Torn Apart

Torn Apart is the inaugural podcast in our Ms. Book Club Series. Hosted and co-produced by Professor Dorothy Roberts, this limited series podcast in four parts is based on her award-winning book, Torn Apart.  In the podcast, she examines the child welfare system and advocates for abolishing family policing and reimagining child welfare.  Tune in to hear the voices of impacted families, family defenders, activists, and scholars.

Latest Episode

Torn Apart: Abolition


December 3, 2023

With Guests:

  • 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.
  • Anna Arons is an Assistant Professor of Law at St. John’s University. She teaches evidence, criminal law, and courses related to family law. Arons writes about the government’s regulation and policing of families and the intersection of parental rights and identity along dimensions including race, poverty, and gender. Her scholarship has appeared in publications including the Washington University Law Review, the N.Y.U. Review of Law and Social Change, and the Columbia Journal of Race and Law and has been cited in publications including MSNBC, the New York Times, Pro Publica, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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In this Episode:

In the final episode of the Torn Apart podcast, Dorothy Roberts makes the case for the abolition of the child welfare system and lays out a vision for the more just and equitable society that could replace it. Roberts discusses why abolition, and not reform, is the necessary path forward. In conversation with Professor Anna Arons of St. John’s University, Roberts uses New York City as case study for what could happen if family policing ends. During the pandemic, New York City limited its child protection agency. This resulted in over a 40 percent decrease in the number of children sent into foster care, and data that show that rates of child abuse did not rise. Abolition of the child welfare system will help us build a safer world.

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 Joyce McMillan: 

Back in 1999, after an anonymous report, I was investigated by the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City, better known as ACS, the acronym. And my children had everything they needed. They did not assess my children. They investigated me, and there were a lot of implicit biases and subjectivity riddled throughout the investigation. 

What brought it to a head was, they asked me to do a urinalysis, and I did, and there was an illicit substance in my urine, and they immediately removed my two children. One was a newborn at this time. And so, they completely broke our bond. They shattered our bond.

00:01:00 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. In episode four, Abolition, I 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 this final episode, I’ll make the case for dismantling the system altogether, as we radically reimagine how to support families and keep children safe, and build a free and equal society where family separation is unimaginable.

We begin this episode hearing, again, from Joyce McMillan, the director of JMACforFamilies, how the removal of her children led her to found an organization dedicated to abolishing the family policing system.

00:02:35 Joyce McMillan: 

Initially, I internalized what was happening to me, and then I realized this was just another system that was designed to set black and brown people up for failure. I had understood about other systems, even though I had not really been involved with them, but this was a system that flew under the radar, and it was time to expose it.

00:02:59 Female Speaker:

Powerful. So, what did you do to expose it?

00:03:03 Joyce McMillan: 

That’s when I quit my job working for the state, and began volunteering at a not-for-profit. Eventually, I became the program director at that same not-for-profit. They had no money. They had no resources. That, too, was by design, because once the director who was there prior to me made a decision that she didn’t want government money, because their work is coercive in how they fund it, too, is if they gave you funding, they didn’t want you to speak the truth about them.

So, she made this decision, and that left the organization completely broke. I stayed there for about two years after becoming the program director, left, went to another organization where ACS basically got me fired. And from there, I started JMACforFamilies. I just realized that I needed to do something different. I understood at this point, this wasn’t a system that could be changed. This was a system that had to be abolished.

A lot of people were not speaking about abolishing the system, at least not a lot of people who I was in the circle with. And so, I kind of felt like I needed to separate to elevate, and that’s what I did. I separated from the nay-sayers, those who believed they could reform and tweak this system for the next 2,000 centuries. I’m not here for it. I want immediate change, and it’s reasonable change. It’s sensible change, and it’s necessary change, and it’s honest change that I’m asking for.

And people who say that we need to make small, incremental changes, I understand those are the people who want to see people remain, black people remain in the position that they’re in today, being oppressed.

