In this Episode:
Professor Dorothy Roberts opens the first episode of Torn Apart: Abolishing Family Policing and Reimagining Child Welfare with a first-hand account from a young Black mother, Vanessa Peoples, who became the subject of a government child welfare investigation when a stranger accused Peoples of neglecting her young son who had wandered away from her briefly in a park. In this episode, Professor Roberts brings the listeners through the horrors that the child welfare system inflicts on families by invading homes, targeting low-income families, and threatening to separate parents and children. With the help of guest experts, Professor Roberts argues that the family policing system is designed to terrorize low-income, majority Black families.
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.
- Fostering tragedy: Experts say system designed to protect children can break up families
- One in Ten Black Children in America Are Separated From Their Parents by the Child-Welfare System. A New Book Argues That’s No Accident
- Benevolent Terror: Dorothy E. Roberts on Reimagining the Child Welfare System
00:00:02 Vanessa Peoples:
When I tell this story, it’s like reliving a nightmare all over again. It’s like, you can’t even go to the park and visit with family, you know? We were at the park that day, because some family members had moved to a completely different state, and they came back, and we were all gathered around at the park. And you know, the kids were playing, the adults were talking, and you know, my cousin was leaving to go to work, and my now-middle son, because I have three kids, followed my cousin.
And there was this Hispanic lady that picked my son up, and I don’t see how she didn’t see that my son looks just like me. And he’s telling her, you know, give me back to my mom, give me back to my mom.
00:01:07 Professor 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. Most people believe the child welfare system’s purpose is to protect children from abuse.
In Torn Apart, I draw on my two decades of research, policy engagement, and activism to reveal that the child welfare system is better understood as a family-policing system. It’s designed to accuse, investigate, regulate, and disrupt the most marginalized families, especially those that are impoverished, black, and indigenous. It does this by threatening them with one of the most terrifying weapons the government can wield, the power to take away your children.
This podcast will explain why efforts to fix this destructive system are doomed to fail, and why we must abolish it, as we reimagine how to support families and keep children safe. Torn Apart is divided into four episodes, based on the four parts of my book, Terror, Design, The Carceral Web, and Abolition. Episode one, Terror, starts with the story of Vanessa Peoples, whose voice you heard at the beginning of the episode.
On a summer day in 2017, a black family was enjoying a picnic in a park in Aurora, Colorado. Among the dozen or so relatives who gathered there was Vanessa, a 25-year-old nursing student, and her two sons I’ll call Malik and Talib, ages two and four. Vanessa suffered from asthma and was prone to seizures, and her illnesses had turned her naturally lanky frame rail-thin. She was undergoing testing for leukemia, which involved rounds of bloodwork.
Vanessa, the boys, and Vanessa’s husband lived with Vanessa’s mother, Patricia Russell, in a modest, single-story brick house, on a tree-lined street on Delmar Parkway in northwest Aurora. As Vanessa was saying, when her toddler, Malik, traipsed after her cousin, a woman who happened to be passing by snatched him up. Here’s Vanessa.
00:03:58 Vanessa Peoples:
I mean, I’m literally right there, where I can see everything. He didn’t wander off into the street. He didn’t, you know, just take off, and was gone for x amount of time before I even noticed that he was gone. I didn’t know that she was on the phone with the police neither, you know? I see her holding my son, and she’s got the phone up to her ear, and I’m like, okay, are you going to give me my child? You know, why are you holding my child?
And so, an officer shows up, and instead of him questioning her, he’s questioning me. Okay, that’s confusing to me. She’s the one that called you. You’re asking me for all my information, do I have an ID, is this my child, am I sure? Why would I lie about that being my child? Where were you? How come you let him run off? To me, I felt like I was being targeted at that moment. And a lot of people say, well, you shouldn’t feel that way. I do, because I feel like I was being targeted for a young mother of color.
I’m trying to explain my side of the story, and you don’t want to hear what I have to say, but you just let her walk off. So, my mom comes, and he’s just like, well, I’m giving her a ticket for child abuse. A ticket for child…a what? I didn’t abuse my child. There’s no marks on my child. I didn’t let my son run out in the street. He didn’t wander off and I’m calling you guys like, well, my son took off at the park, and now I can’t find him. He was right there. I could clearly see him.
