Torn Apart

Torn Apart: The Carceral Web


November 26, 2023

With Guests:

  • Sixto Cancel is a nationally recognized leader driving systems change in child welfare, working across tech, service delivery, research and data, and state and federal policy to improve outcomes for youth and families. He spent most of his childhood in foster, which informed his activism for child welfare. In 2017 Sixto founded Think Of Us, a nonprofit organization that uses technology and research centering people who have experienced foster care to transform the child welfare system’s fundamental architecture. He currently serves as the CEO, where he advises state and government officials to improve child welfare policies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he led a campaign that disbursed $400M in Federal pandemic relief funds to former foster youth.
  • Joyce McMillan is the founder and Executive Director of Just Making A Change For Families, an organization in New York City that works to abolish the child welfare system and to strengthen the systems of supports that keep families and communities together. Joyce’s mission is to remove systemic barriers in communities of color by bringing awareness to the racial disparities in systems where people of color are disproportionately affected. Her ultimate goal is to abolish systems of harm–especially the family policing system (or the so-called “child welfare system”)–while creating concrete community resources. Joyce leads a statewide coalition of impacted parents and young people, advocates, attorneys, social workers, and academics collaborating to effect systemic change in the family policing system. Joyce also currently serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.
  • Erin Miles Cloud is a cofounder and codirector of Movement for Family Power in New York City. Cloud worked at the Bronx defenders, representing families and working with advocates, for nearly a decade.
  • Lisa Sangoi is a cofounder and codirector of Movement for Family Power in New York City. Sangoi has previously worked at the NYU Law Family Defense Clinic, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Women Prison Association Incarcerated Mothers Law Project, and Brooklyn Defender Services Family Defense Practice.

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In this Episode:

In this episode,Torn Apart reveals the child welfare system’s deep entanglements with the criminal legal system.  It exposes how state child protection caseworkers collaborate with police and use a carceral logic to surveil families. It investigates how the system treats Black children like criminals, resulting in Black children being more vulnerable to arrest, incarceration, and early death. Foster care is traumatic for both children and parents, and often leaves lasting damage on children.  In this episode, Torn Apart turns to examining what it will take to end family policing.

Meet Dorothy Roberts

Dorothy Roberts is a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Founding Director of its Program on Race, Science & Society.  An internationally acclaimed scholar, public intellectual, and social justice activist, she is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and National Academy of Medicine.  She is the author of the award-winning Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty ; Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; and Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century , 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 , culminates more than two decades of investigating family policing, calling for a radically reimagined way to support children and families

Background Reading


00:00:00 Sixto Cancel: 

One of the most vivid memories I have as a child is when I was 7-years-old and my bio mother had walked me down to the neighbor’s apartment, and she had me and my siblings just hiding in the cabinets. And it was this moment where, you know, outside you saw police cars, you saw the social worker. And this wasn’t the first time I was in foster care but I had lived with her for only about a year when it was, you know, the point had came that it was time for me to go back into foster care.

00:00:42 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 three, The Carceral Web, I explore the child welfare system’s deep entanglements with the criminal legal system. Government child protection agents act like police, collaborate with police, and impose a carceral logic that surveils and punishes the same Black and other marginalized communities as police do. 

I begin this episode by discussing with a leading child welfare activist who experienced foster care himself, how the foster system is structured to abuse and criminalize Black children, often pushing them into juvenile detention and prison.

Sixto Cancel spent most of his childhood in foster care and is now using that experience to inform his activism to end the harms that the foster system inflicts on children and their families. In 2017 Sixto founded Think Of Us, a nonprofit organization that uses technology and research centering people who have experienced foster care to transform the child welfare system’s fundamental architecture.

Sixto Cancel | Speaker | TED
Sixto Cancel, the founder and CEO of Think of Us, during his TED talk (via TED).

