Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare – review of child protection data by Dorothy Roberts

Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare – review of child protection data by Dorothy Roberts

Shattered Bonds

Shattered Bonds is a thoughtful essay in three parts regarding the gap between what we as a society think we mean by child “protection” and “welfare,” and what actually happens as a result of the Child Protective System and the Welfare System. While you might not agree with all of her conclusions, she cites a wealth of studies (many regarding children here in Illinois and in Chicago) showing serious breakdowns in the system.

Roberts’ premise is basically this. First, the child welfare effort in the US is ineffective mainly because it is misdirected; current laws and policies fail to take into account the role of poverty in child maltreatment, for example. Second, intervention by Child Protective Services (CPS) is mismanaged and inflicts harm on children by separating them needlessly from family, and by placing them at risk for additional future problems. Third, the end result of this, a result not visible unless one adopts a “larger picture” view, is that the Black family is being split, experiencing “shattered bonds,” and that this is undermining the stability of Black culture in America.

The Impact of Poverty on Child Welfare

Roberts begins by linking the involvement of Child Protective Services in minority communities to poverty. She reports that half a million children are taken from their home each year and put into foster care, and Black children make up 42% of this number nationwide. In some places they make up more, for example, comprising 75% of Illinois cases and 95% of Chicago cases. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, abandonment, and neglect (failure to clothe, feed, supervise, and provide adequate medical care) can all lead to an intervention in the family. However, neglect is the basis for half of the maltreatment investigations, with abuse being the cause for only a fourth. In some areas, the percentages are even more disparate, including New York City where neglect cases outnumber abuse cases 10 to 1.

She notes that Black families are two to three times more likely to be poor, with 33% of Black children living in poverty compared to 13.5% of White children, and 15% of Black children living in extreme poverty (less than $6,645 a year for a family of three) compared to 5% of White children. Put another way, of the children who turned 18 between 1988 and 1990, 67% of all Black children had lived in poverty for at least a year of their childhood at some point, while only 21% of White children had. The Department of Health and Human Services determined in 1996 that there were 24 times more cases of abuse and neglect in families making less than $15,000 a year compared to families making $30,000 a year. Stress associated with poverty, depression, and poor and crowded housing are more likely to be seen with abuse and neglect, and Roberts draws upon several studies to support this.

Roberts clarifies that this is not an issue of poverty alone, however, as Latino communities experience similar levels of poverty. However, Latinos are not overrepresented in child maltreatment statistics beyond their percentage in the general US population. Black parents are reported for maltreatment three times more often nationwide, and 10 times more often in New York City. Even in communities in which Black children are only 2% of the population, they are 15 times more likely to enter foster care. Likewise, this is not an issue of one-parent versus two-parent homes, as child maltreatment is just as likely in one-parent as in two-parent homes once income is controlled.

It should be noted that while these numbers and their implications are shocking, Roberts, in my opinion, misrepresents something. She basically removes a key point from the equation, and then concludes that since it is not in the equation it must not be important. She notes that the number of parents in the home makes no difference, after income is statistically controlled. However, a two-parent home is more likely to be a two-income home, or at least a single income home where one parent has fewer child care responsibilities and can dedicate themselves to income. Thus, a two-parent home is more likely to avoid poverty.

Roberts believes this is more an issue of race. She recounts studies such as one in Denver that found White children with head traumas inflicted through abuse were misdiagnosed in 37% of cases. However, Black children with head traumas inflicted through abuse were misdiagnosed in only 19% of cases. The implication is that doctors are more likely to be suspicious of abuse when seeing children of Black parents than White. She cites another study from New York showing that Black mothers giving birth to children testing positive for drugs had their children removed from their care 72% more often than White mothers. A Florida study showed that despite equal levels of substance abuse among mothers seen at a hospital, Black mothers were reported to Child Protective Services 10 times more often. She also reports that hospitals routinely serving minority communities are more likely to test for illegal substances at birth, and so White mothers may be reported less frequently because the substance abuse is undetected. It is not just that poorer families are more likely to be caught, Roberts notes, but that wealth can provide a degree of privacy. Additional caretakers (nannies, scout leaders, tutors…), programs (school, community, church…), and better neighborhoods (less crime and better oversight by parents, schools, and police) can hide many family problems.