I understood at this point, this wasn’t a system that could be changed. This was a system that had to be abolished.
Joyce McMillan

00:04:57 Dorothy Roberts:

So, when you say the system can’t be fixed, it needs to be abolished, can you just say a little bit more about that, why it can’t be fixed, and what you mean by abolishing it? And you said that you don’t believe that incremental, small, incremental changes can work. Just say more about that, because a lot of people, they hear the word abolition, they think it’s impossible, for example, or they think, well, that’s going to leave children who are being harmed, you know, in dangerous families. 

So, say more about what you mean by abolishing it, and why you think that’s necessary. And actually, will keep children safer, not be dangerous.

00:05:55 Joyce McMillan: 

Right. So, the first thing I like to say is, abolition is not what most people think it is. Abolition is, I’m removing the parts of the structures that create harm. And unfortunately, that’s the overwhelming majority of the system. The first thing the system does that creates major harm is remove the child, right? The most dangerous thing you can do is remove the child from their home environment, and it leaves a child more susceptible to being injured mentally, tortured, sexually abused, and everything else.

I just can’t believe that children are in care for reasons where their parents didn’t purposely hurt them. If someone had an accident, or not just an accident, because it’s not just injuries, right, falling in the playground. Sometimes it’s lack of food, lack of clean clothes, no car fare. I met a parent some years ago when I was at that not-for-profit, who had a child who was school-age, but too young to go to school by themselves. She had put that child in a different district so that that child could have a better foundational education from their formative years, became pregnant with a second child, and a very difficult pregnancy.

Joyce McMillan at a JMAC rally this past September protesting mandatory reporting (via NPR).

The first child missed so many days at school, and she didn’t adhere to the warnings because she was sick, of if the child was absent again, that child was ultimately removed from her, threw her into a depression. She had her second baby early because of the stress of having that first child taken, and she thought having that baby was going to reunite her family, and instead, they took the newborn. And so, that’s the sickness of the system.

There was never any harm, and never anything she did intentionally. Instead of never taking the child, but providing someone to take the child to school, which would have cost a lot less money, and would not have traumatized the child, they separated the family. And so, these are the harms of the system that have to be abolished. You can’t tweak them. It’s not a tweaking situation. If you know it’s wrong, you stop doing it. Why are you tweaking something that’s wrong? It makes no sense.

00:08:24 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

We have tried lessening the devastation inflicted by family policing on children and their families. Over the last 30 years, child advocates have sued states across the nation for operating foster care systems that traumatize and endanger children. The child welfare departments in numerous states are currently governed by court-monitored settlement agreements that require them to make massive reforms. 

While some states have failed for decades to live up to old agreements, others have been taken to court recently for the same problems endemic to child removal. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) is operating under more than ten consent decrees, one of which was filed in 1988. More and more child welfare administrators and policy-makers have conceded that the harm caused by family policing is excessive, and acknowledged that families are being unnecessarily torn apart, and that black families are disproportionately affected.

The 2018 appointment of a special master after years of Illinois’s failure to make court-ordered reforms.

At the state and federal levels, legislators have implemented measures to reduce the foster care population and its racial disparities. But this litany of reforms has left undisturbed the false narrative undergirding the child welfare system, that children’s hardships are caused by parental pathologies, and child safety is achieved by policing families. Child protection still revolves around blaming parents for children’s suffering that stems from an unequal society, and punishing them instead of making transformational social change.

State authorities continue to target black communities, and to rely on racist devaluation of black families to legitimize the resulting devastation. Given the preservation of its foundational logic, the child welfare system has absorbed superficial measures to fix its defects, and has persisted in its terror. The failures of foster care reform only lead to more reforms. Reforming family policing results in more family policing. Why does the United States continue to invest billions of dollars in a broken system that fails so miserably at protecting children?

Because the system isn’t broken. It’s operating exactly as it was designed to do. We have to abandon the fool’s errand of tinkering with a system designed to tear families apart. Instead, we need to implement a paradigm shift in the state’s relationship to families, a complete end to family policing, by dismantling the current child welfare system and purging its punitive logic. At the same time, we need to build a safer society by reimagining the very meaning of child welfare, and by creating caring ways of supporting families and meeting children’s needs.