00:02:28 Sixto Cancel:

It’s funny that I just read that paperwork not too long ago and when I looked at that paperwork it said this was a—my bio mom had placed me voluntarily in the foster care system at the age of 7, but as we know that day the police cars were lined up and down the block and that even when I read the paperwork, the paperwork says, you know, she refused to sign the voluntary agreement for a while, we finally got her to sign the voluntary agreement, and so, how much consent was there in this moment of, you know, police being there and the choice being like, sign the voluntary agreement or you’re going to jail, right?

And so, I was put back in the system after that until I was about 9 and then I was adopted, and that adoption was full of racism, very abusive, and I was this tall, Black-looking kid against this short little white-looking woman, and even though she was Puerto Rican people looked at that dynamic and they made assumptions, right? And so, at 13 is when, you know, I started to push back and make reports to the hotline about the abuse I was going through. But people really didn’t believe me.

00:03:37 Dorothy Roberts:

The trauma that children experience from being torn from their parents, siblings, and friends is compounded by conditions in foster care that continue to disrupt every aspect of their lives. Foster care is a toxic state intervention that inflicts immediate and long-lasting damage on children, producing adverse outcomes for their health, education, income, housing, and relationships.

Black children trapped in foster care are also more vulnerable to arrests, detention and incarceration, and early death.

Although some children are placed in caring homes, foster caretakers typically don’t develop strong bonds with the children they are paid to watch. One of the most egregious yet common ordeals imposed on foster children is moving them to multiple placements while in the State’s care. In 2019 sixty percent of children stayed in foster care for longer than 12 months with the odds of moving increasing with time. The Tampa Bay Times reported that a child in Hillsborough County, Florida, moved more than 50 times in 2016, tossed between foster families, group homes, and the Salvation Army. That year another Hillsborough child stayed in over 43 different locations with more than half lasting only two days or less. In addition to causing extreme psychological stress, moving children among multiple placements harms their physical health and educational attainment.

The very same conditions that caseworkers deem too risky for children when present in their own homes are often overlooked when they exist in foster placements. Many studies conducted since the 1980s have shown that children are much more likely to be maltreated in foster care than in their homes. Overall, children in foster care are 42 percent more likely to die than children who aren’t in foster care, sometimes by their own hands. Children in foster care are four times more likely to try to kill themselves than children in the general population.

Foster care also has long-lasting effects on those who survive it. Young adults who experience foster care, they’re poorly in every measure of wellbeing, from health to education, employment, housing, and incarceration. A 2014 nationwide study found that former foster youth had a significantly higher risk of poor health outcomes such as ADHD, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic problems compared to both economically secure and economically insecure adults in the general population.

People who spent time in foster care have PTSD at almost twice the rate of US war veterans. Black and LGBTQ teens face especially bad treatment in State custody. They are more likely to be housed in congregate settings than their white or straight peers because child welfare agencies find it harder to locate foster homes for them. Queer youth commonly report horrendous accounts of daily harassment inflicted by bullies, abuse that is ignored or encouraged by agency staff, or inflicted by staff members themselves.

“The very same conditions that caseworkers deem too risky for children when present in their own homes are often overlooked when they exist in foster placements. Many studies conducted since the 1980s have shown that children are much more likely to be maltreated in foster care than in their homes. Overall, children in foster care are 42 percent more likely to die than children who aren’t in foster care, sometimes by their own hands. Children in foster care are four times more likely to try to kill themselves than children in the general population.”

Dorothy Roberts

00:07:35 Male Speaker:

Ma’Khia Bryant has been positively identified as the 16-year-old killed in this incident and law enforcement has been in contact with her family. 

00:07:45 Dorothy Roberts:

A family photo of Ma’Khia Bryant (Paula Bryant via NBC)

In April 2021 a Columbus, Ohio, police officer fired four shots at 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, killing her. To many people the police body camera footage showing Ma’Khia charging at a woman with a steak knife seemed to justify the shooting, but how did a teenage girl end up in a situation where she felt so threatened that she wielded a knife to protect herself? 

