This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, a groundbreaking study of family regulation by Dorothy E. Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. Drawing on decades of research, Roberts recently published Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.
In her new book, Roberts examines the fundamental racism of the child welfare system, which collaborates with law enforcement to police families in ways that disproportionately and negatively affect people of color and advocates the abolition of this system.
An acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, Roberts joined the University of Pennsylvania as its 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School. Roberts is also founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies.
Julia M. Klein, a contributor to The Pennsylvania Gazette, recently spoke to Roberts about her new book. The following is an excerpt:
How does Torn Apart differ from Shattered Bonds?
The main purpose of the first book was to document the racial inequities in the child welfare system and to make a claim that it was a system that targeted and oppressed Black communities. It turns out I did use the word abolition, but I didn’t really spell out what abolition would mean. Another critical development over those 20 years was the emergence and flourishing of the prison abolition movement. I’m seeing a growing recognition that the principles of prison abolition also apply to the child welfare system.
You’ve written that the movement to abolish child welfare was started by mothers who lost their own children to the system.
I have always felt that I cannot develop abstract theories about injustice or what justice would require. I spent time with Black mothers whose children were in foster care and [who] were fighting to get their children back. I was very much influenced by the way in which they thought about this system not as a social service provider, with people who were helping them, but as agents of the state who were destroying their family and making it harder for them to take care of their children.