separation of enslaved parents from their children, and slavers had absolute discretion to buy and sell family members separately from each other. They could dismember black families at will for whatever reason.
A 19th century South Carolina court declared that enslavers could sell children away from their mothers, no matter how young, because “the young slaves stand on the same footing as other animals.” A slaveholder might decide to sell a mother, a father, or their children to pay off a debt or to punish perceived disobedience. Black people were defined in wills, wagered at horse races, and awarded in lawsuits.
Bonded families were disbanded when the heirs of an estate decided not to continue the patriarch’s business or when young children were hired or apprenticed out to work on another’s plantation. Even when enslaved families remained physically attacked, black parents were denied authority over their children. Slavery law installed the white patriarch as the head of an extended plantation family, that included the black people he enslaved.
After emancipation, white planters exploited the apprenticeship laws to arrest custody of black children from their parents as a source of forced labor. These laws gave judges unfettered discretion to place black children in the care and service of white people if they found that the parents were unfit, unmarried, or unemployed, and if they deemed the displacement “better for the habits and comfort of the child.” Tens of thousands of black children were virtually re-enslaved as apprentices by southern judges.
A witness testified in 1867 that, in some parts of Maryland, the whites, the ex-masters of the slaves, had the children probably of about two-thirds of the families of the freed men. Apprenticeship is America’s first court-ordered child welfare system for black families. To understand how white supremacy shaped child welfare policy in the 20th century, I spoke with Laura Briggs, a professor of Women, Sexuality, and Gender Studiesat University of Massachusetts and author of Taking Children: A History of American Terror.
00:07:02 Laura Briggs:
The story I tell is about the separation of children from black families from the time of enslavement through the period of civil rights, when the child of the…the size of the child welfare system doubled. It went from being a system that neglected black children, to, you know, to being a system that aggressively took black children. The second time the size of the child welfare system doubled was in the 1980s, late ’80s, when ambitious, especially southern prosecutors, began prosecuting black women in particular.
But also, we know, in Alabama, white women for using drugs during pregnancy. I think most people have heard of the Indian boarding schools of the 19th century / early 20th century, but I think what people are less aware of is the role they played in trying to stop Indian wars. That their goal…they were run by the War Department. The goal of them was to terrorize indigenous communities into stopping their warring to defend treaties and to make peace with the US Infantry.
00:08:28 Dorothy Roberts:
Why do you think child removal has been used as a chief instrument of terror and group oppression? What is it about separating families that has this political power to it?
00:08:47 Laura Briggs:
Well, child removal is…it gets at us at our most intimate and most vulnerable, right? It terrorizes families into doing almost anything to avoid having their children lost, right? A judge in superior court in New York called it the death penalty for families. It is…and the only way that it can function the way it does, with as little oversight and as little distress culturally, is that we have to normalize it somehow.
And there’s an old story, going back to enslavement, that black mothers don’t really care about their children, and that just fed slavers taking children and selling them away as a tactic of terror on plantations and in enslaved communities, but it also stops the passing on from one generation to another what matters most to us. Our food, our culture, our ways of knowing, and our love and our ability to raise a small human who is desperately vulnerable.
00:10:12 Dorothy Roberts:
Yeah. Thanks for that. I think it’s so important for people to understand the terror inflicted by taking children away. Of course, we do understand that. That’s such a contradiction, because we know that that is terrorizing and traumatic, and yet, as you said, because of these stereotypes about how black people don’t really have strong family ties, the government gets away with it. It’s such a cruel and horrible contradiction within child removal, I think.
00:10:54 Laura Briggs:
We say to parents, the worst thing that could happen is you could lose your child, and apparently, what we mean by that is the death of a white child, because we don’t treat black families as if this is a tremendous tragedy happening all over all of our communities.
00:11:10 Dorothy Roberts:
Yes. Yes. I want to focus on another really important point you make in your book, which is that child removing has been a way of squelching resistance and rebellion against oppression, and you write a lot about how it became a backlash against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. So, could you focus on that particular period in the 1950s and 1960s when removing black children became a weapon against civil rights gains?