00:05:40 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
You heard right. The police officer gave Vanessa a ticket for child abuse because her son left her side for about a minute, something every parent has experienced. That was the beginning of Vanessa’s nightmare. A few weeks later, on the morning of July 13, 2017, Vanessa had just given Malik and Talib their baths, and was cleaning up in the basement. She didn’t hear when a white caseworker from the Adams County Social Services Department, accompanied by a black female trainee, unexpectedly knocked on the front door.
You see, when the police officer cited Vanessa for child abuse at the family picnic, she became the subject of a government child welfare investigation. Local child protection offices routinely dispatch staff to make surprise visits to the homes of children who come to their attention through anonymous calls to the Child Abuse Hotline, allegations made by mandated reporters such as teachers, doctors, and daycare workers, or charges brought by police officers.
The caseworker noticed Malik, still undressed, peering out an open first-floor window. When no one came to the door, she called the Aurora Police Department for assistance. Two male officers arrived first, soon followed by a female officer. You can see and hear their interactions on the police officers’ body-cam footage. The caseworker pointed to Malik, who was still standing at the window, and says to the officer, my guess is he’s fairly neglected.
When they discovered the front door unlocked, the officers enter the house, without a warrant or permission. Vanessa picks up her story from there.
00:07:39 Vanessa Peoples:
So, I didn’t hear the police or anyone knocking at the door because I’m downstairs. So, the next thing I know, I give it about three more minutes, and I hear, Aurora PD. How did y’all get in my house? So, I grab my phone, and I start walking up towards the stairs. There’s the sergeant, and there’s two other officers. The sergeant took the safety off of her gun, and pointed it directly at my head, so, you guys don’t think at that moment I wasn’t scared?
All she had to do was pull that trigger, and that was it. That was it. I wouldn’t be here still till today to tell my story. So, I’m talking to the social worker, well, at least trying to, and she’s like, well, your kids are hanging out the window, and this, this, and that. And I’m telling her…she’s like, I’m here to help you. This, I don’t understand. How are you here to help me, and you’re yelling at me, for one? Don’t do that. Two, the police came in here and tried to take over, like, it was just them.
They didn’t have a search warrant, so y’all searching my whole…I mean, the whole house. So, when the officer turns around and tells me, well, to me it just seems like you’re an unfit mother, that went…Lord Jesus, let me tell you, that’s when y’all heard me going left on the body-cam, because that’s one thing you’re not going to tell me. I’m not an unfit mother. I’m not well, I’m clearly saying, but then you guys are going to sit up here and tell me in so many words that I can’t take care of my kids, you need to find a way to take care of your kids.
I am taking care of my kids. My kids are well taken care of, and I told the social worker, is there any marks on my child? No. Is there any marks on this child? So, why are y’all here? Why are you in my house? I couldn’t get an answer. I could never get an answer.
00:09:51 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
Despite Vanessa’s protest, none of the state agents budged. They seemed to assume they had complete authority to stay in the home uninvited, to interrogate Vanessa, and to inspect every corner of the house, without ever suggesting Vanessa had any right to object, to remain silent, or to obtain a lawyer. No one cared what Vanessa thought would help her provide for her sons, nor did they consider why she didn’t find the imposing squad of armed officers supportive.
Vanessa’s mother Patricia arrived, and took the boys to their bedroom to get them dressed. A male officer followed close behind them, and insisted that Patricia wasn’t allowed to be in the room alone with her grandsons. When Patricia tried to close the bedroom door, she and the officer waged a tug-of-war until he pushed the door open and entered the room. That’s when all hell broke loose.
00:10:55 Vanessa Peoples:
I tried to walk and check on my mother, because for one, my mom’s just as small as I am, and she’s got my kids. I want to know what’s going on. If I’m hearing an officer threaten to take my mom to jail, for what? For what reason do you have to take her to jail, when she’s just trying to come and help her daughter and her grandchildren? So, like I said before, you see how small I am. That officer took his hand, his hand, and put it around my neck, like I was an animal, and threw me down to the floor. You see what I’m saying?
He threw me down to the floor, put his knee in my back, called his partners, and they tied me, hog-tied me like I was an animal, like, upside-down pig. You know what I’m saying? I’m telling them that there’s something wrong with my arm. I was in a lot of pain. They didn’t want to hear me. They still continued to sit on me and keep their knee in my back. They did not care. They humiliated me in front of the whole neighborhood. They picked me up, and they carried me outside like I was an animal. They did not care.
