A recent study by the American Journal of Public Health found that 53% of all Black children in the United States experience a child welfare investigation by the time they reach 18. This astonishing statistic reveals the staggering levels of state surveillance Black communities are accustomed to, and the extent to which the children of these communities endure potentially traumatizing intrusions into their private lives. And yet, it’s just one stone out of the many mountains of data and anecdotal evidence that uncover the racial disparities and injustices of the child welfare system, which Dorothy E. Roberts–acclaimed legal scholar and social justice advocate–has long criticized. Her latest book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (Basic Books, 2022), is the culmination of 25 years of study and work in challenging racism in the welfare state. She rejects even the terms of ‘child welfare’ and ‘foster care,’ as they create an illusion of benevolence that hides the true terror at the core of what is, in reality, a corrupt system of family policing. Through thorough historical and political research, Roberts provides a comprehensive insight into what she calls the ‘benevolent terror’ of the system. Calling for the abolition of the welfare system, she instead advocates for “a radically reimagined way of caring for families and keeping children safe.”

The failings of the foster care system are already familiar to many readers. What purports to keep children safe instead does the exact opposite, tearing them away from family and community and leading to their continued contact with the prison-industrial complex. Roberts analyzes this foster care-to-prison pipeline closely: “Just as the child welfare system entangles Black parents in a carceral web, so it throws many Black children into encounters with police officers and on a path to arrest, detention, and imprisonment.” These carceral entanglements are only one part of a greater ‘foster-industrial complex,’ she explains, in which the child welfare system collaborates with other systems of regulation, sharing information, engaging in common training, and cooperating in investigations, creating what Roberts identifies as a frightening web of surveillance. According to Roberts, “Precisely because it seems to operate outside criminal law enforcement, the child welfare system has become an extremely useful arm of the carceral state. For it has the power to intensively monitor entire communities, all the while escaping public scrutiny and bypassing legal protections by claiming to protect the children of those communities.” Just as we continue to protest police brutality and other injustices against Black people, Torn Apart shows how we must also protest this more furtive, concealed violence against Black families, whose facade of benevolence has worked to keep its terror under the radar.

However, if a reader took all these issues and concluded that the system needs to be fixed, Roberts would disagree with them. The system can’t be fixed, because it is not broken. The child welfare state is doing exactly what it set out to do from its conception: to surveil and exploit Black families. “We should expect it to be difficult to tweak a system so that it protects Black children when the system was established to oppress Black people.” Indeed, Roberts traces the history of the foster care system back to the auction block, with the selling and separating of Black children from their parents, as well as the so-called American Indian boarding schools established in the 1800s, a military tactic to decimate Native tribes by taking away their children. 

Rather than rely on a system historically rooted in violence and inseparable from this web of surveillance and carceral logic, Roberts champions an approach of radical, communal collaboration, where we work together to imagine and achieve a future where the tearing apart of families is not our response to the gross inequalities of our society. Towards the end of the book, she lists specific ways we can move away from the child welfare state, such as providing generous income and services directly to kin caregivers without requiring them to submit to family policing, increasing family income, meeting families’ housing, food, and healthcare needs—always looking out for one another, always shrinking the child welfare system. 

Roberts doesn’t gloss over the terror of the current welfare system that profits from tearing families apart, but she does not allow readers to fall into a sense of passive hopelessness either. Torn Apart provides actionable steps for how we can work together to dismantle this network of fear and family destruction. It emphasizes community. Through her realistic yet resolute hopefulness, Roberts shows how every step we take together is a step towards freedom.


Listen to Sophia Ramirez in conversation with Dorothy E. Roberts for PEN America’s Works of Justice podcast.

Sophia Ramirez is a postgraduate fellow with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing. She previously volunteered with the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project, reviewing incarcerated writers’ submitted poetry, fiction, and essays. A recent graduate of Wilton High School in Connecticut, Sophia will attend Yale University in Fall 2022.