00:11:53 Laura Briggs:
So, what did white southerners want to say? They wanted to say that the black community wasn’t respectable. That they were criminals, on the one hand, and they didn’t care about their children, and so, one of the tactics used against the school desegregation movement was to say, oh, all these children that are trying to join white schools are born out of wedlock, right, and they turn that into a weapon through welfare, through the government transfer payments that were sometimes keeping alive single moms and their kids, and said if you’re keeping an immoral home, if you have illegitimate children, you’re not going to get welfare.
00:12:48.4 Dorothy Roberts:
Many states also implemented Man in the House rules to deny benefits to black mothers suspected of living or having a sexual relationship with a man, who would be deemed a substitute father, and expected to support the children financially. By providing an excuse to cut off state support to black children, suitable home and other eligibility laws passed in states across the south became an effective means for white lawmakers to economically assault black communities in the battle over civil rights.
In 1961, Arthur Flemming, the Head of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, directed states that they could not deny welfare benefits based on suitable home tests unless they took steps to rehabilitate the family. For families that could not be rehabilitated, Flemming allocated federal funds to put the children in foster care. Later that year, Congress amended Title IV of the Social Security Act to provide federal funding to maintain these children apart from their families.
00:14:02 Laura Briggs:
They’d start taking black children to terrorize communities and to not going for segregation, and they pour a bunch of new money in it, into the system, and between 1960 and 1961, when this was enacted, 150 thousand black children enter the child welfare system as a tactic of terrorizing black communities in the throes of desegregation. In the 1980s, as Reagan Administration and the political right were trying to…
On the one hand, they said they were trying to shrink the size of government by eliminating entitlement programs for black, Latinx, and impoverished white communities, and at the same time, they were growing the child welfare system like crazy and growing policing and imprisonment, and how are they doing it? They repeated the exact same moves from the 1960s and ’50s, right? They said black families are pathological. They are using crack and other…and native families are…mothers are drinking. Even though, with the wisdom of hindsight, we can see black folks use drugs less than white folks.
00:15:36.6 Dorothy Roberts:
Then, in the late 1990s, Congress passed back-to-back major legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton, that simultaneously intensified law enforcement surveillance of black communities, stripped away support for struggling parents, and sped their children into adoptive homes. First came the controversial Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which imposed harsher prison sentences for federal offenses and showered states with funds to expand their police forces and build more prisons.
Next, in 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance to families living in poverty and giving states wide latitude to decide how to implement extensive welfare reform policies. A year later, President Clinton signed the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, known as ASFA.
ASFA prioritizes placing foster children for adoption over reunifying them with their families through a set of mandates and incentives to state child welfare departments. It also loosens the requirement that agencies make reasonable efforts to keep families together and establish swifter timetables for terminating parental rights. It shifted the presumption in favor of termination when children have spent more than 15 of the previous 22 months in state custody.
The states get financial bonuses for increasing the numbers of children who are adopted out of foster care without comparable incentives to keep families together. The coinciding passage of the welfare and adoption laws mark the first time in modern US history that the federal government mandated that states protect children from parental neglect, centered on taking them from their families, but failed to guarantee a minimum economic safety net for impoverished families. ASFA has taken a devastating toll on families by increasing the demolition of legal bonds between children and their parents.
00:18:14 Daniel Hatcher:
One of the example cases I talked about in The Poverty Industry book was a case out of North Carolina where a father had been temporarily incarcerated. He had a release date. Had a reunification plan, right, agreed to by the agency, but they decided to terminate his parental rights, largely because the timing under the Adoption and Safe Families Act, right, for child support, and there wasn’t even a child support order in place for this individual, but the court said he could’ve paid something greater than zero. So, they ended up terminating the rights under the statute for a six-month statutory period. The most he could’ve paid during that time period, right, based on the income he made in prison, was about 72 dollars. So, they terminated the parental rights for a 72-dollar government-owned debt.