00:12:13 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
Three officers pinned down Vanessa and restrained her with what’s called hobbles, a set of hand and ankle cuffs that shackled her wrists behind her back, and chained them to her shackled legs. That pain Vanessa felt? The officers dislocated her shoulder when they yanked her arms behind her back. Then, they carted her to a police car with her upside-down body contorted by the hobbles. She spent 30 minutes in excruciating pain until paramedics arrived to take her to the hospital, still in police custody.
On the advice of her public defender, Vanessa took a deal from the prosecutor. She pled guilty to reckless endangerment of a child to avoid prison, and was sentenced to one year probation. Before the incident at the park, Vanessa had never been in trouble with the law. Now, her name was in the state child abuse registry. The plea deal Vanessa entered didn’t end her ordeal. Vanessa may have resolved her criminal case, but now she was ensnared in another form of government oversight, the child welfare system.
Vanessa’s parenting remained under scrutiny by child welfare authorities, and her record as a child abuser had devastating repercussions. Vanessa trained to be a nurse. Now, she can’t get a job in the nursing profession. She hasn’t been able to move out of her mom’s house because landlords won’t rent to her.
00:13:52 Vanessa Peoples:
It’s gotten so bad that it hasn’t only traumatized me. Every time my children see the police, and they’re with me, they will, even my baby boy doesn’t even know what’s going on, but if he see his brother’s clutching onto me, they’re like, Mom, we don’t want them to take you again. Like, it’s crazy, because I can’t even walk through the store. If they see an officer, I’m walking through the store like this, because my kids are clutching onto me.
They’re like, Mom, you know, we’re afraid, because we don’t know if they’re going to take you again. My son has bad nightmares, the one that actually, they say took off from me. I have to watch my son wake up in the middle of the night and just cry. He’s like, Mom, why? So, imagine how I feel, going through that. My son actually had to leave school last year because they had an assembly, and the police came, and he couldn’t handle it.
The school social worker had to call me and say, hey, could you come get your son? You know, I don’t want to ask what happened, you know, I don’t want to get too personal, but maybe one day you could tell me. And I told her, I said, that’s why my son is terrified of the police. As far as me, I haven’t been straight since then. I can’t think straight. I feel like I have to watch my back 24/7. You know, I feel like anything I do now is not right, considering, you know, how they made it seem, because it’s like, you got a child abuse charge.
So, when you go to apply for a job…I’ve had people tell me at these housing places, we can’t have a child abuser living in our property. I feel like this is a nightmare that I cannot wake up from. I can’t provide for my children. You know, I’m there to support my children. I would love to get a job. I would love to have my own place. I would love to be able to live in society like everyone else, but you can’t once you get that certain label put on you. So, as far as that goes, I’m not the same.
00:16:21 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
What happened to Vanessa and her children exemplifies the terror the child welfare system routinely inflicts on families. That’s why I call it a family-policing system. Every year, government agents invade the homes of thousands of families, without a warrant or any other kind of judicial authorization, in the name of protecting the children who live there. In 2019 alone, more than three million children were involved in an investigation by Child Protective Services, or CPS.
Almost all the families subjected to investigation have low incomes, or are living in poverty, and could use help meeting their material needs, but the government agents who investigate them don’t offer the resources struggling families need. Instead, they brandish a terrifying weapon against them, the threat of taking their children away. Every year, state child protection agencies make good on their threat, and remove about 400,000 children from their homes.
Officially, these agencies seize about 200,000 children annually, and it’s estimated that they remove the same number of children through informal, coerced arrangements that never make it into official statistics. Parents accused of child maltreatment are intensively monitored by child welfare agencies and compelled to follow their commands.
In order to keep their children at home, or to be reunited with those who are seized, parents are typically required to perform a list of tasks, such as attending parent-training classes, substance-abuse treatment, and psychological counseling, on top of scheduled visits with their children, who may be spread among multiple placements, all while finding and maintaining adequate employment and housing to support their families.
Failure to comply with every order risks a judge permanently severing their legal ties to their children.