Roberts’ report on differing levels of suspicion and on the opportunities to observe evidence of abuse may seem shocking. While her meaning about the numbers of the diagnosed head traumas resulting from abuse may not immediately be clear, Roberts’ point is that White parents are less likely to be seen as being at risk for serious abuse, while Black parents are more likely to be viewed with suspicion. In my experience, this has been true. Cases in which White parents who had been grossly neglectful over a period of weeks were reunified within a matter of months, and in which White parents at risk for significant abuse were given unsupervised visitation soon after intervention, are not uncommon. On the other hand, I’ve seen plenty of cases of Black families in which no one could tell me exactly why the case had been entered into the Child Protection Services system and why it had continued for seven years, as well as cases in which apartment finding services would have been more helpful than court ordered assessment and therapy.

With poverty so severe in Black communities, many families have no choice but to turn to social service agencies, which are often connected with Child Protective Services, for help. Even when child protective agencies are involved at the family’s request (which would make one think they had nothing to hide), there is no conceptualization of an “approvable” report. In other words, any intervention of Child Protective Services is seen as evidence of parental inadequacy. As a result, she noted that many families may hide information from social service workers, in order to avoid giving information that can be used against them later. This can heighten suspicion of the family by the worker, and make it appear “they have something to hide.” Heightened examination and suspicion of the family make them more likely to be judged as lacking or failing in some way.

Child Protective Services

Roberts argues that once Child Protective Services is involved, racism continues. Once the family is involved in services, families of White children are twice as likely to be offered in-home services and help obtaining adequate housing compared to families of Black children, even when the families face the same problems, according to an HHS study. Black children in relative placement receive fewer services, less financial support, and less health care. Roberts cites one study in which only 13% of LBW Black babies in relative care received adequate health services.

Roberts does some statistical work to derive a ratio comparing the percentage of child abuse cases that belongs to a minority group, and the percentage of the general population that belongs to a minority group. A ratio of 1.00 then would mean that a minority group was represented in child abuse cases at the same frequency with which it was represented in the general population. What she found was that this ratio was slightly less than 1.0 for Whites, slightly higher than 1.0 for Hispanics, and highly variable for Blacks, ranging from 1.22 in Alabama to 6.90 in Minnesota (the ratio for the state of Illinois was 2.56).

Roberts attributes this variability to inconsistency in decisions about Black children. She cites one study done in 1972 in which caseworkers and judges reviewed materials for cases and made a decision about child placement. Across 127 cases, agreement between judges and caseworkers was less than 25%, with considerable variability. One judge was noted to be four times more likely to recommend removing children than another judge, and caseworker agreement was close to random. A study conducted in South Carolina showed that in one county, only 14% of child abuse reports were judged substantiated, while in a neighboring county, 89% of reports were judged substantiated.

Roberts also attributes this variability to public opinion and fear. She explains that after Joseph Wallace was hanged by his mentally ill mother in 1993, foster care cases rose 30%, and so courts and caseworkers alike felt social pressures to remove children from biological families and place them in foster care. She questions whether the number of dangerous situations for children rose by 30% so quickly, or whether courts were likely to simply “rubber-stamp” recommendations to remove children from their homes. She notes that this is more likely, as caseworkers are free to remove children from their families and seek court review and permission to do so afterwards.

Roberts also attributes this variability to many of the pressures that caseworkers face. She notes that most are undertrained, overworked, and experience a high degree of turn over in their jobs. One study in New York indicated that one in ten children in many neighborhoods were investigated by Child Protective Services. She cites one Los Angeles study from June, 2000, which showed that the average caseworker had 45-50 cases. Further, caseworkers have no standardized method by which to judge the danger a child faces in staying with a biological family. Even where checklists and questionnaires to aid in this do exist, they may not have any scientific value behind them. Some caseworkers are taught to treat cooperation with child care agencies as a criterion for safety, and not specific characteristics of the care givers or their relationship with the child. Roberts notes that psychiatric diagnoses are more likely to be given to African-Americans, and African-American mothers are three times more likely to be single mothers. As a result, even caseworkers who try to use “meaningful” criteria such as mental illness and limited ability to provide for a child’s physical needs are still more likely to recommend removal from African-American homes.

Roberts quotes from Child Welfare Watch , a study of New York caseworkers, and cites one caseworkers who said, “Black people often don’t know their legal rights. White people may be more likely to call their attorney… The average feeling among caseworkers is, if you removal a White child, you stand a chance next morning of facing White parents with their lawyers… There’s no similar fear in removing a Black or Hispanic child from home.”