In 2018 a judge ruled that Ma’Khia and her three younger siblings were neglected by their mother, Paula Bryant, and the children went to live with their paternal grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, in her two-bedroom apartment for a little over a year. When the landlord discovered that the children had moved in, however, the family was evicted. Rather than help find housing that could keep Hammonds and her grandchildren together, Franklin County Children Services put the four children in foster care.

Ma’Khia and her sister, Ja’Niah, were bounced between six different foster and group homes in two years, at first split apart but later reunited at the foster home of Angela Moore on Valentine’s Day, two months before Ma’Khia was killed there. On the day of the shooting Ma’Khia and Ja’Niah got into an altercation with two women who had previously lived at the house and had come over while Moore was at work. Their grandmother raced to the house when Ja’Niah called her for help. Hammonds says Ma’Khia grabbed the steak knife after one of the women brandished a knife first.

00:09:32 Paula Bryant:

The system failed my daughter, the system failed other children, and there needs to be some reform to the system. And nine times out of ten these children, like my family and my children, are better off at home. It’s awful. The stress of everything is awful. You cannot pacify these children and make them forget about their family, you just can’t. 

00:10:02 Dorothy Roberts

The foster system throws many children into encounters with police officers and on a path to arrest, detention, and imprisonment. For Ma’Khia Bryant, foster care put her in a volatile situation that led to her death at the hands of police. There’s a thin line between treating Black children as innocent victims in need of protection, and treating them as delinquents in need of discipline. Here’s Sixto Cancel again.

A funeral service for Ma’Khia Bryant, held in Columbus, Ohio (Scott Olson/Getty Images via Vox).

00:10:34 Sixto Cancel

And in those moments, you know, she did things like brought me to the probation officer and tried to enroll me in probation, and I remember, you know, sitting there with the probation officer and he’s asking me all these questions. He asked me about this quiz, this assessment, and then he’s just like, you just don’t belong here. And if it wasn’t for his discretion, you know, I would have been placed on probation at that time. It really took me…

00:10:58 Dorothy Roberts:

So, would there…I don’t mean to interrupt but I just, what does probation mean? What did that mean? Was it a criminal, she was issuing criminal charges against you?

00:11:07 Sixto Cancel:

She was trying to say that my behavior was out of control so like, so many folks in the system, you know, foster parents start to learn the different systems and so, she was trying to say hey, he’s not following curfew. Hey, he’s doing these particular things. And so, the story of the narrative she was painting, she was trying to say that I needed some probation services. And so, as I was there the officer was looking at the fact that I was on the honor roll, the fact that I was involved in church, the fact that I was involved in this dance and acting musical theatre group, and that’s when he realized like, this just wasn’t adding up, and he definitely was like, no, this is not going to happen.

If that probation officer would have put me on probation, the reality is, is that my life would have been going in a very different direction. I did not want to be in that home, there were times where the abuse was unbearable, and so, I could just see how a narrative would have been created around how I was just uncontrollable. There were times where my adopted mother would go ahead and call the police and make up lies like, one time she called and said that I had threw her down the stairs, and she was going to call the hotline and I got so scared that I called the police on myself. I called the police and I said hey, this woman said I just threw her down the stairs, I need an officer out here.

And the police officer came and he starts asking these questions, and then he finally just looks up and he says, if I have to come to this house again I’m arresting all of you. 

“People who spent time in foster care have PTSD at almost twice the rate of US war veterans. Black and LGBTQ teens face especially bad treatment in State custody.”

Dorothy Roberts

00:12:50 Female Speaker:

I just want to say, I just want to know why this happened to my nephew. I’m pretty sure it could have been avoided.

00:12:55 Female Speaker:

Back on April 29, according to Kalamazoo police, Cornelius was restrained at Lakeside which caused him to go into cardiac arrest. 

