Dorothy Roberts will share her new book Torn Apart and her belief that the only way to stop the destruction caused by family policing is to abolish the child welfare system and liberate Black communities. April, 2022.
0:00:22.9 Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Good afternoon. Welcome to our winter 2022 Masterclass in Activism, hosted by the Center for Racial Justice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, in partnership with the School of Social Work and Poverty Solutions. I am Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Founding Director of the Center for Racial Justice, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs here at the Ford School, and a professor of Public Policy and Sociology. At the Ford School and at the Center for Racial Justice, we seek a world in which people are able to achieve their full human potential regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and other categories that have been used to divide and systematically marginalize people.
0:01:09.8 CW: We train leaders here who recognize the critical role of public policy in improving our world. We recognize the power of public policy to bolster or undercut our life opportunities and experiences, and we see policy analysis as a critically important tool for us to measure, reflect, historically examine, and help us define the way forward. As we examine the fraught histories and consequences of some of our policies and the transformative power of others, we learn a valuable lesson, effective and just public policy can only be achieved if we bring diverse perspectives to the table.
0:01:51.4 CW: The masterclass in activism is a widely advertised biannual event series in which I have the pleasure to be in conversation with noted activists and thought leaders who have made significant marks on the policy landscape. For this semester's masterclass in activism, I am very delighted to introduce to you my friend and former Northwestern colleague, Dorothy Roberts. Dorothy Roberts is an acclaimed scholar of race, gender and the law, who joined the University of Pennsylvania as its 14th Penn integrates knowledge professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Sociology and the Law School, where she also holds the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander chair.
0:02:36.9 CW: Her path-breaking work in law and public policy focuses on urgent contemporary issues in health, social justice, and bio-ethics, especially as they impact the lives of women, children, and African Americans. Her major books include Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century; Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. She is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters, as well as co-editor of six books on such topics as constitutional law and women and the law.
0:03:18.2 CW: Today, Dorothy joins us is as our esteemed Winter 2022 Masterclass in Activism speaker to talk about her latest book, which is out today, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families-And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, and to reflect on the relationship of scholarship and in activism that so powerfully frames her work. Dorothy Roberts, it is an honor to be in conversation with you today.
0:03:45.9 Dorothy Roberts: Thank you so much, Celeste, it's an honor to be here, and I'm so grateful for this invitation and just so happy to reconnect with you.
0:03:54.9 CW: Absolutely. So, I really am moved by the title of the book, and I really wanna start there, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families-And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. It's a powerful title, Dorothy. And what it shows as one reads the book is your evolution as a scholar and a thinker who really made a mark with the iconic book Killing the Black Body, and who is now decades later, thinking about your impact as a thinker, as an activist, as a policy influencer. So, I wonder if you can start there with just the trajectory, the genealogy of this book, and how you came to write it in the first place.
0:04:48.7 DR: Well, it does start with my research for Killing the Black Body, at which was at the very beginning of my entering academia. I started as an associate professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark in 1988, leaving law practice. And the main reason I left was that I wanted to write about an advocate around the prosecutions of black women who are pregnant and using drugs. This was during the so-called crack epidemic. And as you probably recall, there was the myth of the crack baby who was portrayed as a black baby affected by its mother's maternal drug use in utero and supposed to have all of these major medical conditions and predicted to become criminals and welfare dependence and all of this horrific outcomes attributed to their mothers, and I realized that the prosecutions were being targeted at black women, and I thought it was a huge injustice taking a public health crisis and turning it into a crime. And so that was my very first research project at Rutgers, and it turned into eventually Killing the Black Body as I realized that there were a whole slew of policies.
0:06:20.9 DR: Starting during the slavery era and all the way into the 1990s when I was writing the book that devalued black women's child-bearing. So, while I was doing that research, I came across the Child Welfare System, because there were many more black women, thousands and thousands of black women whose newborn babies were being taken from them by Child Protective Services, and these babies were being called border babies at the time because so many were removed, there weren't even enough foster homes for them, they... Many of them were being left in the hospital.
0:06:56.7 DR: And then the very symptoms of being taken from their mothers and left in cribs on mass and hospitals were then... The symptoms were being blamed again on the mothers for not taking good care of their children or not having healthy pregnancies. And so I realized that I was looking at the prosecutions which were a form of extreme penalty and harm to these black mothers, but an even greater punishment to them was the taking of their children. And as I investigated it, I found out that this was a system that disproportionately removes black children from their homes and targets black communities for very intensive surveillance and family disruption.