00:19:05 Dorothy Roberts:
That was Daniel Hatcher, a professor at University of Baltimore School of Law and author of The Poverty Industry: The Exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens. Yes, failing to pay child support can mean permanently losing custody of your child, and it gets worse. In 2021, the Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that a child could be placed for adoption on grounds that the parents had failed to reimburse the government for some of the cost of their child’s foster care.
According to NPR and at least 12 states, mothers and fathers can lose the rights to parent their children forever if they don’t pay back the government for forcibly taking their children. Child welfare departments not only demand money from parents, they also steal benefits from the children in their care. Here’s Daniel Hatcher again, describing what I call the foster industrial complex.
00:20:11.4 Daniel Hatcher:
Unfortunately, you know, we start with this point that our government agencies, their mission is supposed to be to maximize the welfare of their beneficiaries, right, to serve, but instead, we’re seeing, in these examples, the combination of a policing mindset, right, and instead, running like a business instead of serving vulnerable populations and solely focused on helping them, turning to using them as a revenue source, and with foster youth children that are removed from their homes, it’s particularly concerning, because it happens in multiple ways.
One of the most striking examples, as the agencies are often hiring private revenue contractors to help in the process of literally looking for children who are potentially labelled as disabled or have dead parents, you know, whose parents have, unfortunately, died. Not provide them with additional assistance, but then to mine them for the social security benefits. They’ll apply for disability or survivor benefits without telling the children, without telling their advocates, right?
They hire these companies to help increase the likelihood of getting eligibility for these benefits. The use strategies in their contracts. They’re using data mining and algorithms and the like, all about ranking the children not in terms of, again, how much help they need, but how much money they’re going to bring into the state coffer. So, it’s just…it could not be more contrary to the mission for which the government agencies are supposed to have, but they’ve turned away from their mission, and it is causing immense harm.
00:21:51 Dorothy Roberts:
Now, I think some people would respond, but these agencies are maintaining children in foster care. They’re paying for their care. So, all this is doing is reimbursing them for the cost of caring for these children. What do you say about that?
00:22:11 Daniel Hatcher:
Well, you know, to start, it wasn’t the children’s choice to be removed from their families, right? You know, and then the agency, right, is supposed to…again, it exists for the sole reason of helping. Supposed to be for serving the agencies. So, purely from a morality example, you know, like, they shouldn’t be funding themselves by taking resources from the very beneficiaries they exist to serve, and then, legally, they’re also violating the fiduciary obligation.
They serve as a fiduciary under state law, right, and under federal law, you know, as the guardian, as the welfare agency, as the foster care agency, right, they have a fiduciary relationship with children in their care, and then when they apply to take the benefits for children, to insert themselves in what’s called a representative pay, they take on an additional fiduciary obligation under federal law, right, and they’re violating that by taking the resources to reimburse themselves for costs that children have no legal obligation to pay for.
And the states are legally obligated to provide and pay for it. Whenever healthcare services are necessary, right, the combination of federal and state law requires that the state agencies provide and pay for, with state funds, sometimes a combination with federal full refunds of the children who are eligible, right? So, it couldn’t be a more clear violation of their mission, of morale, of the ethics, and of the law, you know, across the boards.
00:23:37 Dorothy Roberts:
You tell the story of one of your former clients you call Alex, who aged out of foster care without any money and who was entitled to benefits. Can you say some more about what happened to Alex?
00:24:56 Daniel Hatcher:
Sure. It’s a hard case because, like, I became…you know, I was Alex’s lawyer, and I became friends with him over time. He…his care was referred to me, unfortunately, after he had already left foster care, right? So, I acted as counsel and brought claims, a complaint, against the State of Maryland on his behalf, and I represented an additional foster youth, as well, but Alex had been pulled into the system at a young age. I believe it is about 13.
His mother had died, and he’s in the system being, you know, pushed from one placement to another. He was never in the same placement for long at all. The agency realized that he was eligible for survivor benefits because his mother died. You know, and this was a connection that he could’ve had to his deceased parent that he could’ve used to try to help himself.