In some ways, Roberts sidesteps the issue here. There is some pressure to “always play it safe” and remove a child as a way to “guarantee” their safety. The reality is that even with checklists, guidelines, and second opinions, as a field, mental health workers are not good at predicting violence. In fact, the best predictor of future violence is past violence, and beyond that, most factors only improve our predictions marginally at best. She later points out that shelters, foster care, and group homes fall far short of “guaranteeing” a child’s safety, which is true. However, when faced with abuse cases, courts and caseworkers, acting in a manner consistent with the published research, are more likely to find substantiated past abuse to far outweigh a potential future abuse in a family without a history of abuse reports, and thus to move a child from a family home to a foster home.

Based on Roberts’ previous point that neglect cases outnumber abuse cases, one might counter that neglect charges should never result in a child’s removal. However, in my experience, neglect as a result of poverty is quite different from neglect as the result of substance abuse. Simply increasing the household income, providing child care services so the parent can work, or a medical card to obtain free medical care is not enough. The parent must be able to make good use of these services before they are actually helpful. Roberts’ coverage of this issue is rather limited, however, as seen in the cases she cites.

In support of the power that legal services grant to richer parents, Roberts talks about the case the Tina Olson. She was known to many as “the mother of Baby T”, a Black child removed from his biological mother after testing positive at birth for cocaine, and placed with a White foster family. The foster parents were a high profile aldermen and judge. The alderman’s family was able to pay for high quality legal representation and, to many, able to provide a “better” home for Baby T. Despite the media attention, community protests, hunger strikes, and trial of the case in another court system to minimize the influence the judge had, Roberts argues that Ms. Olson had little chance to regain custody of her child.

Robert cites a story of another parent who was living in a rehabilitation program with her children. She left the program shelter to visit a cousin and borrow money, but ended up using substances with this cousin and leaving the children in the shelter unattended overnight. She lost custody of her children as well.

In Roberts’ discussion of the case of “Baby T”, in my opinion, Roberts failed to fully discuss Ms. Olson’s substance abuse problems and their role in the case. In Roberts’ discussion of the mother who left her children in a shelter while she left and used substances, Roberts fails to discuss issues such as whether or not the children should have been living with their mother while she was in rehabilitation, or whether the mother really left the program shelter without the intention to relapse. Early on in substance abuse treatment, avoiding people, places, and things associated with substance use is stressed and stressed as the key to sobriety. Thus, leaving the shelter to place herself at risk for relapse raises larger questions about her motivated commitment to sobriety. Further, that she was homeless and using substances to the neglect of her children isn’t discussed as legitimate grounds to remove her children from her care either.

It has been my experience that many parents do experience discrimination in the Child Protective Services system. That the number is large is not in doubt to me; however, when other factors, substance abuse in particular, come into play, I think neglect charges are far more serious. I think Roberts would argue that White parents do not have to struggle with the temptation to use substances to cope with helplessness and hopelessness, and that when White parents do use substances, their use may be assumed to be “recreational” before “abuse” is considered. I agree. However, I think this is a disservice to the White children in the system, and not an unfair edge White parents receive that is denied to Black parents.

Roberts pays special attention to the role of psychologists in child protective matters. She states that some psychologists recommend against returning a child to the biological home in 93% of the cases they see. She also raises concerns that psychological evaluations of parents involved in child protective matters is a kind of “money making business” with evaluations recommending “no change” to the case followed by “re-evaluation in one year.” Roberts argues Psychological Evaluations were especially harmful, as parents with “normal” problems are pathologized, and “core” personality pathology is not separated from distress resulting from the family breakup. She also notes internal investigations that found workers classified psychologists as “pro-” or “anti-” parent, and referred cases to them to obtain professional opinions matching their own. She states such psychologists can be hired to search for negative information about a Black parent, looking until they find it.

As a psychologist who used to perform evaluations for Child Protective Services (DCFS here in Illinois), I have to note concern over Roberts’ point here. On the one hand, this is something I and other psychologists suspected. We tried to maintain a neutral view of the cases that came to us to compensate for this, but sometimes this was very difficult to do when the concerns of courts, attorneys, and caseworkers all serve to limit your access to information about the case.