0:07:52.6 DR: I was living in Chicago, when I began to do this research, I'd moved to Northwestern from Rutgers, and in Chicago, over 90% of the children in foster care were black children. And as I started to observe child welfare proceedings, it was very clear to me that virtually all the families, I don't even know if I should say virtually all the families I saw in the dependency courts with the judges determining whether to take children away, put children back, were black children and mostly black mothers. And so that's what led to my book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare in 2001, based on interviews with mothers, just realizing the harm that the system was doing and how it was so concentrated in black neighborhoods, like the black neighborhoods in Chicago.
0:08:53.9 DR: So then I'll skip 20 years [laughter] because I also in between wrote a book called Fatal Invention: How Politics, Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, that was on my... Really alarm at the resurgence of treating race as a biological category in genomic research. Despite the findings that we had already known of the Human Genome Project, that there is only one human race biologically, I was very alarmed by that, and I spent a number of years working on that book and also being an advocate and an activist in the arena of medicine and genomic science or the forms of science.
0:09:49.8 DR: I started teaching a course called Race, Science and Justice, and I'd given lots and lots of talks at medical schools and in different scientific arenas. But at the 20th anniversary of Shattered Bonds, which was last year, I got some requests to write a preface for a 20th anniversary edition of the book, and I thought about doing that, I did that for Killing the Black Body, but when I spoke with my editor at Basic Books, he asked me What would you put in the preface, and I went on for about an hour telling him all my new ways of thinking about the intense supervision and disruption of black families by Child Protective Services.
0:10:45.4 DR: I could go into what happened in those 20 years if you'd like. Principally, it was not so much what changed in the system, because the system fundamentally operates with the same philosophy, it relies on the threat of taking children away from their families as a way to address the needs of children, mostly in impoverished families, and that has remained the same. The statistics may ebb and flow, but that basic underlying design remained the same, but what changed the most for me was that I had participated for 20 years in lots of different kinds of reform efforts.
0:11:37.2 DR: I had spoke to countless groups of social workers about what was then called racial disproportionality in the child welfare system. I spoke to foundations, policy makers, child welfare agencies, I even participated for nine years as an expert on a panel that was convened to address a class action lawsuit that claimed and was found that the child welfare system in Washington State was violating children's constitutional rights, the children they had taken from their homes and placed in foster care. And that went on for nine years of trying to implement a very complicated plan to get the state to protect the constitutional rights of children in foster care. And I realized that these reforms were not making a fundamental change to the design of the child welfare system.
0:12:43.9 DR: And then also I became much more knowledgeable and engaged with the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex, and so I began to learn the language, the thinking, the philosophy, the strategizing around abolition as a way of thinking about how to radically transform unjust systems in the United States and globally. And then the third thing that happened was that there was a lot more organizing by parents who had been involved in the child welfare system, who'd been drawn into it, whose children had been taken away, really initiated by black mothers in particular, and also increasingly black children who'd experienced foster care. And that movement, although small compared to other social movements, but it's been growing, and it's been more focused on dismantling this system and replacing it with a better approach to protecting children, keep actually keeping children safe and fighting for their needs and supporting families instead of destroying them.
0:14:07.6 DR: So, all of these experiences over the 20 years since I wrote Shattered Bonds led me to a place where I wanted to write a book that not only updated the statistics and the new studies that are showing even more widespread investigations of black families, for example, high percentages of black children who've been removed, high percentages of black children whose parents rights have been terminated, and of the harms to children. And more research is being done denigrating the harms of the system. And then I saw I wanted to include all of that, but also take more of a firm and documented solution, abolitionist stand toward the child welfare system, which I now call and others call the family policing system. So, that's who I got from Killing the Black Body at the beginning of my academic career, to Torn Apart now. What is that? 30 years later, I think, more than 30 years since I started the research for Killing the Black Body to that, yeah.
0:15:24.1 CW: So, I ultimately wanna land on your move towards an abolitionist stance, and before we do that, I wanna unpack a lot of what you said in terms of you seeing a system that was operating on many different levels in detrimental ways at the policy level, at the institutional level, in terms of the network of Child Protective Services and the people who staff those institutions.