Termination of parental rights is known as the death penalty of the family-policing system. It’s the ultimate punishment the family court can impose, and the United States extinguishes the legal rights of more parents than any other nation on Earth.
00:18:54 Kathleen Creamer:
I’m Kathleen Creamer, I’m the managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services.
00:19:00 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
Okay. Most people think that the child welfare system protects children and helps families to take better care of them. Can you describe your work as a family defender, and why you think families would need defense against a so-called child welfare system?
00:19:21 Kathleen Creamer:
So, I manage a family defense office where we combine parent attorneys with holistic supports we call interdisciplinary legal supports, like social workers, peer advocates, who are people who survived the system themselves and are now helping other parents, and also paralegals. And really, we provide a wrap-around set of services to parents who are trying to navigate the system.
Although the system is designed to support child welfare and child safety, in fact, it’s a system that we see actually pits parents against their children, and really makes it difficult for parents to provide that safety and stability for their children. Very often, we see cases where parents are accused of neglect, but what they’re actually suffering from is poverty, and the solution to that, all too often, is family separation. Family separation is bad for parents.
Certainly, no parent wants to experience, but it’s also terrifying and traumatizing to children. And so, what we know about the impact of family separation on children is that it is devastating and life-altering, and we see the impact of that with children who enter and survive the child welfare system. On almost every measure, children who go through the child welfare system, they’re far worse than children who are kept at home with their own families. And so, what we see every day in our practice is the reality of that.
So many of our clients who are parents navigating the child welfare system are folks who survived the system themselves as children, and we see an intergenerational pattern that really comes from folks not having their needs met by the child welfare system. When they really need poverty services, they’re met with family separation, and that really creates an intergenerational cycle of trauma and harm that does not support children, and it actually very affirmatively undermines the well-being of children.
00:21:44 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
Inadequacy of income, more than any other factor, constitutes the reason that children are removed. That’s what social work scholar Duncan Lindsey concluded in his 1994 classic, The Welfare of Children. That statement holds true today. Most of the children taken by CPS from their parents are alleged to have been neglected. Only 17 percent of children in foster care were removed because their parents were accused of physically or sexually abusing them. The state punishes families because they are poor, not because they are dangerous.
The family-policing system justifies its blatant targeting of poor and low-income families by equating poverty with child neglect. A 2020 50-state survey of neglect statutes found that most are very open-ended, allowing child protective investigators and their supervisors to declare a child neglected based on their own unfounded opinions as to what is proper or necessary care. Other states define child neglect as the failure to provide adequate nurturance, food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, and education, or a similar list of material resources.
Very rarely do parents deliberately withhold needed resources from their children. Typically, they simply can’t afford them. Here’s Kathleen Creamer again.
00:23:20 Kathleen Creamer:
So, just to give you an example, in Pennsylvania, the definition of neglect is a child receiving a lack of proper parental care or control. And that lack of proper care can and does include failure to provide necessities of life, like shelter, clothing, food. And so, what we see all the time is families who are struggling with all sorts of issues, but that really, when you can address their poverty concerns, you can help them stabilize, and they can get what they need as a family.
If you look at neglect statutes across the country, we have written in family poverty into those statutes. And so, in Pennsylvania, like, around ten percent of families, if you look at the reason for separation, what is the reason for removal, inadequate housing, right? Inadequate housing is poverty, and yet, it is also a more common reason for removal in the state of Pennsylvania than physical or sexual abuse.
00:24:27 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
That’s just shocking. So, what happens, then, when a family is charged with neglect because of poverty, because they’re houseless? How does the system then respond to it?
00:24:40 Kathleen Creamer:
I want to acknowledge that there are good people in the system who really do want to provide families with support, and really want to help, and don’t want to double down on the harm that families are experiencing. But I also want to acknowledge that structurally, those good folks are not given the tools that they need to meet the needs of families. And so, if a family is struggling with homelessness, and that is the reason for family separation, the reality is, DHS workers don’t have housing to offer, right?
They can provide some support. They can connect families to the shelter system. They do have a program where they, in Philadelphia we have a nice program where they will support a parent with first and last month’s rent, and things like that. But they can’t immediately, safely house families together on a day when a family is homeless and in crisis. And so, what that means is, on a day that a family’s homeless and in crisis, family separation is really the option, unless we can find some other safe place for the family to sleep tonight.
