Torn Apart by Dorothy Roberts

The horror stories regarding Child Protective Services (CPS) abound in my all things adoption group which includes former foster care youth. So when I read about Dorothy Roberts new book Torn Apart in Time magazine last night, I knew I would write about this for my blog today. Roberts believes that CPS needs to be abolished and she has found that it is shockingly easy for CPS to destroy poor, Black families. I would add ANY poor family. However, racial inequality and systemic racism are real.

Mother Jones has published an excerpt which begins with the story of a young mother who has health challenges, is married and has two young sons. Her family lives with her mother and everyone pitches in to care for the rambunctious little boys. The family was enjoying a picnic in a park in Aurora, Colorado.

When my own sons were very young, I lived in fear that some do-gooder would misunderstand some situation and report us. There is a Simpson’s episode where this happens to Bart, Lisa and Maggie and they are taken away and given to the Flanders family as temporary caregivers while Home and Marge struggle against the system. I would refer to that episode with my sons so that they would not exhibit some overly challenging behavior in public that would end with unintended consequences.

So it was that this woman’s 2 yr old ran after her cousin as she was leaving. The mother grabbed the 4 yr old and ran after her son. Before the mother could reach him, a woman who happened to be passing by had snatched the young boy by the arm, worried that he was wandering off. The mom could see the woman talking on her cell phone as she and her other son approached. When she caught up to them, only a minute later, she told the stranger holding her child, “Ma’am, that’s my son.” But the woman refused to let him go. She had called 911 to report that the boy was unattended.

Before the policeman who responded left, after the woman’s relatives gathered around to affirm that she actually was his mother, he gave her a ticket for child abuse and reckless endangerment. A month later, as the mom was cleaning up in the basement, her husband gone to work and her mother at a doctor’s appointment, the Social Services Department white caseworker accompanied by a Black female trainee, unexpectedly knocked on the front door, part of a surprise follow up from the citation issued.

The boys were in the front room, the 2 yr old still naked as he had just been bathed. When the mom did not immediately answer the door, the caseworker called for police assistance. Two male officers arrived first, soon followed by a female officer. The caseworker asserted the 2 yr old was neglected as he stood looking at them through the front window.

After the officers entered the house, without a warrant or permission, the mom became angry at the way she was being confronted so aggressively. She called her mother at the doctor’s office and asked, “Mom, can you get here, I got fucking social services and the goddamn police here, they’re really pissing me off.” Two of the officers then engaged the mom in an increasingly combative exchange.

The woman’s mother had arrived and had taken the boys to their bedroom, guarded by an officer who would not let the boy’s mom join them. One officer lunged at the mom and violently pushed her face down into a large beanbag on the living room floor. The female officer and a fifth officer now on the scene now assisting him, pinned her arms were yanked behind her back, cuffed her wrists and cuffed, restrained her head and shoulders. Two more officers arrived, bringing the total count to seven.

Then, they restrained the mom with a hobble—hand and ankle cuffs that shackled her wrists behind her back and chained them to her shackled legs and carried her off to a police car, her stomach and face toward the ground. She cried, “I can’t breathe,” and so, paramedics were called and her restraints loosened by order of a sergeant who had also now arrived.

The officer reports varied as to the condition of the house from “in fair condition with food” to “very dirty, with no food in the refrigerator, and very little food in the pantry.” On the advice of her public defender, the mom pleaded guilty (many legal cases today never reach court but end in plea deals) to child abuse and reckless endangerment to avoid prison and was ordered to take parenting classes and sentenced to one year of probation. Before the first incident in the park, the mom had never been in trouble with the law. Now she had a record as a child abuser. Her attorney was later able to obtain a monetary settlement from the police department for excessive use of force.

The mom was now ensnared in a giant state machine with the power to destroy her family. With the threat of child removal at its core, the child welfare system regulates a massive number of families. In 2019 alone, CPS agencies investigated the families of 3.5 million children, ultimately finding abuse or neglect only in one-fifth of cases, or for the families of 656,000 children. Yet the families of these children are put through an indefinite period of intensive scrutiny by CPS workers and judges who have the power to keep children apart from their parents for years or even to sever their family ties forever.

In the Time magazine article by Janell Ross, on the racial disparities in the child welfare system, interviewing Dorothy Roberts, she notes that more than half, 53%, of all Black children will experience a child-welfare investigation by the time they reach the age of 18, compared with less than a third of white children. However, white children from very impoverished areas, such as rural Appalachia, also experience extreme amounts of state involvement. Black children are more likely than white children to be taken from their families and put in foster care. They’re less likely to go on to college and more likely to end up in prison.

I completely agree with her – our society does not support families well enough. She notes income support, health care, affordable housing, an equal, high-quality education would keep most of these children out of foster care. She asks, why is child welfare’s response to the greater needs of Black children this very violent, traumatic approach of family separation ?

The facade of benevolence associated with Child Protective Services makes most Americans complacent about this colossal government apparatus that spends billions of dollars annually on surveilling families, breaking them apart, and thrusting children into a foster care system known to cause devastating harms. Dorothy Roberts notes – after 25 years of studying family separation as a legal scholar and author, I’m convinced that the mission of CPS agencies is not to care for children or protect their welfare. Rather, they respond inadequately and inhumanely to our society’s abysmal failures. Far from promoting the well-being of children, the state weaponizes children as a way to threaten families, to scapegoat parents for societal harms to their children, and to buttress the racist status quo.

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