‘Abolition Is the Only Answer’: A Conversation with Dorothy Roberts

As Rise continues to explore child welfare system abolition, we were thrilled to talk with leading scholar Dorothy Roberts about what abolition means to her and why she is certain abolition is necessary as we work toward a different vision for families, communities and society.

Dorothy Roberts is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and researcher, scholar and activist. Here she discusses what she has learned from parents, plans for her next book and the importance of using terms like “family regulation system” or “family policing system” instead of “child welfare system.” She describes connections between the family policing and criminal justice systems and shares more effective, compassionate ways of addressing harm and supporting families.

Q. How did you become involved in family regulation system abolition?

A. I’ve been involved in these efforts for 25 years. Initially, I was working to oppose criminal prosecutions of Black mothers for drug use while pregnant and wrote a book about that work called Killing the Black Body. While investigating the prosecutions of Black mothers, how government policies devalue Black mothers and how Black mothers resist, I came across the so-called child welfare system. Thousands of babies were being taken from Black mothers just because they tested positive for drug use. This was a health issue but instead of being provided with health care, they were punished by prosecutions and their babies were taken from them.

As I learned more about the family policing system and met with Black mothers involved in it, I was angry, outraged and shocked that such a starkly segregated, oppressive system hadn’t gotten much attention. The only book about Black families’ experiences with the family policing system was written 30 years prior. I found little research on this subject and couldn’t find anyone writing about it as a form of racism. Not only does the system have a racist impact, but racism is at the heart of the system’s oppressive ideology and how it operates – “serving” families by taking children away. Racism is the reason so many Black families are involved in this system and so many Black children are taken from their families and communities.

I wrote the book Shattered Bonds to put racism front and center, document and explain why racial disparities occur and how they are connected to the ideology of family policing, and call for abolition. I wanted the book to give voice to Black mothers in Chicago who were fighting to get their children back and organizing against the system under really difficult conditions. They had little political power, time, or money. Many of them had children who were taken from them and were in substitute “care.” They were not being heard and, in fact, there were efforts to silence them. When they brought up injustices and racism in the way they were treated and child welfare was addressed, they were told by judges, CASAs and agency workers that they would be less likely to get their children back if they engaged in organizing.

Over the years, I have worked on scholarship and research, reform efforts, family defense, organizing with parents and on changing the media portrayal of families involved in this system. Now we are calling for abolishing the whole system of family policing.

Q. What did you learn from parents?

I learned that parents will fight for their children and families against all odds and that they are the best people to determine what their families need. I learned that they called the system a form of modern-day slavery, a form of kidnapping, that it is not helping them. Even parents I met who said, “We do get something out of this,” still said, “but we don’t want it under the condition of losing our children or being policed.” From parents, I learned that the system needs to be scrapped altogether. I learned the power of organizing — of collective solidarity as opposed to figuring out individualized solutions. Since publishing Shattered Bonds 20 years ago, I learned that the answer isn’t to replace the current system with another system, but to radically transform our society and the way it cares for families. 

Q. What will your next book be about?

A. Shattered Bonds arrived at the conclusion that family policing needs to be abolished. This book will start with that conclusion and make the case for abolition. It’s about the terror and harm inflicted by the current system of family policing by design and why abolition is the only answer. It will focus more on organizing by parents to abolish the system and how the family policing system is part of the broader apparatus of policing and prisons. I hope my new book will be useful to parents organizing to abolish family policing and transform the way we care for families.

Q. Why is it important to refer to the child welfare system as the family regulation or family policing system?

A. The terms traditionally used to describe the system are all positive. “Child welfare system” implies that the system’s purpose is to improve or protect the welfare of children. “Child protective services” states that they are services, and that these services are designed to protect children. “Foster care” explicitly states that it is a form of care. In fact, this system is not about child or family welfare, protection, or care. This system is about regulating, policing, punishing and destroying families.

We’ve challenged terms that give a false impression of what the system does. Now, we are exploring different descriptions of it. One is “family regulation” because the government is regulating families through laws and policies that address families’ needs by threatening to take children away. Even when they don’t take children away, they impose all sorts of requirements on families instead of supporting and providing for families. Another term is “family destruction system” because these policies and practices destroy many families.

To me, the most accurate term is “family policing system.” Family regulation doesn’t quite get at how brutal and destructive these practices and policies are. Regulation can be good. For example, we more regulation of corporations so they don’t pollute the environment. Family destruction does not capture the whole range of ways these policies and practices work, because they don’t succeed in destroying every family they touch. They harm many families that stay together. Policing captures what this system does. It polices families with the threat of taking children away. Even when its agents don’t remove children, they can take children and that threat is how they impose their power and terror. It is a form of punishment, harm and oppression.