This isn’t just because reforms have failed to support families and keep children safe. It’s because only by abolishing the child welfare system can we support families and keep them safe.

00:11:57 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

Joyce McMillan exemplifies a growing number of black mothers across the nation who have felt the brunt of family policing, and are fighting back. They formed grassroots organizations that advocate for radical change in local child protection agencies, and in our nation’s approach to child welfare more broadly. They’re spotlighting the racism in the child welfare system’s design and practices, demanding that the system be dismantled, and working to replace it with concrete, community-based resources for children and their families. Back to Ms. McMillan.

00:12:37 Joyce McMillan: 

So, PLAN is a coalition under JMACforFamilies, and the acronym PLAN stands for Parent Legislative Action Network. It is a coalition led by people who are impacted, parents and former foster youth, or former foster adults now, whatever, and our legislation is to shrink the system. So, initially, our first legislation was the State Central Registry, which is equivalent to having a felony conviction, but is something many people have never heard about.

And you would stay on that registry for up to 28 years. We’ve had it reduced down to eight, but here’s why we need to abolish. You shouldn’t be able to go on a registry that will negatively impact your life in any way without judicial oversight. A case manager makes a decision as to who goes on the registry, and there’s no rhyme or reason in how they make that decision. We got it down to eight years, but no one, again, should be on the list, because there’s no judicial oversight in that.

Now, I’m working on Miranda rights with families. Right now, when ACS, CPS, across the United States knocks on someone’s door, they do not know their rights, and even if they do know their rights, most often they’re a person of color or a person living in poverty, which means we’re treated different, and for some reason, our Constitutional rights are somehow stripped from us. 

So, if I’m a person of color and I say, hey, I don’t want you in my house, I’m not letting you in, they weaponize the armed police force against me to gain entrance into my home. They use very coercive tactics to gain entrance into my home. They are dishonest, and say they just want to check on the well-being of the child, but once they come in, they’re searching my trash cans, my medicine cabinet, my dresser drawers, my refrigerator. That is beyond looking at the well-being of a child.

In addition to that, they continue to come back multiple times. In New York City, up to 60 days, they can come back whenever they want, unannounced, strip-searching your kids, and repeating the house search that they did the first time at their discretion. And so, this is not about the well-being of a child, and this is why we need to, again, abolish this particular practice. We need to ensure that families know their rights. A legislation which is State number 5484 in New York City, is to ensure that when ACS or CPS knocks, of course, New York state, they would have to Mirandize families.

They would have to advise them of their First Amendment rights, where they don’t have to let them in, the fact that they could lawyer up, that there are lawyers who can handle their cases even if they don’t have financial resources, and a whole host of other rights that people have. The other important piece of legislation is informed consent, which is bill number State 4821 in New York, and that bill is Miranda in hospital settings, where there has been a longstanding history of a practice where black and brown and poor people have their bodily fluids strip-searched, either during their prenatal care visits or post-partum, upon giving birth.

And they do this for the sole purpose of separating children from their parents as a newborn, which is a very dangerous practice. And so, we want them to stop. If there’s no medical reason to check to see if there’s a substance, then what are you checking for? They’re checking purposefully to farm us into a child protection service system that does not protect children, does not service families, have horrific outcomes, and people keep saying to me, why would you want to abolish when some children are injured?

But they’re injured in foster care, too. They’re killed in foster care. They’re raped in foster care. They’re molested in foster care. They’re trafficked in foster care, and through foster care. But we still taking children to put them there.

00:17:17 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

As family-policing abolitionists push for changes that shrink the child welfare system, they’re also growing community-based ways to provide support to families, sometimes known as mutual aid, that are completely disconnected from child welfare agencies. These networks, groups, and organizations are animated by an approach to child welfare that is diametrically opposed to family policing. They are caring instead of punitive, voluntary instead of coercive, generous instead of stingy.

Mutual aid offers parents concrete goods and assistance to use however they determine will benefit their children, instead of mandating services based on parents’ presumed pathologies. Rise magazine, launched in New York City in 2005 to publish parents’ stories, issued a report called Someone To Turn To, written by a team of system-impacted mothers. The report lays out a model for creating networks of parent-peer supporters to lend caregiving assistance without involving child welfare agencies.