00:13:02 Male Speaker:

The evidence that we have and based on the investigation from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is that he was sat on similar to how George Floyd was restrained for up to 10 minutes.

00:13:19 Dorothy Roberts:

During lunchtime on April 29, 2020, 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick threw a slice of bread in the cafeteria at Lakeside Academy, the residential facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the state child welfare department had placed him after his mother died and his father was unable to care for him. Lakeside Academy’s management and staff was supplied by a for-profit corporation called Sequel Youth and Family Services, one of many private enterprises hired by child welfare agencies across the nation to operate their foster care programs.

Workers watching the children quickly responded to the infraction by forcing Cornelius to the floor and holding him down, pressing their weight into his chest, abdomen, and legs as the boy lost consciousness. Children who witnessed the incident said that as the men restrained Cornelius he cried repeatedly, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe. The local medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by restraint asphyxia.

Cornelius Frederick.
A family photo of Cornelius Frederick (via NBC).

One way that the child welfare system criminalizes Black children is to compel those in foster care to live in violent and prison-like settings. Despite the popular image of rescued children living peacefully in private homes with caring foster parents, the conditions of foster care are quite often quite the opposite. Large numbers of children are placed in some form of congregate care, whether group homes with a handful of children, dormitory-style facilities with dozens of residents, large so-called residential treatment centers which may house more than a hundred adolescents and teens, or psychiatric hospitals. About 50 thousand foster children, mostly teenagers, are placed in group settings each year, and about one in five children will live in one at some point while in substitute care.

In 2017 a third of teenagers in foster care were in congregate placement. Black teens are much more likely than white teens to be placed in these environments that bear little resemblance to families. 

Sixto Cancel (fourth from right) with Think of Us staffers (via Richmond Magazine).

00:16:38 Sixto Cancel: 

And what we found were that young people overwhelmingly reported that these environments, you know, caused additional trauma, that these environments separated them from their actual healing journey by separating them from the people who were in their lives. And one of the things that over and over and over that we heard was that young people talked about how it felt incarceraled, how it felt like, they were being punished where they were supposed to be getting healing or treatment, or where the system had told them that there was no other housing option for them that they were placed in these group homes with no medical reasoning for being there, etcetera. 

I think back to, you know, one activity that we did with the young people and they drew out, you know, what their experiences were in group homes, and this one young person drew a world, right, inside of a prison. And inside of the world there were two young children facing each other and then two adults facing away from each other. And what they were trying to illustrate was like, that they felt like it was a life sentence to be in, you know, these group home facilities where you had to wake up at a certain time, you only were given 10 minutes to shower, you had to like, make sure your stuff wasn’t being stolen. Staff would hover around your calls and they would then take away your call or take away your visiting privileges if you didn’t “behave right.”

And so, what young people told us was story and story again about how it related to them, and if you took away the word group home you would think that they were talking about their time in prison, but they were not in a prison. 

00:18:18 Dorothy Roberts:

Yeah. Yeah. I just felt it was so chilling, so vivid those stories that you talk about. So, having done that study, what do you then recommend should be done about this trauma that children are encountering when they’re put in places like this?

00:18:42 Sixto Cancel: 

So, the first thing I say is that we need to eliminate the use of group homes as a way of trying to raise children. Group homes cannot raise children. The bureaucracy of a group home, of a system cannot love a child, and children need to be loved and they need to be raised and parented, and that is not what you’re able to get at a group home facility. 

00:19:02 Dorothy Roberts:

Thank you. That’s so important. Now, I know, Sixto, that you recently were able to meet your birth family and so, to the extent you’re comfortable, could you talk about your own experience and/or the idea of being reunited with your birth family?

00:19:28 Sixto Cancel:

One of the big things that we saw in the Away From Home report is that young people were told there was not a place to place them, and there was this big narrative that was pervasive, and this is just not true, we just haven’t figured it out. And I look at my own story, I look at my siblings’ story, and there was family that could have taken us in. About three years ago I was in New York City and I get a phone call from my older sister and she says hey, there’s a family reunion on your father’s side, and this is the side of the family that I had not really met and had not really engaged with. 