0:15:57.1 DR: I'm so sorry.
0:15:58.9 CW: Oh, no problem.
0:16:00.8 DR: Oh gosh, I know now I can't get this. I'm sorry about that.
0:16:05.0 CW: Oh, no problem, no problem. And then... And it's probably somebody's saying, "Right on, we're loving what you're saying. [laughter] I called you to tell you that." [laughter]
0:16:13.1 DR: Of course, I left my phone upstairs, I should have shut it off, but hopefully that won't happen again, I'm so sorry about that.
0:16:19.5 CW: No problem. No problem. So, at the policy level, at the institutional level, at the community level, in terms of neighborhoods that find that are composed of families that are disproportionately impacted and in the family level. So you're doing an analysis on all four of those levels, which is so helpful for policy thinkers to think about when we set policies and then we ask institutions to implement them, and they have impacts on communities, and then they are shaping the lived experiences of families, you are able to talk about each of those. So let's start with the policy level. And can you tell us what set of public policies have basically morphed the system into a family policing system, where family's fine, high levels of surveillance, and what you point out is that poor families, particularly low income families, find high levels of surveillance in their lives around child welfare, can you talk about the policy setup that made for that?
0:17:28.8 DR: Sure, that's a great question. I love the way that you have distinguished these different levels of thinking and philosophy and intervention that create this apparatus of family policing. So, even at the policy level, there are so many ways to address that. One way is to think about the history of how these policies came to be, and the design through policy of a system that from the very beginning targeted disenfranchised and marginalized people and communities. So whether we look at how the relationship of policy to black families, we would have to start with the enslavement of black families and the policy written into law that black parents had no authority over their children.
0:18:30.0 DR: Their children were considered chattel property just like they were, and so we have at the very foundations of this nation a policy that says that black parents need to be supervised by white people, and that black children can be separated from black families, from black parents at will, in that time, the white enslaver. And then after emancipation, there was a policy of black apprenticeship that allowed for courts to send now free black children back to work for their enslavers on grounds that their parents were neglecting them.
0:19:17.1 DR: There was the policy initially started by the US military to use child removal as a weapon of war against native tribes, that was a military defense, or well, really offensive policy against native tribes in during the so-called Indian wars, and then after that, the policy of the US government, it was called The Adoption Program to decimate tribes or their cultures by taking native children and putting them into white institutions or adoptive homes. And then the policy that was directed at impoverished white families to deal with their poverty through initially poor houses, where the entire family was put into these institutions to work, and then later on, charitable organizations developing a policy of rescuing these children from impoverished neighborhoods and eventually putting them into foster homes or on orphan trains.
0:20:36.4 DR: But overall, this policy of dealing with the needs of impoverished families, especially black and indigenous families through child removal as opposed to through a generous welfare state that supports families and reduces poverty. Now, that's the history, that then becomes federal policy, and it really gets instituted in the New Deal as well as then the black families entering into the welfare systems developed during the New Deal, or as part of the New Deal, where black people demanded during the Civil Rights Movement, inclusion in these welfare policies. But what happens to black families is that the policy is developed to deter them or throw them off of public assistance roles, and instead we see the beginning of this in the 1960s to have as the main service to black children, taking them away from their homes.
0:21:57.1 DR: And we can see this in all the way into the 1990s with the then restructuring of welfare to eliminate the federal entitlement to welfare benefits and the simultaneous mushroom-ing of the foster care population over the course of the '70s, '80s, '90s, and it's really important to see that that policy of focusing so much on foster care with 10 times as much federal funding going to foster care was going to services to impact families.
0:22:38.1 DR: The simultaneous increase in black families entering child welfare programs and the skyrocketing of the foster care population. So this is a deliberate policy decision to address the needs of black children in particular with child removal, rather than with generously providing the resources, including income and housing and medical care and the high quality education to black families as part of the US welfare state. Then there are also policies on the state level, the local level, that are heavily influenced though by federal funding of child welfare services and the kinds of conditions that are put on that funding that has increasingly focused on money going to removing children and supporting them outside the home.
0:23:50.1 DR: So, one telling coincidence of federal policy in the 1990s is the 1993 Crime Control Law that intensified police surveillance in black communities, the 1996 Welfare Restructuring Law that ended the Federal Entitlement to public assistance, and the 1997 adoption and say Families Act that sped up termination of parental rights and gave bonuses to states to get children in foster care adopted, not reunified with their families, they weren't bonuses for that, they were bonuses for adoption, and all of those policies were fueled by the stereotypes about black male criminality and black maternal recklessness and hyper-sexuality and having too many children.