We do see those cases spiral. And then, we also see cases where the family is dealing with things like substance-use disorder, or mental health struggles, and yet, it becomes impossible for families to address those problems when they are dealing with the kind of chaos and stress of daily poverty. Like, it is impossible for a mother to get substance-use treatment when she is homeless. There is no way for her to stabilize in that treatment when she is homeless.
And so, what we see in addition to poverty itself driving family separation, we also see poverty making it impossible for folks to address the other challenges that families have in their lives that might lead to separation. And again, unfortunately, the child welfare system isn’t designed to provide that material support that could help parents navigate these challenges. The child welfare system is a system that provides what we call services. It is not a system that provides material support.
What my clients need, by and large, is material support, and what they get are services. And when I say services, what I mean is more time with your child welfare worker. That’s one service that gets offered. Another service that gets offered is a parenting class, an anger-management class, right? My clients are offered all sorts of services, when what they really need is concrete material support to stabilize their families.
00:27:22 Female Speaker:
A new report out today indicates that a Trump administration policy to separate migrant families at the border is still taking a toll, years after it was officially ended. The group Physicians for Human Rights has found many of the parents and children who were split up continue to experience intense psychological and emotional trauma. Many are showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Hundreds of children have yet to be reunited with their families, all while the government navigates lawsuits around this issue, and growing pressure around other border and immigration conflicts.
00:28:01 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
President Trump’s cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the Mexican border rightly drew national condemnation. Child welfare experts and advocates pointed out the long-lasting trauma it caused children, and called it a human rights violation. Yet hardly anyone connected it to the far more widespread family separation that takes place every day in black neighborhoods. Black families are disproportionately subjected to every aspect of this government intrusion.
More than one in ten black children in America will be forcibly separated from their parents and placed in foster care by the time they reach age 18. Native communities experience similarly high rates of family separation. Black and indigenous children are also more than twice as likely as white children to experience the termination of both parents’ rights. Many studies establish that racist beliefs about black families subject them to greater suspicion and intervention than white families.
For example, doctors are more likely to evaluate for, diagnose, and report child abuse in black infants and toddlers than white children who arrive at the hospital with similar serious injuries. They’re also more likely to test and report black women for being pregnant and using drugs. Studies also confirm that caseworkers make racially-biased decisions about their investigations of reported child abuse and neglect. In an especially intriguing 2012 study, researchers used an experimental method to test the racialized perceptions of hundreds of child welfare workers across Minnesota.
The caseworkers were given an online exercise involving vignettes that described a messy home environment, accompanied with photos of disheveled bedrooms that randomly varied whether a baby sitting by itself on a bed was black or white. When the researchers tabulated the results of the online exercise, they discovered that the caseworkers were significantly more likely to agree that the vignette accompanied by a photo with a black baby depicted a situation that met the state’s definition of neglect.
These findings reinforced what researchers have discovered in two prior studies published in 2008 and 2011, using statewide data from Texas. The studies found that even after controlling for poverty and other risk factors, black children were more likely than white children to have substantiated cases and to be removed from their homes. Perhaps the most startling statistic has to do with investigations. A 2021 study found that most black children in America, 53 percent, will undergo a child welfare investigation before their 18th birthday.
This surveillance by CPS caseworkers constitutes the stop-and-frisk of black families. As we saw in Vanessa’s story, investigations can be terrorizing experiences.
00:31:54 Kelley Fong:
So, I did fieldwork in two area offices of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, and so, for a couple months in each of these offices, I essentially shadowed investigators, CPS investigators, full time. So, I went along with them on, you know, dozens and dozens of family visits, at home, at hospitals, wherever these visits occurred, and just observed them in their daily work, you know, went to different meetings and such, worked alongside them in a cubicle. I did my own sort of field notes and fieldwork while they were making their own phone calls as well.
00:32:30 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
That’s UC Irvine sociologist Kelley Fong, who has done extensive research into the nature and impact of CPS investigations.
00:32:41 Kelley Fong:
Child Protective Service investigations are incredibly intrusive. This is an agent from the state knocking on your door, oftentimes unexpected. So, you haven’t had a chance to organize the home in the way that you might want to for a guest. So, they’re coming in, they’re asking to speak with you, often for an hour or two, at first. They are in your private, personal space, observing, writing down everything they observe. Everything they write down will go into the state database, to be held sometimes indefinitely. They are asking you all sorts of really personal questions about all manner of topics.