And so, of course, I was like, let’s go. And ended up going into the park, you know, meeting family, and really I had no words to describe what those moments felt like and what it was to look at people who liked you, who had similar mannerisms, who, you know, behaved in such a way where I was shocked, you know, because I had lived my whole entire life with unrelated foster parents. I find out that I have four uncles and aunts who are foster/adopted parents, and at that moment all I can do was like literally pull out my phone and GPS to my last foster home, and it was 58 miles away. This entire time I have family members who had adopted children out of the foster care system in New York City and they were always 58 miles away. 

“So, the first thing I say is that we need to eliminate the use of group homes as a way of trying to raise children. Group homes cannot raise children. The bureaucracy of a group home, of a system cannot love a child, and children need to be loved and they need to be raised and parented, and that is not what you’re able to get at a group home facility.”

Sixto Cancel

00:21:01 Joyce McMillan:

There’s a very strong connection. They’re one in the same system. One is for children and one is for adults. Both are in the custody of the State, prisoners and children. They’re both separated from everything they know and love, they’re both strip searched, they both have set visit times or set visit days, they both have oversight during the visit period, they both eat what they’re served, they both change locations regularly, they both use garbage bags or pillow cases to change locations, and on and on and on, and they’re both paroled back to either their family or their community with oversight during the parole period.

Any system built to protect children should in no way mimic the same system that was purposefully, purposefully built to punish adults, but here is why they mimic one another so closely. Because it is not the pipeline that we call it, that’s letting it off lightly. It is a prerequisite, it is a training. If you look at who’s incarcerated, the large majority of people who are incarcerated came from the foster industrial complex. So, they train these children, but these children are unfortunately with all the movement, changing homes, psychological abuse, and everything else, they don’t even graduate high school. They’re often put on psychotropic medications when they talk to their parents, or when they act out because they don’t have the words to say, they miss everyone that they love, and they hurt, and so, they’re put on all these medications. So, the outcome for these children is prison.

00:22:43 Dorothy Roberts:

That was Joyce McMillan, the founder of JMACforFamilies, an organization in New York City that works to abolish the child welfare system and to strengthen the systems of supports that keep families and communities together. She was ascribing another way the child welfare system is entangled in a carceral web with prisons. The foster system not only mimics the prison system, it also pushes children into prison. 

In December 2019 the Kansas City Star published an investigative report on the pathway from foster care to prison with the headline, We Are Sending More Foster Kids to Prison than College. The Star surveyed nearly 6 thousand people imprisoned in 12 states to examine the connection between foster care and incarceration. One in four of the prisoners had spent time in foster care. The Star’s findings in Kansas are replicated in states across the nation. A recent review of the research concluded, “Studies that follow foster youth over time find that they are more likely to experience incarceration and that incarcerated adults are disproportionately likely to have been in foster care, suggesting a foster care to prison pipeline.”

Foster care often funnels children into the juvenile legal system, even before they become adults. This path is so well worn that there are labels for children whoa re caught in both systems, crossover, dual system, dual status, and dually involved. Typically children cross into the juvenile legal system from foster care and not the other way around. In other words, foster care is structured to make children vulnerable to arrest, prosecution, and detention. At least one-third of arrests of crossover youth are tied to their placements, usually the result of an incident that occurred in their group home. 

And dual system youth spend longer in the juvenile legal system and are morel likely to be ensnared in the criminal punishment system as adults. They are detained for less-serious offenses than their non-dependent counterparts, receive harsher sanctions, and fewer probation sentences and court dismissals, and are more likely to be placed on probation in a congregate setting rather than a home.