0:24:56.6 DR: What I talked about, the crack baby myth, that was going on at the same time, the myth of the black welfare queen that was going on, all of this at the same time. And so I think we can look at the confluence of these federal policies all as taking on a carceral approach to black families, and also a neoliberal approach of dealing with the needs of impoverished families, especially black families, and through private means, which is getting black mothers off of welfare, deciding that they should get married, but at the same time.
0:25:44.0 DR: Taking children from... Removing children from their homes and then emphasizing their adoption, which even though it's supported by adoption benefits, it still is a private solution to the needs of these families.
0:26:05.9 CW: And the reason why that analysis, one of the reasons is so helpful is it provides a historical context for us to understand not only what's happening in the child welfare system, but least versions of what you're describing. So, for example, the family separation policy at the US border under the last administration, under the Trump administration, and what you talk about in the book is that that strategy is not new, that it's in fact part of a very, very long lineage of using child separation as a deliberate strategy that targets marginalized individuals.
0:26:49.7 DR: That's right. That's part of why the history is so important when we can't see that child removal and placement of children in foster care or adoptive homes has been a deliberate policy of racial subordination, that was a policy that white supremacists put into place after the Civil War to re-enslave black children, and it was a policy of war of the US military to defeat native tribes during the so-called Indian wars. And so now when we see Trump use those same policies and even executive powers that to remove migrant children at the Mexican border from their parents when they arrive at the border, it's not something aberrational, it's not even something we could just attribute to a particular administration, it is a long-standing way that child removal or the threat of child removal, the disruption of families, the surveillance of families has been used as a tool, an instrument of subordination subjugation and also a way to divert attention from the true harms to children and in families to blame the parents for it instead of truly dealing with what puts children at risk in America, it's not their parents, it's the policies.
0:28:34.1 DR: To bring in policies again, we've talked about the policies of family separation, but those policies have to also be contrasted with the policy of not dealing with the true needs of children and families, and instead of addressing them through support portal and through policies that would reduce or end poverty, through policies that would end the systematic government intervention into harmful intervention into black communities, parents get the blame, they're scapegoated, and that diverts public attention away from what would be a better policy to truly keep children safe and provide for their welfare.
0:29:30.2 CW: Right. So let's talk more about the institutional level, because one of the things that I can imagine people thinking about, and it was certainly something I was rethinking about, is having worked with families and study families, we obviously worry about abuse, we worry about physical abuse, we worry about sexual abuse, we worry about children who are in danger within their homes, and I wonder if you can talk about that because you have a really important analysis about what people assume is the number one reason why child welfare is called in, which is evidence of physical or sexual abuse and what the reality is in terms of, more often, why CPS might be called into a home. So can you talk about that institutional practice of how people are more likely to come into contact with CPS?
0:30:27.8 DR: Yes. The main reason why children come into contact and their families into contact with CPS, and also the main reason why children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care is neglect. Only 16% of children in foster care were put there on allegations that their parents sexually or physically abused them, and the rest are there for neglect, which by most state statutes is conflated with poverty. So, many state statutes have neglect definitions that are so broad, they could include almost anything that could possibly see, be seen as a risk to a child, but many specifically state not providing adequate food, clothing, shelter to children. Well, the main reason why parents don't provide those things for children is because they can't afford them, and we live in a society that doesn't have adequate affordable housing, that doesn't have a universal medical care, that doesn't have a universal paid guaranteed childcare or a guaranteed income for parents.
0:31:45.2 DR: These are the main reasons why, and this is an institutional policy that's reinforced by state laws that define neglect as instances of poverty, just the inability to provide these true needs of children, but again, the parents are blamed for it, and the child welfare system doesn't provide for those needs. So, for example, housing is a major reason why children are removed from their homes. There are studies that show that 30% of children in foster care could have stayed safely with their families if they had adequate housing, and Child Protective Services, when they find a family that's not living in adequate housing or that's living in a homeless shelter, for example, their response is to take the children away and put them in foster care, and then tell the parents they better find adequate housing if they wanna get their children back, they don't provide the housing for the family, which would obviously be the way to meet the children's needs.