On the other hand, after a while, this kind of situation becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. If workers perceive a psychologist to more frequently recommend Termination of Parental Rights, they are more likely over time to send chronic and severe cases to the psychologist. Thus, their perception that the psychologist is more likely to take a strict approach to the case becomes confirmed and strengthened over time, as does the psychologist’s tendency to take a harsh stance. They continue to selectively refer cases to that psychologist, and then a review of the cases sent to the psychologist will very likely show a high number of harsh recommendations. Likewise, if workers perceive a psychologist is more “pro-family” they will refer better functioning families to this psychologist to maximize the chances of a recommendation for reunification of the family. Over time, this happens more and more, the worker and psychologists are reinforced for their actions, and a later examination of this psychologist’s “record” would be similarly highly positive.

However, Roberts points out that, nationwide, 47% of abuse and neglect charges are reported by non-professionals. Thus, the bias of psychologists, caseworkers, and judges is not the only bias. Many in the general population hold the view that parents should be able to financially support their children, and provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter. However, she notes that this ignores issues of social disparity, and places all blame upon the parents, rather than the structures of society at large that support continued poverty.

Beyond Poverty: Problems with Foster Care

Even when families are involved in the Child Protective Services system for reasons other than poverty, things remain pretty much the same. Roberts notes that caseworkers are required to perform less paperwork, home visits, and service reviews when the child is placed in a non-relative foster placement. Where the agency is ordered by the courts to perform “reasonable efforts” to provide for the reunification of the child with family (and Roberts reports that agencies are not required to do this in some states, such as Alabama), legitimate efforts are often thwarted by lack of funding, unavailable services, and judges that are willing to accept this. For example, substance abuse services are provided for only 31% of parents who need them, and only 20% of pregnant women who need them, according to a Columbia University study. Further, only 10% of caseworkers are able to place parents who receive treatment in a program within 30 days of child protection intervention, according to the Child Welfare League of the America. She further notes that many treatment programs base their models on treatment on men, and give little thought to the different treatment needs of women, who often have children to care for, as well as histories of sexual abuse or assault that complicate their efforts to remain sober.

While this goes on, children are placed in foster care. The biological parents often go through psychological evaluations and bonding assessments to assess their adequacy and relationship to the child, but foster parents seldom do. While some might argue that foster homes are more likely to be healthy homes run by well-adjusted adults, Roberts notes that children in foster care are sexually abused four times more frequently than children in the general population, according to a Baltimore study. Children in group homes in Indiana are 10 times more likely to be physically abused, and 28 times more likely be sexually abused. Another study showed that children were twice as likely to die at the hands of a foster parent than a biological parent.

Further, the availability of foster and adoptive parents does not match the needs of foster children. Roberts reports that there were 568,000 children in foster care in 1999. Of those, 15% had been there for three to four years, 18% had been there for more than five years, and 117,000 were waiting for adoption. Even were adoptive parents available for every child, studies of foster children reveal that 59% do not want to be adopted, especially once they reach their teen years. This often leads to additional problems, such as adolescent acting out due to deliberate efforts to communicate their dislike, or due to conflicted emotions and “loyalties” around ending the tie to one parent to formalize the tie to another parent. Even when adoptive parents are available, and children do wish to be adopted, 15-25% of foster parents change their mind before the adoption paperwork is completed, causing additional emotional hardship for the children.

Many times, adoption by non-relatives is sought by the State because adoption by relatives is not available. However one study of kinship adoptions indicated that 85% of relative foster parents were willing to maintain guardianship of their foster child indefinitely. However, they did not wish to formally adopt the child so as to “leave the door open” for the biological parent to eventually resume these responsibilities. As a result, these relative guardianship placements have to be abandoned in order to find non-relative adoptive placements.

The Problem with Welfare and Child Support

Roberts discusses in detail the financial consequences of the system, and states clearly that it costs the State more money to remove the child from the biological family and place the child in non-relative foster care. She cites a 1998 study in Michigan by the Auditor General revealing that yearly preservation efforts cost $4,400 per child, whereas foster care costs $12,400 per child. Where institutionalization is required, the State can expect to spend $56,200 per year per child. A study by the General Accounting Office revealed that the nation spent 40 cents per child in foster care in 1983, and $1 per child in foster care in 1993. However, the nation continue to spend about 12 cents per child on welfare.

