The Color of Child Welfare
Dorothy Roberts, professor of law (Basic Books,
Perseus Books group, 2002)
Review by Martin Brady
It is nearly 50 years since the landmark Brown v.
Board of Education Supreme Court decision. It is nearly 40 years since
the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed under the Johnson administration,
concurrent with its so-called War on Poverty. It is nearly 30 years since
Roe v. Wade altered conventional attitudes toward womens reproductive
rights. Yet still, with plenty of judicial and legislative attention paid
to racial, womens and welfare issues in the past half-century, the
United States, according to Dorothy Roberts, remains saddled with a fundamentally
flawed child welfare system, whose very design "operates in a racist society
to dismantle families at the bottom of the social ladder" and "to punish
Black parents for their perceived psycho-moral depravity and to place
Black children in the states superior care."
Roberts pulls no punches in this aggressive, thoroughly referenced attack
on the system. Her writing is sharp, too. In taut, eminently readable
prose which has all the passion of Thomas Paines Revolutionary
War-era tract Common Sense Roberts goes after everyone:
conservative thinkers to liberal legislators to the welfare agencies themselves,
who, she states, "are involved in a lucrative business that depends on
keeping children in the system."
Ultimately, Roberts main beef is with the system itself, but she
makes no bones about playing the race card either, stating that "only
by examining the role that race plays in the child welfare system can
we understand how it operates to reinforce the inferior status of Blacks
These are surely contentious words. Yet Roberts emphatic assault
on a vast, well-entrenched bureaucracy demands attention. Shattered
Bonds, the author writes, "is a plea to call the child welfare system
what it is: a state-run program that disrupts, restructures and polices
Black families. I hope to capture the injustice of a system that separates
thousands of Black children from their parents every year and relegates
them to damaging state institutions. ... I want to provide the missing
voice of Black families torn apart by discriminatory and misguided policies."
Certainly Roberts makes note of the links between color-blind poverty
and, for example, foster-care populations. But the thrust of her book
is that black childrens overrepresentation in the system is a direct
result of racism.
She asserts that journalists and lawmakers, from Charles Murray to Daniel
Patrick Moynihan, have helped to reinforce negative black stereotypes,
e.g., welfare queens, unwed mothers, absent fathers, which has only increased
the burden on African Americans to prove their parent-worthiness. "They
are most likely to suffer from poverty and institutional discrimination
and to be blamed for the effects on their children," she writes.
Roberts cites a few examples of black womens struggles to regain
their children in the face of institutional counter-pressure. Included
among these is the battle over "Baby T," a well-publicized case involving
an African American woman, Tina Olison, striving to take custody of her
son, who was in the foster care of white Chicago politician Edward Burke
and his wife, Anne, an appellate court judge.
No doubt Roberts would admit that the complexities of child welfare
involving the execution of legal mandates encompassing parental fitness,
home stability, financial wherewithal, foster care, kinship care, etc.
would be daunting to anyone, black or otherwise. Nevertheless,
she provides compelling evidence that the deck is stacked particularly
high against African Americans.
The authors underlying concern, of course, is the importance of
family preservation. This goal, says Roberts, is most pressingly needed
within the black community, which historically has suffered the severest
fragmentation. Her positions seek "to liberate Black families from state
control so they may be free to form and pass on their own values." Discussion
peripheral to this topic revolves around the issue of adoption of blacks
Lest Roberts search for culpability be seen as simply political,
she also criticizes Clintons welfare reforms, which she assails
as counterproductive in many instances. And she seeks answers to why U.S.
child poverty rates exceed those of many European nations, which also
seem to have better welfare programs than this countrys "abysmal"
Shattered Bonds proffers proposals for change, too. But will this
capitalistic country ever have the political will to enact them? "First,"
says Roberts, the United States must "reduce family poverty by increasing
the minimum wage, instituting a guaranteed income and enacting aggressive
job creation policies; second, establish a system of national health insurance
that covers everyone; third, provide high-quality subsidized child care,
preschool education and paid parental leaves for all families. Increasing
the supply of affordable housing is also critical."
Counterarguments to such blatantly socialistic thinking might be forcefully
rendered, but where the future of many of the nations children is
concerned, its simply a matter of reassessing national priorities
and reallocating tax dollars. To that end, Roberts strongly worded
thesis makes for essential reading on the national debates of race, poverty
and federally funded human services.
Martin Brady is a freelance writer based in Nashville, where he is
also the theater critic for Nashville Scene. He was formerly a
senior editor at Booklist, published by the American Library Association.
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