0:32:55.7 DR: And so this is the institutional level of how removal for basically for poverty is the main reason why children are removed. Let me say one other thing, which I only discovered yesterday, I wish I had put in the book. I tell a story about a mother named Vanessa Pippos, who was given a ticket by a police officer when her child strayed away from a family picnic for about a minute and a stranger grabbed the child, and wouldn't give him back to Vanessa. All this time I assumed that the ticket was for neglect because that's neglect.
0:33:42.7 DR: All she did was allegedly not keep her eye on her son, she thought the son was with a cousin who left and then the son treks behind the cousin. So she didn't keep her eye on her son for a minute. That's not child abuse, that's neglect, but the ticket was actually for child abuse, misdemeanor child abuse, which in Colorado doesn't require that any harm happened to the child. So now I'm wondering if even those 16% of children under Federal statistics who have been put in foster care for sexual or physical abuse, if perhaps it doesn't include children whose parents didn't abuse them at all, but under state statutes, it's defined as child abuse.
0:34:30.9 DR: And by the way, Ms. Pippos now is having a hard time finding a job, she's having a hard time finding housing because she's listed in a registry as a child abuser. That doesn't help her children, her children were not at all helped whatsoever by the intervention of police, because seven police officers arrived at her home and hogged-tight her and removed her from the home, all stemming from a toddler traipsing away for a minute from his mother's care. These institutional practices are harmful overall to families. Now, yes, it's true that there are then this smaller group of children who are removed for physical and sexual abuse, but the child welfare system we have now isn't doing a good job of protecting them. The reason why we know about these children so well is because there are national headlines brought to stories where children known to the system are killed in the home.
0:35:42.0 DR: Now, this is relatively rare, but it gets a lot of attention and we should be concerned about this, but these are children who are missed or not taken seriously by Child Protective Services, they don't do a good job of keeping children safe, and after the fact, removing children from the home is not the best way to address domestic violence, we should be addressing it through better ways of preventing violence, and that is not the focus of our Child Protective Services, they come in after they find harm or risk of harm, and they don't do a good job of preventing either neglect or physical and sexual harm to children.
0:36:33.6 CW: And then let's talk about the community level, because in the book, you talk about basically what for many is the hidden impact, but for people who are living it is the very real impact of a strong community presence of CPS, and you talk about it in similar ways to how people have talked about the overarching presence of the criminal justice system in low-income minoritized communities, and you really encourage us to think about the community impact of the child welfare system. Can you talk a little bit about that in terms of the impact, the use of CPS as a retaliation device within communities, the economic impact of CPS, and the ways of in which resources from CPS impact communities? Can you give us that community impact?
0:37:27.0 DR: Yes, and thanks for bringing that up as well. I think this is an aspect of Child Protective Services or family policing that is ignored, it's ignored too much by sociologists and policy makers, policy scholars and students. When I was at Northwestern, after I wrote Shattered Bonds, it occurred to me that there wasn't research being done on the community effect of intense child welfare agency involvement in black neighborhoods, most research... All the statistics I've talked about so far, for example, are statistics that look at individual instances of involvement, either in an investigation or placement of a child in foster care, and those statistics are accumulated, and we can see stark racial disparities in the statistics, but what that misses is the fact that in large cities, like New York, Chicago, San Francisco is another one, but all over the nation, there.
0:38:37.5 DR: Where there are segregated black communities which usually have high rates of poverty. There is intense concentration of child welfare agency investigations and child removal where there's no comparable amount of investigation like that in white neighborhoods in these cities, so which I was doing the research in Chicago, in Chicago, there are about five black neighborhoods that are predominantly white, high rates of poverty, and almost all the child welfare agency involvement is in those neighborhoods.
0:39:17.5 DR: Though if you look at the rest of Chicago, it pales in comparison to what's going on in those neighborhoods. And so for me, it's clear that the experience of people living in black neighborhoods, children and parents, is radically different from the experience of children and parents, white children and parents in other parts of the city. And so I decided to do a little study which was published in 2006, this is also while I was at Northwestern, and a study of 25 black women in Woodlawn, a black neighborhood in Chicago, one of those neighborhoods where there's a lot of child welfare agency involvement, just to find out from them what is the impact of everybody in the neighborhood being aware that there is this agency that comes in, investigates families, takes large numbers of children away from their families.