Robert reports that in 1931, only 3% of mothers involved in welfare were Black. In the 1950s, many Blacks were excluded from receiving welfare in some southern states, or received significantly smaller benefits. By 1961, an application for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits often lead to a report to Child Protective Services. By 1967, many welfare services required low paying work, like housecleaning, manual labor, and child care.

Roberts notes that this finding is an exceptional case of irony. Parents our society typically finds unfit to care for their own children are paid to care for other people’s children. However, currently, 80% of for-profit child care chains hire welfare recipients to provide child care, with entry jobs paying $10,000 a year, and the average worker earning $13,000 or less per year. Similarly, Robert cites the case of the 64-year-old grandmother who took over responsibility to care for her three-year-old grandson after his mother’s death. Welfare benefits ran out when the boy reached age 8, and so the grandmother, at age 69, was expected to obtain employment, support herself and her grandson on a fixed income, or turn over custody of her grandson to the State. Roberts cites another case in Mississippi of a woman who cared for ill mother and brother. She was unable to maintain 30 hours of employment a week, lost the $435 of benefits among she received, and her children were placed in foster care. The State paid the foster family $510 a month to care for her children. Robert cites another case in California in 1996. At that time, two children, ages 8 and 16, would warrant $859 a month in support from the State in foster care, but only $479 a month in support from the State as part of AFDC.

While some might argue that a requirement of work to receive these kinds of benefits is reasonable, a New York Times article reported that in Mississippi, the number of families dropped from the Welfare for Work program outnumbered the ones who received work by a factor of 2 to 1. In Milwaukee, when work requirements replaced cash assistance, food banks had a 30% increase in need, homeless shelters reached capacity, and infant mortality in the Black community increased by 40%. Similarly, after similar changes in New York, homeless shelters rose to provide accommodations for over 25,000 occupants, their highest level since the 1980s, and soup kitchens experienced a 20% increase. The study in Mississippi showed that those who were able to obtain employment through such a program on average earned $6.75 an hour, hardly enough to support a family. In Illinois, of the 40% of those who were able to earn sufficient income to no longer qualify for services, only 27% were minorities. As a result, such programs do little to actually end poverty.

Thus, some of those who are able to receive the limited assistance offered may be able to improve their lot in life. However, those who are not tend to fall deeper into poverty. Several studies showed that “graduating” from welfare and work programs tripled the risk for Child Protective Services intervention. A California study found that in one county, being cut from welfare benefits triggered a report and home visit by a Child Protective worker. Roberts cites an eight-year study that showed that states that allowed families to simply be dropped from welfare rolls experienced a 21% increase in substantiated cases of maltreatment. However, of states that supported a 10% increase in benefits, most saw a 32% decrease in the number of reported cases of neglect, and an 8% decrease in the number of children removed from biological homes.

Roberts ties welfare reform to child abuse reports more directly, based on a number of studies from across the nation. A study in Los Angeles revealed that when AFDC benefits decreased by 2.7%, reports of neglect and abuse increased by 12%. Later, following a 5.8% decrease in funding, neglect and malnutrition reports increased by 20%, constituting a 10% increase in the number of cases reported to Child Protective Services.

Harm of ASFA: Adoption Doesn’t Solve The Problem

Roberts devotes considerable attention to the Adoption and Save Family’s Act of 1997 (ASFA), which pressures courts and agencies to terminate parental rights and place children in adoptive homes more quickly (within 22 months of entry into the Child Protection System). Roberts reports of one case in which a judge terminated a parent’s rights within this 22 month period because of the failure of the parent to make progress. However, the delay in the case of this parent was mostly due to the State, as the court hearing had been delayed three times at the State’s request. A second judge overturned this termination of parental rights, and the State appealed the case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Roberts notes this law purports to place the child’s needs first, but assumes that adoption is in the best interest of the child. She notes that Termination of Parental Rights increased by 33% in New York in the year following ASFA, and increased by a factor of five in the four years following ASFA in Cook County, Illinois, from 958 to 3,743 cases of terminated parental rights per year. This would mean that three of five parents involved in the Child Protective Services system eventually lost their parental rights. Roberts notes this is in direct contradiction to the pattern seen in divorce cases. She notes that 15% of divorced fathers suffer from psychiatric illness, and 25% have children who “moderately or intensely” fear their fathers. Roberts says that 40% of these fathers have relationships with their children that are “profoundly troubled.” She notes, however, that the rights of these fathers are protected.