Rise’s executive director, Jeanette Vega, told journalist Kendra Hurley that she saw the potential for peer support during the COVID pandemic, as residents of her Bronx neighborhood joined together. In her words, taking turns with homeschooling, sharing washing machines, and for material needs, turning to the other grassroots groups, manned not by government agencies, but by each other. Family policing abolitionists can also adopt transformative justice practices that prison abolitionists and anti-carceral survivors of sexual violence are exploring, apart from law enforcement.

Mariame Kaba explains transformative justice as “a community process developed by anti-violence activists of color in particular, who wanted to create a response to violence that do what criminal punishment systems fail to do, build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again.”

Community-based support groups, mutual aid projects, and transformative justice processes allow for mass refusal to participate in family policing. They give struggling parents alternatives to relinquishing custody of their children to CPS as the price of support. Although the aim of abolition is to end the current system’s harm to children and their families, many people fear that abandoning the system is dangerous. The most common objection I hear to abolishing the child welfare system is, how else will we protect children from severe abuse in their homes?

It’s hard for many people to imagine any other way of protecting children than by taking them from their parents, because the United States has relied on family policing as the main way it addresses the needs of black children. It’s guaranteed a sense that family policing is essential for their safety. By its very operation, family policing helps to manufacture the harmful societal conditions that are the chief causes of harm to children, the same conditions that ostensibly justify the system’s continued operation.

The stories of children killed by their parents, despite being known to the system, may seem to send a message that more children could be saved if agencies worked harder at policing families. But ratcheting up investigations and removals has failed to reduce family violence. Texas CPS investigates a greater-than-average proportion of the referrals it receives, yet Texas has one of the highest child-fatality rates in the nation. 

A study of child abuse deaths in that state concluded, “Surprisingly, the statistical analysis shows no relationship between a state’s intervention with a family as measured by its reporting rate, service rate, or removal rate, and its child abuse and neglect death rate.” The report recommended reducing poverty and expanding access to proven violence-prevention programs as more effective at protecting children from lethal abuse than surveilling and separating families. The deaths of children known to the system don’t prove that we need more family policing. They prove that family policing is the wrong way to protect children.

[When ACS enters our homes, t]hey’re checking purposefully to farm us into a child protection service system that does not protect children, does not service families, have horrific outcomes, and people keep saying to me, why would you want to abolish when some children are injured? But they’re injured in foster care, too. They’re killed in foster care. They’re raped in foster care. They’re molested in foster care. They’re trafficked in foster care, and through foster care. But we still taking children to put them there.
Joyce McMillan

00:22:32 Governor Andrew Cuomo: 

We’re going to put out an executive order today, New York State on pause, only essential businesses will be functioning. One hundred percent of the workforce must stay home. This is the most drastic action we can take.

00:22:56 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order locking down New York state to address the COVID-19 crisis adds an important dimension to our story. It’s related to what NYU law professor Anna Arons calls the unintended abolition of the child welfare system in New York City. When the city shut down in mid-March 2020, so did its family policing apparatus.

00:23:23 Anna Arons: 

So, in the very early, kind of March 2020 period of COVID, when everyone was kind of scrambling to figure out what the world looked like in any sense, ACS together with the state office that oversees ACS made three big changes in their general policy that really shifted how casework was being done, and also the amount of casework that was done. First was that they were telling their workers for the first time that they should not be making home visits for every investigation, and they should be doing remote visits whenever they could, and also be announcing in advance if they were going to be making a visit, so that they and the family could go through health protocols.

At the same time, the family courts in the city began accepting only new filings where there was a removal being sought as opposed to new filings where court-ordered supervision was being sought, or a removal. And up to that point, about 50 percent of cases had been court-ordered supervision, which are essentially only surveillance, with, you know, many other services, but the children staying home. 

And then, the third change is actually not from ACS or from the Office of Children and Family Services, but instead from the shutdown of schools, which just ended up with children being at home more and outside of the eyes of mandated reporters, who, in New York City as in much of the country, most reports are called in by mandated reporters, and most of those reports are coming from school personnel. So, whether there’s guidance counselors, or teachers, or principals, or what have you.

