Professor Dorothy Roberts Argues, in Her Book "Shattered Bonds," that Child Welfare Discourse Fails to Factor in Racial Bias

January 08, 2002

January 8. 2002

Child Welfare Discourse Fails to Factor in Racial Bias

CHICAGO --- A recent federal study found that even when families have the same characteristics and problems, Black children are most likely to be placed in foster care.

Dorothy RobertsForty-two percent of all children in foster care nationwide are Black, even though Black children constitute only 17 percent of the nation’s youth. And once Black children enter foster care, they remain there longer, are moved more often, and are less likely either to be returned home or adopted than white children.
Those are but a few of the statistics that bolster arguments in a provocative new book, "Shattered Bonds: the Color of Child Welfare," by Dorothy Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law and faculty fellow at the University’s Institute for Policy Research.

A prominent legal scholar and social critic, Roberts argues that the overwhelming number of Black children in foster care points to a disturbing reality that is rarely addressed in child welfare discourse: racial bias.
"Today’s child welfare discourse is marked by an abysmal failure to grasp the racial harm inflicted by the child welfare system," Roberts says. "Most white children referred to child protective services are permitted to stay with their families, whereas most Black children are taken away from theirs."

In contrast to arguments that focus on social work practice and how children should be treated in the child welfare system, Roberts offers a probing examination of how the politics of race and class profoundly affect which children become involved in the system.

"Shattered Bonds" describes the racial imbalance in foster care; the concentration of state intervention in certain neighborhoods, including the alarming percentages of children in substitute care; the difficulty that poor and Black families have in meeting state standards for regaining custody of children placed in foster care; and the relationship between state supervision and continuing racial inequality.

Child protection policy has conformed to the current political climate, which embraces punitive responses to the seemingly intractable plight of America’s isolated and impoverished inner cities, according to Roberts. In the past several years, federal and state policy have shifted away from preserving families toward "freeing" children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights. Black families, who are disproportionately poor, Roberts says, have been hit the hardest.

"Black communities have become targets of stigmatized services designed to investigate and punish deficient parents rather than preserve families," Roberts concludes.

Neglect, usually linked to poverty -- not physical or sexual abuse -- is the main reason that most children end up in foster care. (There are twice as many cases of child neglect as cases of physical abuse.)

High rates of poverty among Black families, bolstered by stereotypes about Black parental unfitness, create the system’s racial disparity, according to Roberts. The racial harm profoundly affects the Black community, extending well beyond the obvious injuries to Blacks involved in the child welfare system, she argues.

"The negative consequences of disrupting large number of Black families and placing them under state supervision affects Black people’s status and welfare as a group."

Most African Americans, Roberts says, are deeply aware that, whatever their individual character and efforts, their personal well-being and chances of success are inextricably tied to the advancement of African Americans as a group.

Excessive state interference in Black family life damages Black people’s sense of personal and community identity, and placing large numbers of children in state custody interferes with critical functions served by families, according to the book.

The Black community’s social capital is weakened, its ability to form productive connections among its members with people and institutions outside the community is harmed.

Roberts proposes a child welfare system that would not eliminate state involvement but would radically change its nature, by redefining child welfare to generously support children in their homes.

"I don’t see why as a society we are not willing to give generous supports for families, but we are willing to spend billions to remove children from their families," Roberts says.

Among Roberts’ recommendations:

• Reduce family poverty by increasing the minimum wage, instituting a guaranteed income and enacting aggressive job creation policies;

• Establish a system of national health insurance that covers everyone;

• Provide high-quality subsidized child care, preschool education and paid parental leaves for all families;

• Increase client participation in child welfare policy;

• And make child welfare agencies more accountable to the communities where their clients live.

By improving conditions for all families, especially poor families, universal social programs will help reduce coercive state intervention in Black homes, Roberts concludes.

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