Roberts’ criticism of the behavior of courts in divorce cases in protecting the rights of fathers would be seen as “misinformed” at best by many fathers’ rights advocates. Many advocates would note in reply that many of these fathers suffer from troubled relationships with their children as the result of the behavior of angry and vengeful mothers, insensitive courts that interfered in father-child contact, and a bias against them including doubt as to whether they were even necessary to a child’s healthy development. Further, for many of these fathers, the disruption of their marriage, family, and home, coupled with the assault to their self-esteem and identity, are the cause of their stress-related illness. Many advocates would question whether the courts really protect the right of fathers, and whether the only fathers who are able to see their rights protected are the ones with substantial financial power. In short, I do not believe her analogy of the rights divorced fathers is very accurate.

Further, in her criticism of ASFA, Roberts makes no mention of the cases that are “held open” while parents do have years to cease substance abuse, obtain employment, and maintain stable housing. In these cases, parents are often unable to maintain even six months of sobriety, and as a result see the child for extended periods of time and then drop out of the child’s life altogether for extended periods of time. Some research indicates that this kind of “wavering commitment” to parenting is especially harmful to the children’s attachments. Thus, while the law may or may not help all families, Roberts’ gives no indication that any families may be helped by it. In my practice I saw family cases that had been open for seven years. Some were held open for reasons I never understood, aside from each evaluation indicating the case should simply continue as before and be re-evaluated in a year. For some, the parent was never able to “pull it together” but for others they eventually were. Thus, a determination of whether or not the law was helpful to a majority of families would require more review of the data.

The Role of Prisons: Preventing Fatherhood

Roberts discusses the role of prisons by noting that the US has the largest prison system in the world, housing 25% of the world’s prisoners, while the US comprises only 5% of the world’s population. Further, half the population in jail is Black. Put another way, one study found that in some areas of the United States, 33% of Black men can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their life, while only 4% of White men can expect the same. Roberts explains that maltreatment of a child increases their likelihood of a teen or adult arrest by 53%.

Two points deserve mention, Roberts explains. First, poverty impacts parenting. Low paying jobs often required evening hours, and so poor parents are less able to supervise their children in evening. Coupled with a greater likelihood of living in crime-ridden neighborhood when poor, children of poor parents are more likely to be exposed to criminal elements. If parents are able to go to the police station or attend a hearing, arrested teens are often released, or at least avoid prolonged detention. However, poor parents may be unable to attend due to work obligations. In these cases, studies like one conducted in Los Angeles found that Asian teens were three times more likely, Hispanic teens were six times more likely, and Black teens were twelve times more likely than Whites to be sent to an adult court.

Foster care appears to make this worse. When a minority child has been placed in three or more foster homes, his risk for incarceration almost doubles, but the number of foster home placements does not increase this same risk for a White child. Further, Roberts reports that 4% of teens not in the Child Protective Services system are arrested at home. On the other hand, 36% of teens in the Child Protective Services system are arrested at the foster home, and 55% are arrested at the group home. In Illinois, 80% of inmates spent time in foster care. Further, 46% of teens who “age out” of foster care do not complete high school, 51% remain unemployed for two to four years afterward, and 25% are homeless at least one night of the year following their release from foster care. Thus, there is great disparity in the arrest, treatment, and incarceration of minority youth, and being in a foster or group home would appear to increase a youth’s risk for arrest.

Second, 2% of children nationwide have a parent currently in prison (7% of Black children), and half of incarcerated parents lived with their children prior to incarceration. Further, from 1985 to 1995 there was a 200% increase in the number of Black women in prison. Of these, one in three was the sole supporter of their children, compared to only 4% for White mothers. After release from prison, formerly incarcerated Black men earn 10-30% less than never-incarcerated Black men. Thus, incarceration of Black parents destabilizes the Black family.

Summary and Suggestions for Child Welfare Change

At the end of the book, Roberts begins to tie it all together in a different way. She discusses a lawsuit in New York in which it was argued that the Child Protective System was so badly operated that racism was irrelevant; rather, the considerable harm done to every child was more important than the preferential treatment of some children. She uses this case as an example to change the focus from any specific case in the system, to the overall impact of the system as a whole.