Foster care also pushes children into juvenile detention and jail by causing them to flee. On any given day thousands of children are missing from foster care because they absconded from State custody. Fleeing foster care is so common that these children also have an official label, runaways. Studies of child welfare systems across the country estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of foster children have run away at least once while in care, and many have fled multiple times. 

Children living on their own may have to engage in delinquent conduct in order to survive. They are also vulnerable to sex trafficking. They may be arrested simply because they fled. Once foster children run from their placements they are criminalized for trying to escape the prison-like conditions of foster care. In many jurisdictions agencies’ response to children who escape foster care is to call the police to have them arrested, or to obtain civil arrest warrants so, caseworkers can play the part of cops.

There’s another group of children whom the foster system makes especially vulnerable to prison. Every year about 30 thousand youth age out of foster care. If they haven’t been reunited with their families or adopted by new ones by the time they turn age 18, or in some states 21, they are no longer wards of the State. So, after traumatizing them, disrupting their education, subjecting them to abuse and neglect, damaging their health, taking their benefits, and cutting them off from their families, child welfare authorities release children who age out to manage on their own.

Caseworkers tell the teens to throw their belongings in a large black trash bag, then drop them off at a homeless shelter, or give them bus fare as if they’d just been released from prison, often without a bank account, a high school diploma, or job. One in four will be incarcerated within two years of aging out.

00:27:46 Dorothy Roberts:

Think about the multiple roles that police offices played in the events that led to the arrest of Vanessa Peoples whose voice opened episode one, and officers cited her for child abuse when her toddler son momentarily strayed away. Then three police officers pulled up when a caseworker summoned them to assist her in a routine investigation of Vanessa’s home. The officers inspected every corner of her house and stood guard to intimidate Vanessa and her family as she negotiated with the caseworkers. In the end a total of seven police offices got involved, ultimately hogtying and arresting Vanessa for protesting their intrusion in a family’s life. 

CPS staff not only act like police officers, they also work hand-in-hand with police officers. Local child welfare and law enforcement authorities increasingly enter contracts to create various types of collaborations, from sharing information to engaging in common trainings, cooperating investigations, and jointly responding to reports. They help caseworkers forcibly tear children from the arms of their parents. The mutual reinforcement that CPS and the police lend each other magnifies the capacity of each to terrorize families.

The child welfare system’s targeting of parental drug use has become an arm of the government’s overall punitive assault on drug possession, especially in Black neighborhoods. In a major report on the topic, the New York City-based Movement for Family Power calls family policing ground zero for the war on drugs. I spoke with the organization’s founders, Erin Miles Cloud and Lisa Sangoi, about it. Erin answers first.

00:29:45 Female Speaker:

How does drug use work to justify removing children from their homes? My understanding is even in places where it’s legal to smoke marijuana, for example, it can be a factor in taking children away. So, how does that work concretely in the decisions of caseworkers and judges to remove children from their family?

00:30:21 Erin Miles Cloud:

It’s a really good question that has a very big answer and also a very simple answer, right? I think anyone who’s probably listening is probably more apt to understand why a judge will take away a child because of drug use because we’re programmed to think about it that way. And so, you know, I could spend a lot of time talking about it but really it’s, how did you learn about drug use on TV? What was the DARE campaign when you grew up, you know? You’re taught every single day that drug use is a reason to intervene, drug use is a reason to arrest, drug use is a reason to judge parenting, right? 

The bigger word for that process that is so organic within ourselves is criminalization, right? The reason we have that imagination isn’t because we’re born that way, it’s because all of those very tactics and techniques, those TV shows, those commercials, those school campaigns, those grim laws that follow up all of those campaigns teach us that certain people, certain acts, certain parts of society are criminals, right? Are bad, are not as good, right? And when we really separate that out we can start to really understand the process of criminalization that’s outside of this big word and really feel what criminalization is every day. 

So, you have judges, programs, now they have power to take away, right? And it’s a justified consciousness that we have. And so, when your actions have a justified consciousness and you have power, we see removal after removal after removal without really any critique or self-awareness. 