Really, nothing is off-limits. So, I like to say, once they get a report and start an investigation, it’s like the state has a blank check to ask about whatever they want. So, the report could have been about your homelessness, or maybe your child not showing up to school, but they’re not going to just limit their questions to those topics. They’re going to ask about your, how you discipline your kids, about domestic violence, about any substance-use treatment that you may be participating in, about family conflicts and relationships.
I saw CPS investigators really delve into a lot of incredibly personal and traumatic experiences, asking parents about their own childhood experiences of trauma, abuse, and neglect, asking about whether their partners were unfaithful to them, you know, asking about their criminal/legal system involvement, all sorts of questions about their personal life. Then they’ll talk to the children, oftentimes separate from the parent. They’ll request to speak with children separate from the parent. And again, there’s nothing that’s off-limits. They can ask the children whatever they like.
In some cases, they may ask children to, you know, lift clothing to inspect their bodies. They’ll ask to, in my observations, they would ask to, you know, walk around the home, especially to tour children’s bedrooms, again, taking notes on what it is they see. They may comment or write down what they observe about the conditions of the home. So, often, investigators would write down things that they observed around homes being what they’d call unkempt, things that, you know, whether there was food on the floor, or other sort of things that they viewed as out of place, which, again, they have just shown up without any kind of notice.
Okay, so, they’ll talk to parents, they’ll talk to kids. They will walk around the home, but their surveillance is also what I think of as inter-institutional. So, it is not just limited to the CPS investigator and the family. They’re also asking to speak with all sorts of institutions that families may be connected with. So, if your child is in daycare or school, they’re going to ask to contact your daycare or school. They’re going to send your daycare or school a form to fill out, oftentimes, or talk to them about any concerns that they may have about you and your family.
They’ll ask to talk to your children’s pediatrician, ostensibly to make sure that they’re up to date with visits and other medical care, but you know, well, okay, we’ll leave it at that. So, they’ll ask to talk to your children’s pediatrician, dentist, any treatment providers that you have. They will get the names and dates of birth of everyone in the household to run criminal background checks, Child Protective Services checks, and all of this information stays in the state’s database, again, potentially indefinitely, to impact any future contact that you may have, or your children even may have, with the child protection agency in the coming years.
00:36:55 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
Most investigations end in finding insufficient evidence of child maltreatment to open a case. So, those families are subjected to traumatizing intrusion for no reason, and with no help for the struggles they may be going through. But in far too many cases, the outcome is even worse. The government forcibly takes the children away. I spoke with Anna Arons, an assistant professor in NYU’s Family Defense Clinic, about her prior experience as an attorney.
00:37:42 Anna Arons:
I was working as a family defense attorney at Neighborhood Defender Services Harlem, so representing parents who live in Upper Manhattan, where the government was trying to remove their children or impinge on their rights in whatever way. And I honestly don’t know how I could have done that job for, you know, the four years I did it for, and not leave with the impression that this system needed to disappear in some sense.
I think, you know, there are, as far as clients’ lives and clients’ stories, so many examples I could give that brought me to that conclusion. But it’s just this overarching feeling of, this is a system that’s not actually helping families. It’s destroying them, and it’s a system that is making life harder instead of easier, and hurting children instead of saving them, or whatever, you know, ACS would like for you to believe that they’re doing. And there are just so many kind of brutalities that become mundane.
So, you know, I was just speaking to people yesterday who are not familiar with the system of just the commonplace experiences I had in family court. I was sitting with a client who was two days’ postpartum, having just given birth to her child, sitting on a hard, wooden bench in court all day, waiting to see if a judge would remove her infant from her care, and having the judge do the removal out of the judge’s own presence, sending everyone out in the hallway in order to do it, so they don’t even have to witness what they’re doing.
And so, you know, that’s one example, but just that level of cruelty, I think it’s impossible to witness and not think, this is not a system that’s helping anyone. This is a system that’s inflicting violence and subjugating people on a daily basis.
00:39:18 Professor Dorothy Roberts:
In episode two, Design, I’ll dig deeper into the history and operation of the family-policing system to figure out why a system that says it protects children and supports families inflicts so much harm on them.