Roberts explains that prisons disrupt Black families, as well as Black communities by robbing Black people of basic rights such as voting. She notes 13 states deny voting rights to people convicted of felonies, and so in some areas of the country, 1 in 3 Black men can not vote. Roberts explains that the vast majority of Child Protective Service interventions in Chicago are concentrated in the poorest two zip codes, meaning whole communities have been disrupted. Roberts explains that media and political stereotypes depict Black women as “welfare queens” with too many children to support, and Black men as “absent fathers” who have grown up to be violent and sell drugs. Such stereotypes dissuade government and the general population from investing adequately into programs that effectively help the underprivileged and poor. Roberts explains that foster care and adoption creates a new set of problems and risks, while generally failing to correct the woes it was designed for.

The summative impact of this is the destruction of the Black community and culture. Roberts draws upon similar issues in the Native American population. Caseworkers would remove “poor Indian children” from reservations and place them with White families, and would argue the primary reason for removal from the home was the neglect resulting from poverty. However, this effectively removed 25-35% of Native American children from their biological, cultural, religious, and spiritual roots, effectively decimating some tribes. As one chief put it in his testimony to Congress:

“Culturally, the chances of Indian survival are significantly reduced if our children, the only real means of transmission of tribal heritage, are to be raised in non-Indian homes and denied exposure to the ways of their People…. These practices seriously undercut the tribes’ ability to continue as self-governing communities.”

Roberts links this to the same experience in Australia where Aboriginal children were similarly separated from their tribes as part of a national campaign that did not end until the 1960s, helping to destroy the Aboriginal culture. As a result, many of the children removed from their people showed serious emotional problems, and felt great pain after the separation from their cultural and family.

Roberts acknowledges that there are some significant differences between Black Americans and these cases, but also that there are considerable and striking similarities. She argues that the Black community is similarly unable to govern itself, unable to transmit a culture to its children, and that many of the problems is experiences are the result of intrusion into the Black community.

In all honesty, had she made these arguments at the start of the book, I would not have understood her reasoning. However, after she laid out the short-term as well as the “big picture” impact of these factors, her link to Native American and Aboriginal children made immediate sense. She acknowledges most may not see it this way, as Black people are not recognized as a separate group like Aboriginal or Native American children due to the “melting pot” philosophy of America. Further, the media images that constantly impress us with stereotypes and biases does not present the social forces that shape the problem, making us see individuals as having far more responsibility and control over all this than they actually have.

Roberts makes several suggestions at the end of the book worth noting:

  • She suggests first that decreasing poverty by increasing the minimum wage would help struggles families get further out of poverty, and make welfare to work strategies more powerful.
  • National health care coverage would prevent medical neglect in many cases by making adequate health care options available to everyone.
  • Increased social care programs, from child care programs for working women to improved educational systems, to paid parental leave would all strengthen families.
  • Increased quality of housing would help improve neighborhoods, supervision of children, and the general environment in which children were raised.
  • Culturally competent social work that was answerable to the community for support of family preservation could allow the community to govern itself to improve its plight and its family stability.
  • Changing the Child Protection Services mentality of punishment to one of support would offer families more options and naturally foster family preservation.
  • Finally, specifying what constituted abuse and criminalizing only those behaviors while decriminalizing neglect would help place the law and courts in their proper place, and avoid splitting up many families to start with.

These suggestions are noble, and do have research behind them to support their effectiveness. Primarily, decreasing poverty of individuals and strengthening communities to govern their own would appear to be able to change the bigger picture. However, part of that bigger picture means, as a society, defining exactly what abuse is, deciding whether splitting up families against their will is something we will do, and determining under what conditions we will allow reunification of split families. These might seem simple, but where responsibility for problems lie, what makes for appropriate use of corporal punishment, who can and can not raise a child on their own, what makes for a family… are all intertwined with this. And as a society, we have not only failed to define most of these clearly, we have avoided doing so for fear of the Pandora’s Box it will open.

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  1. Rachel,
    Your view is respected but it comes from your focal point exactly. Look at the sum of experiences. Race is a factor and the historical consequences of racism weighs heavily on how people and their situations are viewed. Personal responsibility is IMPORTANT. I personally have never been in the system and I come from a two-parent home low middle income class: first generation immigrant parents. In addition we are African Latino background. However, I have seen what generations of poor parenting can do and it is a vicious cycle. “It takes one to know one.” We have all heard that saying. If you don’t have a model of good choices, parenting, financial managing, educational achievement etc…. How does one obtain that success. And yes we have one off success stories, in fact many but that does not change the fact the have nots lie in greater numbers. The issues of poverty and race are much more complex than one success story and a book on some of the issues.