He always talked about wanting to become a mechanic, to learn the tools of the trade, you know, which cost money and time to do to get that type of education, but he wasn’t allowed to do that. Wasn’t allowed to use his own resources, and then, when he’s in care, not only does his mother die, but his father was a potential resource, right, and his father dies. They were looking at an older brother as a potential resource, and his brother dies.
So, this poor youth, you know, every member of his family is, unfortunately, suffering, you know, from trauma, and he’s traumatized, you know, as a result, and instead of providing him with additional assistance, they target him as a source of money and take it without even telling him any…that he’s out of a car penniless, right? And he’s struggled ever since he left care. You know, soon as he left the foster care system, he never heard from them again in terms of assistance or anything. He was just a money source.
00:25:48.8 Dorothy Roberts:
Now, another really striking part of the story you tell about this extraction of funds from children in foster care is the kind of companies that are in the business of doing this. I had no idea there was a whole cottage industry of companies that specialize in profit maximization for child welfare agencies. One of them is called Maximus. Can you say something more about these companies and how they operate, the kinds of contracts they into with child welfare agencies?
00:26:30 Daniel Hatcher:
So, this issue with…if Maryland, for an example…Maryland entered a contract with a company by the name of Maximus, initially as an assessment report in which the company was trying to help Maryland determine how it could obtain more social security benefits from children in their care. Again, the state wasn’t interested in getting those sources to help children.
But they used it as a revenue source, and in the initial contract between Maximus and the Maryland agency, the contract actually referred to foster youth as a revenue-generating mechanism, right? You know, it couldn’t be more disturbing and contrary to the humanity of the populations that are supposed to be served, right, and to the purpose, again, of with…of which agency is supposed to be adhering to, including with any contract with a private provider, and you know, so, it’s not just with seeking resources from foster youth.
At the same time, agencies will often work with companies and other revenue-extraction goals. Child support is another huge source. While an agency may be pursuing and taking away social security benefits from a child in their care, they’ll also often pursue the low-income parents who’s desperately trying to do what they need to do to reunify with their children, and instead, pursuing them for what they call child support, foster care costs.
So, they’ll be taking money from the children to repay foster care costs that the children have no legal obligation to pay for. We’re suing money from the parents to sue that same foster care cost, and there’s been reports that indicate they don’t track that well. So, there’s very much potential even for double-dipping, let alone the harm that that causes on its own, but they’re potentially double-dipping in the process.
00:28:20 Dorothy Roberts:
Well, and making it even harder than for the parents to regain custody of their children from foster care.
00:28:28 Daniel Hatcher:
Oh, absolutely. The child support pursued against who are often impoverished parents are pulled into the foster care system. It’s devastating to their effort to try to reunify with their families. It’s focused on revenue and efficiency, right, running like a factory, and the resources for this factory are pulling in the children and families and process and then going through mechanism after mechanism after mechanism, right, all linked towards extracting revenue from them, rather than serving their best interests, and they’re running like a business and causing immense, immense harm. You know, whether it’s an actual for-profit company that’s doing it or the government agency running, like, a for-profit company are joined together. It’s all causing harm.
00:29:25 Dorothy Roberts:
Another way the system harms children is to make it harder, not easier, for families to get the support they need. Here’s what Kelley Fong, the sociologist we heard from in Episode 1, had to say about the system’s damaging design. So, in your research, I think it shows not only that caseworkers don’t have the right tools to help, but their roles can actually deter parents from seeking help. So, can you explain how that works, how that happens?
00:30:02 Kelley Fong:
Yes. So, I think sometimes there’s this myth that those of us who criticize the system don’t care about child safety, child wellbeing, and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. You know, I got into this work because I care deeply about promoting child wellbeing.
And one of the things that we know, from decades of research that supports positive child development, that prevents child maltreatment, is the development of trusting relationships with systems and institutions, like schools, medical care facilities, social services, mental health services, community network, and so on. What’s ironic is that the system that supposedly is organizing around child safety actually can end up impeding the very relationships and connections that we know keep kids safe, we know promote kids’ wellbeing.