00:32:09 Dorothy Roberts:

You know, it’s interesting that you point out, though, that the impression people have of drug use differs depending on who’s using the drugs. So, do you find that in the foster system and decision making about which children get removed, depending on who it is, who’s allegedly using the drugs or whether they’re using them or not? Can you say something about that?

00:32:37 Erin Miles Cloud:

Absolutely. Absolutely. It has always in this country been legal, permissible, and a little bit even sort of appreciated, you know, celebrated that people will turn up and use drugs, and you know, conversely we as a society blame everything that is wrong in society on the fact that Black and brown people use drugs, and sort of always been okay for white people to use drugs, and now with legalization even more okay for them to use drugs, and it’s never been okay for Black and brown folks to use drugs, and even with the decriminalization and legalization in places, for example, like Washington state, you saw an actually increase in moms who were reported to child protective services for their drug use after legalization.

00:33:38 Anna Arons:

Our client of mine who was refusing preventive services, these services that are supposed to be non punitive in nature and there to support her, and she was receiving those because she was a foster child when she had her own children and she was still under the age of 21. And so, the preventive service worker would come to her home twice a month and surveil her there, and she made the mistake of asking that worker for a extra gift card for food, for groceries one month and that spurred the worker to decide that she needed to make an extra visit to the home. When she visited the home she found that one of the children had “a spot of dirt on her arm”, and also with the 2-year-old when the worker tried to leave the 2-year-old said she wanted to go outside with her. 

So, all of that resulted in a petition being filed in court saying that these children were not fed and were not bathed and wanted to leave their mother’s care. And the agency, I think this is a dramatic over reach, actually asked for a removal in that case and removed these two children from their mother’s care. 

And she jumped through a million hoops, did a parenting class, you know, did a drug treatment program because she had mentioned to the worker once that she used marijuana when she was stressed out, and just all of these additional things that one, none of this would have come to anyone’s attention at all had she already not been receiving the government help, and two, what she ended up having to do was so far removed from any of the allegations which themselves were incredibly, you know, thin, flimsy, whatever you want to call them. It’s just this way of this system just victimizing her I would say again and again over the course of her life. And then inflicting that same kind of harm on her children is something that I think really stuck with me. 

00:35:19 Dorothy Roberts:

That was Anna Arons, the NYU professor we heard from in episode one. The very system that claims to break the cycle of family disadvantage by taking children from their homes creates its own cycle of intergenerational state entanglement. Agencies taking custody of babies born to children in their care is a signal of foster care’s failure, a confession that foster care itself endangers children.

Foster care is one of the chief ways the US state transfers the carceral containment of Black communities from one generation to the next.

00:36:08 Dorothy Roberts:

In episode four, Abolition, I’ll explain why efforts to reform the child welfare system to make it less harmful to children and their families have not only failed but helped to perpetuate the system’s destruction. As I showed in the first three episodes, family policing is rooted in white supremacy and settler colonialism and designed to surveil, regulate, and punish the most disenfranchised communities in the nation. 

In the final episode of this podcast, I’ll make the case for dismantling the system altogether as we radically imagine how to support families and keep children safe, and build a free and equal society where family separation is unimaginable.

00:37:01 Dorothy Roberts::

This has been your host, Dorothy Roberts, author of Torn Apart, abolishing family policing and reimagining child welfare. The Torn Apart podcast is part of a book series brought to you by Ms. Magazine and Ms. Studios where we report, rebel, and tell it like it is. Michele Goodwin and I are the executive producers. Our producers are Anoushka Chander, Oliver Haug, and Roxy Szal. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Natalie Holland, and music by Stuart Moore and Music Innovation. A special thanks to those who contributed their experiences with and expertise on the family policing system to this podcast. 

The paperback edition of Torn Apart will be released on October 3. Thank you for listening.