Since its inception, America’s violence against Black people has often targeted Black families. Auction blocks not only sold enslaved Black people, they severed sacred bonds between spouses, parents, and children. Four hundred years after this war began, the United States continues to perpetuate this war against Black families through a racist child welfare system that is rigged to tear children from the embrace of poor Black parents and place them in foster care. Although this war is no secret in Black communities, segregation provides white America sanctuary from this practice and shrouds the war’s brutality.
Yet, consistent with American history, Black Americans continue to fight back. Today, some of the leading warriors for the Black family include University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts and Representative Karen Bass, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. By detailing how Black families are abused and re-writing the rules for child welfare, these women are working to end the war on impoverished Black families.
“If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system,” wrote Dorothy Roberts in her 2002 book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, “you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor Black families.” Filled with blistering details and analysis, Roberts traces the transformation of the child welfare system from its beginnings in the 20th century to its current state.
From its beginning, child welfare services have claimed to provide a barrier between children and the ravages of poverty, such as inadequate housing, food, and clothing. These early efforts primarily served America’s poor children by providing financial assistance to families, helping them meet basic necessities. However, this aid was made available for white children, and Black families were predominantly excluded. This would change after Black America won the fight for integrating social services in the 1960s and 1970s. As the child welfare system increasingly helped urban children of color, the very nature of its services transformed; child welfare became punitive rather than preventative.
Roberts reveals in her research that child welfare’s transformation is linked to the race of its recipients. When child welfare was rural and white, it sought to protect children from poverty. When child welfare became increasingly urban, child welfare became myopically focused on protecting children from their parents and families — and Black families in particular.
Between the Reagan and Clinton administrations, the number of Black children in foster care more than doubled. By 2000, Black children were 42 percent of America’s foster care population while only representing 17 percent of the total youth population.
By naming parents the threat to America’s poor children rather than poverty, child welfare services engaged in the most traumatic interventions imaginable. Within this punitive framework, Black families were more likely separated and least likely to be provided the meager assistance left in the system. Front line Child Protective Service agents, outrageously overworked and under-experienced, receive training to fear the worst case scenario for children living with their poor Black parents but little training to consider the trauma of separating a child from their home.
The more funding for child welfare dramatically increased, the more intense the war against Black families grew. Money and support flowed away from Black families and into foster care services designed to keep Black children away from their homes, parents, and kin.
By the 2000s, national conversations on the racism of child welfare programs began to take center stage — motivated in part by the publication of Roberts’ book Shattered Bonds. For many activists, the book clarified what they already knew — how the government’s efforts to protect children operated within a fundamentally racist framework. Under these misdirected interventions, agents of Child Protective Services who sought to protect children often needlessly traumatized them instead. Shattered Bonds sounded the alarm. In time, its transformative power shook the systemic racism in the child welfare system.
In 2010, then freshman Congresswoman Karen Bass of LA’s Southside created the bi-partisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and started tilling the congressional grounds to prepare for the reforms that Roberts’ research demanded. In 2011, Rep. Bass was able to enjoy the fruits of her labor in the Oval Office as she witnessed President Barack Obama sign the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation Act. Much like Roberts’ work on child welfare, Bass’ work began making headway without producing the headlines her efforts deserved.
Improvement was never Representative Bass’ end goal. In 2018, Bass co-sponsored a more revolutionary piece of legislation — The Family First Prevention Services Act. The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) wrote Family First brings “child welfare… into alignment with what research tells us is best for children and families — keeping children in their homes whenever safe and possible.” The decades-long cry to end the separation of Black families due to poverty finally landed on legislative ears and changed policy. The act provides “significant opportunity for child welfare systems to reimagine their work and implement a new vision in support of equity and in service of children and families.”
In an age of political division, Bass’ bi-partisan legislative achievements are significant. I asked Alexandra Citrin from CSSP about the role of Dorothy Roberts’ work in creating this opportunity to reimagine child welfare and the passage of this potentially transformative legislation. She paused. “It’s hard to put into words. Dorothy Roberts’ work highlights what many front line workers have seen and families have experienced firsthand for decades. This further supports the need for system change — one where equity is at the core.”
In challenging the aims and changing the rules of child welfare, antiracist warriors like Roberts and Bass changed the landscape of the war on Black families. Yet, the struggle continues. No single piece of anti-racist legislation ensures an anti-racist impact. Transformative opportunities often get lost in translation between landmark legislation, implementation, and the political will necessary to translate theoretical rights into transformative results. The work to re-imagine child welfare and end the war on Black families now shifts from the halls of power to the front lines where battles are sometimes won and sometimes lost. Warriors like Roberts and Bass show us how to fight and win.
About the Author
Joel Edward Goza is a Contributing Writer for The North Star and the author of America’s Unholy Ghosts: The Racist Roots of Our Faith and Politics, which received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Joel writes from Houston’s 5th Ward Community.