So, concerns about CPS reporting really drive parents from the very social service providers that we’ve tasked with supporting them. So, schools and doctors’ offices, social services, mental health. So, I spoke with mothers in both Rhode Island and Connecticut, who told me that they stayed away from, for instance, homeless shelters in Providence. Homeless shelters, it was well known, they had a policy of calling CPS if you left or were asked to leave and you didn’t necessarily have a place to go.
They talked about, you know, not necessarily wanting to go to psychiatric hospitals in times of need, because they worry that CPS could get involved. Substance use treatment, the same thing. In addition to sort of that kind of avoidance of important social services, they often felt they couldn’t be fully forthcoming with folks like teachers and doctors, who might have genuinely been asking questions or who might have genuinely been trying to help families, right, by seeing sort of what are some of the needs?
That we can connect you with resources or we can offer other kinds of support, but in these situations, where these folks are also required to notify CPS if they suspect any kind of abuse or neglect, those conversations, those disclosures become very risky, and one thing I want to emphasize is that it’s not that moms are shoving severe abuse under the ground, right? It’s not that they are trying to, you know, dip and dodge the authorities.
Instead, when these…maybe the reporters are all around, when ideas of abuse or neglect are very discretionary, when neglect can be quite easily confused with poverty and adversity, it makes sense. We can understand why these mothers would want to take a risk-averse approach, right? You know that you’re not abusing or neglecting your child, but you can’t be sure that others will see it the same way.
00:33:19 Dorothy Roberts:
So, you are afraid to engage for fear that you will be wrongly…right? Wrongly accused of child maltreatment. Yeah.
00:33:30 Kelley Fong:
Exactly, and one thing I would also say is that sometimes people say or respond to me, and they say, well, okay, if they’re not abusing or neglecting their child, then they shouldn’t be afraid, because CPS will just come out make that determination, and it won’t be a problem. So, however, first of all, it’s discretionary on CPS’ side, as well, so you can’t necessarily guarantee that CPS will come out and see things the way that you see them.
Second, even the investigation itself, right, is incredibly traumatizing. So, even if CPS does come out and decide that this doesn’t rise to the level of what they would consider abuse or neglect, which happens in over 80% of cases, even in those cases, these investigations are incredibly traumatizing. As we discussed, they involve substantial surveillance of parents and their families and really leave families, leave mothers often feeling betrayed or feeling distrustful of the folks who have reported them or might report then.
So, I interviewed one mother who suspected that the domestic violence advocate at the hospital had reported it, right? Had called CPS when she went to the hospital and discussed her experiences of domestic violence, and what she learned from that experience was, you know, next time, I’m not going to go to the hospital, right? This advocate, this so-called person that, you know, I thought was on my side, in fact, is alerting the authorities to try and…or alerting the authorities and putting my children and my child custody at risk.
00:35:23 Dorothy Roberts:
That’s exactly what happened. When a black mother in Manhattan, named Angeline Montauban, called the Domestic Violence Hotline for help, when the hotline worker heard that Angeline had a 2-year-old son, she reported Angeline to CPS. That very afternoon, a case worker with the city’s Administration of Children’s Services, ACS, arrived at Angeline’s apartment. She explained that she was there to investigate a report of child maltreatment. Although there was no evidence, Angeline’s son had been harmed. ACS put him in foster care with strangers in the Bronx.
It took Angeline five years to retrieve her son from what she calls the labyrinth of family policing. In some states, it’s considered neglect to permit a child to witness violence inflicted on adults in the home or to reside in a home where violence occurs. So, when a mother calls 911 or Domestic Violence Hotline to confide that she is being abused, she may be confessing to child neglect. A 2020 survey of more than 2,000 survivors of intimate partner violence found that reporting requirements often deterred them from reaching out for support and reduced their ability to receive the support they sought.