0:40:22.2 DR: And everyone knew that there was a lot of... They all said, there's a lot of child welfare agency, they'd say things like 90% of the families in this neighborhood have been affected by Child Protective Services, and they... Actually, they called it the system, everyone called it the system because it was so present in their lives, even though the women I interviewed none of them said their own children have been taken from them.
0:40:51.1 DR: I'm not sure if that's true or not, but because many people don't wanna admit that. But they were reflecting on their knowledge of other families that had been... Had children taken away. They all had friends and neighbors whose children had been taken away. Many of them were kin foster parents of children who had been removed. And they told me things like, you have to look over your shoulder all the time because you don't know who's gonna report you to DCFS, the Department of Children and Family Services. They said... They told me about instances of retaliation where people would call DCFS or the child abuse hotline to get back at someone they had an argument with or a conflict with.
0:41:40.7 DR: They talked about the trauma that children experience, the interference in the parent-child relationship, either by the children being taken away or by just children knowing that it's easy for your parents to be put under the authority of the Child Protective Services. And really, my most surprising finding in the study was that after they told me about all this disruption in their neighborhood, of the department, I asked them at the end, is DCFS too involved in your neighborhood, not involved enough, or involved just the right amount? And I anticipated that the vast majority would tell me it's too involved because they had told me that its involvement was harmful, but most of them said it's not involved enough.
0:42:35.3 DR: And they said that because it was the only way they knew to get any kind of help for their families, they knew that, and some of them were receiving payments as licensed foster parents, kin, in the kin foster care program. One told me about a friend who had gotten a crib for her baby, but they all said, we don't want to have to rely on a disruptive system like this in order to get the material needs and income we require to take care of our children, which should be, we should just be able to get it. The relatives who are taking care of children couldn't understand why they had to be part of this disruptive system to get the income they needed to take care of their grandchildren or their nephews and nieces. And so, yes, they wanted more involvement, meaning they wanted more concrete support from the government, but they didn't want it to be hinged on giving up custody of children and letting these investigators into their neighborhood to disrupt it.
0:44:01.6 CW: Yeah. I write about it myself in Remaking a Life, it's a perverse safety net, it's a perverse safety net, yeah.
0:44:09.9 DR: Absolutely, it really is. I often think they claim that these parents are pathological, and that's why they neglect their children, but to me it's pathological to force people to give up their children in order to get support for their children, that is, as you say, extremely perverse. We should not have a safety net system that relies on these punitive coercive tactics and requirements in order to support families and children, it backfires, it's part of the reason why it doesn't keep children safe, because if there are many families that are in true need, but they don't.
0:45:00.6 DR: They don't wanna tell government agents, or even... And by government agents, it could be a doctor, it could be a teacher, it could be a social service provider, but they don't wanna fully let them know the extent of problems that they're facing for fear that these mandated reporters are gonna turn them over to CPS and they'll have their children taken from them. And this is another example of how it's counter-productive, is the case of mothers who are survivors of domestic violence, who are afraid to call CPS because they... And this is worded, I believe, that their children might be taken from them, even if their children are safe at home, even if their children have an experienced violence, many mothers would rather, and I quote some of them in the book, would rather endure the violence themselves and know that their children are safe at home than call for help and have their children taken and put in a dangerous foster care system.
0:46:10.4 DR: And so, some people might think, "Oh, well, why wouldn't you call a domestic violence hotline for help? Wouldn't that be better for your children?" But not necessarily if you are honestly afraid and you have good reason to be, that your children may be taken and put in the custody of strangers or in an institution where we know there's violence and sexual abuse, as well as in homes, and it might be in individual cases, more likely that the child is going to experience violence in foster care than at home. And so, in fact, there are studies that show that at the margin where there are children that could remain at home or be placed in foster care, children are better off at home than being put into foster care.
0:47:07.7 CW: So, as we unpacked that, the central argument of the book and looked at the policies, the institutions, the community impact, and you've talked about the individual impact on families throughout this, I wonder if you can pivot to talk to us about ultimately where you land, and you land at abolition, and I wonder if you can talk about that in the context of your biography as a smaller activist, and talking about activist piece of your work that is intertwined with the prescription that you have around abolition.