And so, together with these three big changes, so, then became this dramatic change, not just in ACS’s operations, but in the number of reports being received, and the number of reports being investigated, and the number of filings in court. So, across the board, pretty quickly, you had a 40-percent, approximately, reduction in the number of reports received and investigations being conducted, half as many new filings, half as many children placed in foster care.

And at the same time, among those cases that were being filed in court, you also ended up seeing more of those removals being overturned by judges. So, ACS would ask for a removal, and the judge, in a slightly higher percent of cases, would say, no, I’m actually going to send this child home with their parent. So, that’s kind of all of the front-end changes.

Outside Family Court in Manhattan, with cars parked in the street.
New York County Family Court (via NYTimes).

00:25:36 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

At the time, some child welfare pundits and the media speculated, with no evidence to back them up, that the lockdown put children at risk of abuse because they were trapped in their homes, outside the gaze of social workers, teachers, and other mandated reporters. But ACS data showed precisely the opposite. The forced experiment in abolition didn’t endanger children. If anything, it kept them safer.

00:26:06 Anna Arons: 

And then, what you see on the back-end, you know, we luckily have this robust data set from our endless pandemic experience, we can see that reports dropped, and the number of investigations dropped, and filing’s down. But there are no metrics showing that children’s safety suffered in any way. That is, there is no increase in the percent of abuse, as compared to neglect complaints, there was no increase in the percent of investigations that ended up being substantiated, meaning they found evidence for them.

And if we look forward in time, we have the commissioner of ACS at the time also testifying. There hadn’t been any changes in ER, emergency room, entry patterns, or anything else on their end that they would see as indicative of any change in child maltreatment, any increase in it. Which is not only, I think this shows two things. One is the dramatic overreach of the system before, that it is doing all of these things, and children, you know, maybe were staying safe.

But they weren’t staying safe because of the system. They were staying safe in spite of the system. So, what we had is a vast reduction in government invasion of families’ homes, right? We have less surveillance, we have less violence, we have less forced separations. But at the same time, we have this growth in community support, and I mean community support in two separate ways. 

One, community support coming from the government itself, in terms of just cash grants to families, first in the form of the stimulus checks, then increased unemployment checks, and later down the road, in the form of the short-lived, but I would say somewhat miraculous, Child Tax Credit. So, we have money going into the hands of families without all of the normal strings attached, or hoops that they generally have to jump through, or surveillance that often comes along with government money.

But we have, at the same time, this huge outgrowth in mutual aid organizations in the city, which itself, I think, was somewhat funded by that same government money, in that there were people who were attempting to redistribute their own funds through mutual aid organizations. But over the first several months of the pandemic, there were a number of mutual aid organizations that either began in New York, or that really grew in New York and were preexisting, and were redistributing on the scale of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in neighborhoods around the city.

It’s just this remarkable kind of mobilization of people power, people using, you know, their technological skills that they had previously been using for their jobs, I’m sure still were, to figure out how to run these really vast systems of support, and doing everything from providing groceries for neighbors, to diapers, to even services as well. So, kind of childcare collectives, and in some instances, too, referrals for counseling services, and substance-use support, and just this really robust network of community support run by communities, and without the government being directly involved beyond the government perhaps providing some money that ends up in this pool.

And so, I would argue kind of these two things together, right, this reduction in government surveillance and ACS’s operations while children are staying safe, and this outgrowth in the community support and government funding to people without strings attached shows us that we can have this world where you don’t have to have this vast network of surveillance, this vast apparatus in order to keep children safe. 

You can instead empower poor communities and marginalized communities, communities of color, primarily, to take care of themselves, the same way that we allow for families in communities with money, or who are whiter, to take care of themselves, and allow for them to have the autonomy and the dignity that we would afford essentially any other community. And in fact, that the government affords any other community, if we’re going to talk about tax breaks, it’s not all of the other ways those communities are subsidized, too.