00:36:55 Kelley Fong:
So, speaking of domestic violence, I interviewed one domestic violence advocate who works at courts who said, you know, I may not know everything about the situation, but I’m going to report no matter what, because maybe the child wasn’t there, but maybe they were there two weeks ago, right? Maybe the child said…maybe the child was asleep this time, but maybe last time, they weren’t, and so, these mandated reporters are not necessarily just assessing the situation in front of them, but imagining all sorts of things that could be happening and learning into that uncertainty to funnel all of these families to CPS.
00:37:37 Dorothy Roberts:
Mandated reporters. By federal law, every state must identify people who work in professions that put them in contact with children, such as teachers, healthcare providers, social services staff, and daycare workers and require them, by law, to report suspected child abuse and neglect to government authorities. At first blush, mandated child abuse reporting may seem to be beneficial, if not imperative. Shouldn’t the government ensure that someone is assigned to notice when children are at risk of harm?
00:38:17 Kathleen Creamer:
What I see in my practice every day is the chilling effects that mandated reporting have on folks asking for help.
00:38:25 Dorothy Roberts:
That’s Kathleen Creamer, the Managing Attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia we heard from in episode one.
00:38:37.0 Kathleen Creamer:
So, in Pennsylvania, we, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, dramatically expanded our mandated reporting laws, and we created a large number of professionals who must call in their suspicions of abuse or neglect, and those folks who choose not to call in are subject to criminal penalties, right? So, there are dire penalties for not calling in your suspicions of abuse or neglect.
And so, what we saw in the wake of those amendments to our child protective services law was a flood of calls to the hotline with families being investigated for all sorts of things that turned out to be completely false, right? So, just to give you an example, teachers are mandated reporters in Pennsylvania, and research in the media found that 24 out of 25 calls that teachers called in turned out to be false, right? And so, we’re inviting people to call based on their suspicions, based on their gut.
And we’re ignoring the real cost to families of the increase in the investigations that they have to experience and the kind of what you call benevolent terror in their lives, that sense of omnipresent threat in their lives. That any misstep will result in a child welfare investigation. Those child welfare investigations, in and of themselves, can be profoundly terrifying ad traumatizing to children and the parents, and also, because, you know, we have a system that errs in all sorts of directions, they can spiral very easily into unnecessary family separation.
So, in addition to that, in addition to the problem of flooding hotlines and causing that kind of terror to families, it’s really important that we reckon with the way that mandated reporting makes people afraid to ask for help and drives them underground. So, in the State of Pennsylvania, I am one of the only professionals that works in a family-serving profession that is not a mandated reporter.
As an attorney, my clients have a right to attorney-client privilege, and they can come to me, and they can tell me that they’re in crisis, and instead of calling a hotline, what I will do is get them some help, right? And we have a holistic team with social workers on staff and peer advocates on staff, and so, if someone’s in crisis, they can absolutely come to me, and I will help them. I will not call the child welfare agency on them. That is true nowhere else in the State of Pennsylvania.
My lawyer’s office is the only safe place. Our other lawyers’ offices, as well, are the only safe places in the State of Pennsylvania for a mother in crisis to go and ask for help without fear of being reported to a child welfare hotline, and so, what we see in our practice every day is mothers being driven underground, mothers who are experiencing crises in their families, who are afraid to ask for help, who are disincentivized from acting for help, and that’s not good for kids, right?
00:41:55 Dorothy Roberts:
Enlisting doctors, teachers, and service providers in CPS surveillance weakens their capacity to improve children’s welfare. This is another way that family policing is designed to harm, not protect, children. Here’s sociologist Kelley Fong again:
00:42:15 Kelley Fong:
You know, if we care about child wellbeing, we want children and families to sort of build these trusting and supportive relationships, and that’s just not possible when these systems that they’re supposed to be building relationships with are turning them into authorities that can take their kids.
00:42:34 Dorothy Roberts:
In Episode 3: The Carceral Web, I’ll explore another key aspect of the child welfare system’s oppressive design, its deep entanglements with the criminal legal system. We’ll see not only how child protection caseworkers act like police and collaborate with police, but also how the child welfare system criminalizes black children.