    Each one teach one should be the model.

  2. Interesting points. Not to put words in Roberts’ mouth, but I think Roberts would counter that the job opportunities are not equal, in part because the educational and economic opportunities are not equal. It’s harder to do more with less, no matter what your station in life.

    While parents do have a responsibility to care for, protect, and nurture into adulthood the children they bring into the world (you can’t really argue with that), some don’t accept it or can’t handle it (you can’t really deny that either). Thus, there will likely always be a need for child protective services of some kind.

    I agree, race has nothing to do with that sad fact. I think Roberts would counter though that we seem to be willing to give “slack” to the majority parents with adequate finances, and give little benefit of the doubt to minority parents with fewer financial and community resources. Thus, it’s not the issue of responsibility that’s at the core (you can’t really argue that parents are responsible for their children) but rather the selective attention to who is and is not living up to that responsibility.

    And adolescents in child protective services… well, they are likely in the worst spot of all, being too old to go back and recapture some kind of stable childhood, and too young to face the adult world on their own. They seem to pay the price most heavily.

  3. This information is very useful and lets the people who aren’t affiliated with CPS know what the statistics and such are. However, I feel that the woman who wrote this essay/book missed out on two very important factors. One is that parents have a responsibility to take care of their children. In most cases of neglect or abuse, the parent(s) had a choice. They can work harder; they have the same job opportunities as anybody else in America. No matter what their environment is or their race, they can take responsibility of their own lives on their own shoulders. I’m not talking about the cases like, the 86 year old grandmother having to support herself and her grandchild; I’m talking about the cases that are supposedly racist. I have the opinion that most people tend to not want the freedom, which brings responsibility, they have. This freedom to make their own living and be different than the rest of their community or environment scares some people. So, they decide to act like they don’t have it. They take on the victim’s mentality that says they have no choice, when really, they do. So, when they make this choice to not provide for themselves and take care of their kids, their kids should be placed in care. I would deem these actions as inadequate to have parental rights since they can’t put someone else’s needs over their own needs of security. Also, something else the writer didn’t note was whether or not these parents sought to get their kids back after they were taken. I was personally in care myself, and I knew over ten cases where the child was no longer wanted by his/her parents. The second thing that this writer did not state was that if the state took all these steps to ensure that blacks were not judged and poorer communities would not have a higher percentage of children in care, what responsibility would the parents have to get a job on their own? What responsibility would the parent have to take care of their kid? And if this seems a harsh statement, then you are not adequate for parental rights either. A person, if they have children, should WANT to raise their children, should want to show their children a good example of how to make it in the world. Not live off of what the state or nation can do for you, because then you will never mature into perseverance, determination, ambition, hope, dreams, and abundant life! I am not addressing all cases, nor am I addressing all parents with children in care. I understand and know firsthand that CPS and the welfare system have some holes and mistakes, but I don’t feel that CPS is bad. Nor do I think that there is anything more CPS can do simply because we can’t look at everything as racist or prejudice. People make all the difference, there is such a thing as a successful black person and an abusive white person. I, for one, am a successful Mexican that has been adopted out of foster care. I think the bigger issue here is not a program, nor colors, nor money. It is people and the choices they make. On that note, I think it is a good thing prison has an effect on parental rights. If a person cannot abide by the laws of the government, then why should they be allowed the right to raise someone else? Their children would be taught to do the things they did! Also, adoption DOES have an effect on CPS. Most teenagers say they don’t want to be adopted because they are afraid of rejection! They feel that if they put themselves out on the line to be left or taken, they will be left since, obviously, their parents did not want them, (or the best for them). I know this for a fact because I was a teenager when I was adopted. I lived on a home with about twenty to thirty teenagers and I know these things more than any statistic does. Without CPS, what would happen to the children, who are actually abused, like me, and the other twenty or thirty kids that I knew, (not counting children under 12)? These children are actually crying out, “Who will love me?” and “Am I too much?” CPS does their best to give them the opportunity to be loved and cared for, to know that they are, each, worthy of love.

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