I’m not necessarily saying anybody should adopt one term or another, but it is important to challenge the false impression that terms for this system give — that it is about welfare, protection and care — because that is not what it does.

Q. Can you share some of the connections between systems of policing, criminal justice and family regulation?

A. There are so many connections. One is the ideology. They are policing and punishing systems. Whether we’re talking about arresting people, incarcerating people, or policing families, they accuse people of doing something wrong and punish them for it. This can mean coming into your home and inspecting it, taking your children away, or threatening to take them away, or locking you up in jail. These systems don’t solve the problems they claim to solve. They divert attention away from the real causes of harm in our society. Instead of blaming people in power who created and maintain unjust systems, they blame the most marginalized people for societal problems. It is no surprise then that Black, Indigenous and brown people are overrepresented in and targeted by these systems.

These systems are also entangled in practice. Police officers accompany family policing agents who go into homes and take children away. Police officers report on parents. There is communication between family policing agencies and law enforcement agencies, and a similar system of reporting on people in both systems. They are so intimately related that I see them as one giant carceral policing system.

Another important connection is the direct pipeline from foster care to prison and juvenile detention — children aging out of one system and getting caught in the other. Also, parents who are incarcerated often lose their children to “child protective services.”

Q. What does child welfare system abolition mean to you?

A. Abolition means completely dismantling this system of family policing — not reforming it or replacing the current system with a new and improved system. It means ending its philosophy, design, practices and policies and building a different way of caring for families.

Ending the system doesn’t mean leaving people to fend for themselves in a society that is structured unequally. We are talking about transforming society, including making structural changes at a societal level and changes in our communities. Ending structural racism is a tall order, but we need to work toward that. We need to care for families by providing housing and food, as well as universal, equal and free health care and education. At a community level, we need to care for each other without relying on violent systems like police, prisons, and child removal. It involves mutual aid and figuring out how to deal with families’ problems and needs and the conflict and violence that occurs in families, in ways that are not punitive, inhumane, violent and terroristic.

Q. Why can’t the family regulation system be reformed to be compassionate, just and truly caring about families?

A. If something is designed in a bad way, you can’t fix it. In fact, reforming it can make the bad design stronger or can make it seem as though you addressed an issue, when in fact it continues. After working on reform efforts and seeing how they failed to produce radical change, I’m certain that abolition is the only answer.

This system is not about caring for, protecting or supporting anybody. It is about protecting the broader racist, sexist, capitalist, homophobic, ableist structures that govern our society. You can’t reform a system that is designed to support an oppressive regime. You can’t replace it with a new system, because if you haven’t changed its fundamental approach and design, you will end up with the same types of oppression, reproduced in a different form. It must be completely dismantled. We can still strategize around changes that need to be made as we work toward abolition, but all changes should be directed toward dismantling the whole thing.

Q. Some people feel we need the family regulation system to address harm and keep children safe. What are other approaches to healing, accountability, addressing harm and keeping families safe?

First, we should recognize that most children are put in the system because of material needs caused by structural inequalities, which the system doesn’t address and makes worse. It is also helpful to pay attention to the fact that the current system hasn’t prevented harm or violence in families or communities, and in fact inflicts harm. From the prison abolition movement, we’ve learned that it is ineffective and wrong to deal with violence with more violence. The prison system inflicts harm not only on people who commit offenses that put them in prison, but on entire communities, including people they have harmed. This is true of the family policing system, as well. We need to work on better and more loving, caring and compassionate ways of addressing harm.

We can learn a lot from anti-carceral feminists and others in the prison abolition movement who have been working to address harm in communities and families in ways that don’t involve calling the police, putting people in cages, taking children away, or destroying families. People have been working on transformative justice — not just restorative justice that is part of the current system but transformative approaches that are disconnected from policing. These approaches hold people who inflict harm accountable without dehumanizing or punishing them. They work toward healing families and stopping harm from occurring again.

We have evidence and faith that transforming the way that society addresses people’s needs will reduce harm. To think, “This is the awful situation we are in today and therefore we need to keep this system,” ignores the fact that as we work toward a different world, we won’t be in this awful situation. As we work toward abolition, we will begin to reduce the harms that occur today and continue to prevent more harms in the future.

It doesn’t make sense to keep an oppressive system because we are unwilling to imagine something better. Let’s imagine something better, work toward it and get rid of what we know is oppressive. Some people are unwilling to imagine something different because they have a stake in the current system. Some people simply have a failure of imagination and it helps to give them a vision to work toward. I see my work as helping to build a vision so more people realize this is an oppressive, violent, racist system and join the movement to organize against it. I think there are lots of people, especially people who have been harmed by the family policing system, who are ready to lead and join a movement to abolish it. I firmly believe that if we are willing to envision and work toward a better, more humane, caring and compassionate world, we can achieve it.

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