0:47:46.9 DR: Sure. Well, I can say that all of my work from Killing the Black Body to Shattered Bonds, to Torn Apart, has relied on engagement with activist organizations. With Killing the Black Body, I was so blessed that I wrote that book was published in 1997, and it was right at the beginning of the Reproductive Justice Movement, and in doing my research for Killing the Black Body, I was engaged with the emerging newly coined term, in fact it was coined while I was working on Killing the Black Body, reproductive justice, and working primarily with black feminists who developed this idea, this concept, that we have to take into account the social structures that impede people's reproductive freedom, especially black women's reproductive freedom, and not just base it on a framework of being able to choose how you want to live your reproductive life, we have to take into account the structural and systemic inequities that make it impossible for many people to choose how to live their reproductive lives and actually have actual control over their bodies.
0:49:09.2 DR: And then similarly with Shattered Bonds, I was greatly influenced by a group of mothers who were meeting in a church basement in Englewood in Chicago, who were trying to get their children back from foster care, supporting each other, and trying to launch a campaign highlighting the injustices of the family policing system there. And similarly now with Torn Apart, I've been engaged with a much larger now activist community that is working toward abolition. And as I mentioned before, I am only able to understand what abolition means, to understand the principles of it, the philosophy of it, and strategies around it by engaging with prison abolitionists.
0:50:01.4 DR: So everything I have ever written in all my books have been influenced and benefited from the essential engagement with activists. And so what I've learned about abolition is that it is a horizon of a vision of a society that doesn't rely on carceral punitive disruptive terroristic forms of government intervention into families and communities in order to maintain some kind of order in our society, but instead relies on truly caring, supportive, equitable, just ways of generously supporting people, including families, in largely community-based that.
0:51:04.0 DR: Truly meets people's human needs and doesn't rely on punishing people as a way, in order to provide stingy, inadequate resources for people, and the belief, which I think is well established, that we can build a society like that and that society would be healthier and more caring and safer for everybody, and so that's the overall vision of abolition, it's both dismantling piece by piece the unjust, punitive, terroristic, carceral systems we have now that do not keep people safe or meet their needs, and at the same time simultaneously, and this is essential, we have to be building different resources, different networks, different approaches, different ways of thinking that are based on caring and support, and human equality and dignity, and not on these punitive approaches, and in that way, we can move toward a horizon of true abolition, which must include both of these components, both dismantling and building up.
0:52:33.4 CW: So, I wanna get through a lightning round, if you will, of audience questions.
0:52:40.0 DR: Okay.
0:52:41.5 CW: So I'm gonna read in our remaining time about four, and I'm hoping we can get through, that may be ambitious, we'll see how we do.
0:52:47.8 DR: Okay.
0:52:48.5 CW: First question: Favorable foster care outcomes for natural families, adoptive families, and adopted individuals do exist. I am one such case. What would you say to those who, with the exception, who are highly likely saved by the system and whose family show favorable outcomes when abolishing the system removes any chance of favorable foster care outcomes?
0:53:11.8 DR: Okay. Well, there's a... So, yes, there are exceptions on both sides, of course, there are children who were saved or rescued, I'm using the term, the person who asked the question take it from disastrous home situations where they were being harmed and put into other adoptive foster homes where they fared better, and yes, that's the case, but we also have to look at the overall harm that foster care does. So, for all the examples, I can also give you examples of children who were killed by staff in so-called Residential Therapeutic centers of children who were sexually abused and treated violently in group homes or who were killed by foster parents. I could cite statistics of the high rates of suicide by children in foster care, and we don't have time to do that, but believe me, there are lots of studies and anecdotes of children in foster care who say it's worse than what was happening at home, and as I've mentioned in the vast majority of cases, it's neglect that's related to poverty.
0:54:36.6 DR: So I'm not denying that in the system we have now, we can find those cases on both sides, but the question is, Is this the best way to deal with either family violence or the needs of children that stem just from inadequate income in the home, or can we have a better way where there would be the outcomes that this person is asking about for all children? It shouldn't be that we should keep a system that has some good outcomes, but lots of terrible outcomes for children of the overall statistics of outcomes for children in foster care are abysmal, they have higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of mental illness. So we should be asking, what is the best system or the best approach...
0:55:35.5 DR: I'm not necessarily saying it should be a new revised system, but the best approach for dealing with the needs of children and families and keeping children safe. And I think we have to stop relying on the fact that there are some good outcomes as an excuse. And I'm not trying to diminish the question, I really take it seriously. But it shouldn't be a reason to keep a system that is also harming when we could imagine and build something that's better for all children.