“[Children] weren’t staying safe because of the system. They were staying safe in spite of the system.”
Anna Arons

00:30:03 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

The vast majority of US children who are denied adequate housing, nutrition, healthcare, and education by racial capitalist policies, by far the greatest harms to children, are simply ignored by child welfare agencies. Among western nations, the United States has the highest rate of childhood poverty, invests the least in supporting families, and spends the most on child removal and foster care. The family policing system embodies a cruel paradox.

While it brutally intrudes on many families, failing to provide them true safety or support, it also ignores the damaging impact of poverty, racism, and patriarchal culture on even more children. Even worse, the government’s claim that CPS is protecting black children serves as a substitute for ending the racist social structures that endanger them. The belief that black children’s problems are caused by their families, and the solution is to tear them apart, secures policies that criminalize black children and their parents, while impeding policies that would help them to thrive.

By relying on policing families as the way to protect children, the system blocks imagining a society that is safer for children.

00:31:30 Anna Arons: 

And then, kind of how you formulate abolition in that context, just thinking of it, you know, the third component that you highlight there is this idea of it being a project of generation, right, a project of reimagining, and a project of hope, in a certain sense. And that, to me, is kind of, when I think of, why I identify as an abolitionist, or what really excites me about the idea of abolition, it’s that, that it’s not this project of destruction. 

It’s this project of creation, and this project of giving yourself the freedom to think about something different than the world that we have now, and not just allowing yourself to fall into this thought pattern which is all too easy to do, given the world that we live in. This is what we are stuck with, this is the way that it is, and this is the way that it shall be. But all of that said, I think it’s really hard to break free from that thought pattern, both because life is really difficult in any number of ways, and there are many tolls on each of us every day, and it takes energy to do that kind of reimagining.

Illustration by Veronica Martinez in “The Case for Child Welfare Abolition” (InTheseTimes).

But also because I think, even if we personally, on a personal level, I am willing to kind of engage in that project, one of the first responses that you get, if you start talking about abolition in any context, whether it’s about prisons, or the family regulation system, or whatever else, is this, like, this could never happen. You know, this is an impossible thing that you’re proposing. You really expect the government to do x, y, and z thing, right, just this immediate, you know, yeah, sure, imagine it, but that’s not going to happen, so what’s the point of even imagining it?

And so, I think it really does take, maybe it doesn’t have to take, but it was really helpful to have this complete rupture, kind of, in all of our systems, this moment that was awful for so many reasons, but that did force everyone, including systems, including the government, to stop in their tracks for a minute, and to act in a different way. Two and a half years later, and we can say, you know, no, we can go back to normal, ACS can continue to go back into people’s lives and homes, and surveil them in all these ways.

But we now have this really beautiful counter-example, to say it doesn’t have to be that way. Look, it wasn’t that way, and I think it’s…the act of imagination is really important, but to have a concrete example to point to and say, this isn’t just fanciful. This isn’t just imagination. This is something that existed, not just in New York, but in much of the country for this period. It is really powerful, and I hope it really continues to be an important kind of touchstone and reminder of what we could have if we kind of set ourselves free from this expectation of just continuing with the status quo.

00:34:13 Professor Dorothy Roberts:

The only way to end the destruction caused by the child welfare system is to dismantle it, while at the same time building a more caring society that has no need to tear families apart. If we reject the carceral logic of policing families as the way to protect children, we can reimagine what safety and well-being mean, and work toward putting that vision in place. 

The renowned activist and scholar Angela Y Davis made this point in discussing WEB DuBois’s concept of abolition democracy. “The task for abolitionists,” she wrote, “is not only, or not even primarily, about abolition as a negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.” DuBois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created.

Liberation from enslavement is inseparable from creating a free society where slavery could not exist. Just imagine a society where the needs of children and their families are generously met, and where the idea of tearing children from their families as the way to care for them is unimaginable. This vision of a safer, more caring society without family policing is not a pipe dream, an academic fantasy, a pie in the sky. We can confidently hope for a society that has no need for family policing, because we are already creating it.

00:36:13 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 record, rebel, and tell it like it is. Michelle 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 Nathalie 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.