Dorothy Roberts

Shattered Bonds:
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 women’s reproductive rights. Yet still, with plenty of judicial and legislative attention paid to racial, women’s 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 state’s 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 Paine’s 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 in America."

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 children’s 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 women’s 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 author’s 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 by whites.

Lest Roberts’ search for culpability be seen as simply political, she also criticizes Clinton’s 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 country’s "abysmal" services.

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 nation’s children is concerned, it’s 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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