0:56:13.6 CW: So, what do you think a good first step is for organizers who wanna begin thinking about this question? And one of the critiques of abolitionist frameworks are, it's not practical, where do you start? It's too overwhelming. And I think that a lot of people watching, particularly students are grappling with this question of, Do I try to work from within an institution? Do I become part of the institution in order to try to change it? Or do I adopt an abolitionist framework that sees the system as is fundamentally broken and then putting my energy towards that? So I wonder if you can close this out by helping us think through that dilemma.
0:56:57.5 DR: Sure. So, first of all, it's important to remember that abolitionist horizon, no abolitionist I know thinks that we're going to tear down prisons, police and in foster care... Even in 10 years, but... Well, maybe some have a slightly shorter horizon, but any what? Time soon, let's put it that way. And we see it as an incremental process of both dismantling piece by piece, but also building up a replacement for what we have now, that takes time, so it's not as if anyone thinks it's going to happen quickly. And so the question is, How do we incrementally move toward that? And so a couple of things I wanna say is, number one, there are abolitionist organizations now that we can turn to who are already doing this work, Movement for Family Power in New York City, JMacForFamilies led by Joyce McMillan in New York City, also the upEND Movement, that is a collaboration of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and the University of Houston, School of Social Work, its Dean of Social Work, Alan Dettlaff is an abolitionist. And so there are organizations and websites that students can look to now for more information and to get involved now.
0:58:32.2 DR: I think a really useful abolitionist principle is that of non-reformist reforms, that is recognizing we need reforms, we need, for example, to advocate for high quality legal assistance that's multi-disciplinary, that includes social workers and parent, peer advocates as well as attorneys to represent family caregivers in child welfare proceedings, that is something we could pass legislation to provide now, and it would help to keep children safely out of foster care. So that's just one example of a concrete step we could take now that would help to dismantle the system and also would help to begin to build a more caring approach for families.
0:59:30.8 DR: And so non-reformist reforms are reforms that aren't reformist in the sense that our goal isn't just to fix flaws in the system, it is to dismantle the system and replace it, but we recognize that we have to engage in some reforms, but they shouldn't be reforms that continue this philosophy of destroying families, they should be reforms that support children and families and prevent violence, just react to it after the fact by taking children away from their families. And so that's how I think we should approach it.
1:00:10.3 DR: And I think it's a tough question. I know that some of my colleagues and comrades would probably say I don't have anything to do with this system at all, but I just made a recommendation for family defenders who are engaging in some way with the system, in opposition to it, but they're part of the legal proceedings, trying to keep families out of those proceedings, but engaging with those proceedings. Social workers can work in those offices or other kinds of programs, we need social workers to help build the programs and resources and networks that are outside of the child welfare system.
1:01:03.1 DR: So rather than say, approve, going into the system, I will just say, there's lots to do outside of it as well, and if that's what you're interested in, help us to dismantle what we have now that's so destructive and build more caring, resource, rich, and equitable non-carceral networks that can truly be a current replacement, this is not just 10 years or from not, but right now, we can be building them to eventually completely replace the destructive system we have now with this more caring and humane approach.
1:01:51.4 CW: The book is called Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Dorothy Roberts, you have given us a policy and legal analysis that is grounded in history and sociological and political and economic analysis, you have helped us understand how the system operates on many levels in terms of federal, state, local policy, institutional dynamics, community dynamics, family, and individual dynamics, and you have shown us how activism and scholarship can work together through the rigor of scholarship and the passion and organizing of activism to make the world a better place, and you have done that so beautifully and given us some very clear direction in terms of how we think about child welfare, but also so many other systems, criminal justice, so many systems that have a lot of similarities to what you're describing today, and for all of these reasons, I think this book is a must read. And I really wanna thank you for joining us today in our 2022 Winter Masterclass in Activism, and I wanna thank the audience for joining us. Thank you so much, Dorothy.
1:03:17.3 DR: Oh, thank you, Celeste. I could not thank you enough, those are brilliant questions and I've truly enjoyed, and I appreciate this conversation.
1:03:29.1 CW: Wonderful. You are welcome. Thank you everyone for joining us. And with that, we really appreciate your participation. And now we end the session for today. Thanks again for joining.