Torn Apart: Reviewing the Child Welfare System

By Sheila Ferguson

Over the last century, thousands of African American families across the nation have been the unfair targets of the child welfare system. It seems to work at dissolving the rights of parents to their children. So says Dr. Dorothy Roberts in her recent publication, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, which details the complexities of the child welfare system and its destructive effects on the Black family.

Roberts, a professor of law and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, has authored four books to date. Her earlier works include Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New Press, 2011); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books, 2002), and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997). In Torn Apart, Dr. Roberts argues that due to its design to protect children, the nation’s foster care system deprives Black parents of their fundamental rights and leads to traumatic consequences for Black children. She notes that the state punishes families because they are poor, not because they are dangerous. Roberts says that “this system is designed to punish Black families based on color, health status, and relative poverty.”

Drawing on decades of research, the author reveals that the child welfare system is a “family policing system that works cooperatively with law enforcement and prisons to oppress Black communities.” She adds, child protection investigations put Black families under intense state surveillance and regulation. Thus, Black children are disproportionately likely to be placed in foster care, and driven to juvenile detention and/or imprisonment. In 2018, three & a half million children were involved in these investigations. Black families are typically not told their rights, and efforts to assert their rights are futile.

This book captures the history of child welfare in America. Torn Apart highlights how “Child welfare authorities wield their powers to supervise, reassemble and destroy families with stunningly little judicial constraint or public scrutiny.” Many ask why the government slips billions of dollars into this broken system. Roberts suggests that as a society, we need to adopt a vision where tearing families apart is “unimaginable.”

Torn Apart is a must-read for anyone committed to protecting and sustaining the sanctity of Black family life. For info on how to order, go to <>.