Twenty years after Shattered Bonds, Dorothy Roberts' indictment that the family regulation system polices, disrupts, and restructures Black families and communities remains urgent. Black families remain overrepresented in foster care with enshrined disparate treatment and outcomes. Black children are more likely to be removed from their homes, and their longer stays in foster care are characterized by placement instability, overly restrictive placements, the risk of abuse and exploitation, and inadequate mental health and other services. Black children also have worse educational outcomes than even other children in foster care, are over-referred to the juvenile justice system, and are more likely to age out of foster care to face disturbing future outcomes. Given this dismal record, if our goal is to maximize the well-being of Black children, the last thing we should do is place them in foster care. Rather than improving life chances, foster care involvement fuels the cycle of poverty, undereducation, criminal justice involvement, housing instability, and poor health outcomes plaguing low-income Black communities.
The family regulation system interacts with two other systems marked by stark racial inequity-education and juvenile justice. These systems, individually and in concert, adopt approaches that result in and compound structural denials of opportunity. Each system uses seemingly neutral policies and practices that obfuscate the role of race and class and operate in particularly pernicious ways in the same poor communities of color. The mechanisms by which they disadvantage Black children share a common pattern. Black children are pathologized and labeled as defective and deviant, subjected to harsh and traumatizing treatment, and separated from their families and communities-which taken together destroys relationships, opportunities for healthy development, and educational access. The intersecting operation of these systems contributes to racial subordination by exacerbating trauma and leaving children without the educational and social-emotional skills to break out of the cycle of poverty, and further depletes neighborhoods with concentrated poverty of the human capital to be resilient. It is important to illuminate the mechanisms by which these systems intersect to entrench structural inequality, so that they can be dismantled.
This Symposium spotlights the burgeoning call for abolition of the family regulation system premised on the idea that the primary function of the system is punitive control of families of color and that meaningful reform is impossible. The carceral and family regulation systems are deeply interconnected, and Roberts and others advocate for abolition of all these systems in favor of "radically different ways of meeting families' needs." The goals articulated by prison abolitionists coalesce with child welfare abolitionist calls that envision healthy communities where families have the resources to thrive. As we work towards that vision, it is important to get a more holistic understanding of Black children in the family regulation system, within the context of their communities and the multiple, inter-connected systems that work together to limit opportunities. This Piece unpacks how the family regulation system magnifies harm to Black children through its interactions with the juvenile justice and education systems. By exploring the structural mechanisms through which these systems work together to compound disparity and perpetuate inequity, this Piece provides further evidence of the family regulation system's failings and contributes to thinking about how we help children and families in the communities where they live, rather than through punitive practices.
This analysis is consistent with an ecological perspective that situates the child in their full environment, including their family, school, and neighborhood. The ecological perspective considers the reciprocal relationship between the child and their environment as well as the interlocking systems that produce the negative outcomes that Black children experience. The other theoretical frame emerges from scholarship on the ways state structures and cultural forces create racial hierarchies that endure for generations. To contribute to the child welfare abolition discussion, this Piece extends analysis beyond the family regulation system to understand how systems created by the state relegate poor children of color to the lowest rung in society, rather than helping children and families. This Piece will then offer solutions grounded in a vision of dismantled child welfare and juvenile justice systems, well-resourced educational systems, and strengthened communities with the capacity to foster the healthy development of children.
Part I will discuss the racialized outcomes in each system and the relevant features of the architecture by which U.S. society is organized around hierarchies. Part II will describe each system's role in perpetuating disparity, focusing on the common themes of isolation, trauma, and the use of stereotypes and bias to dehumanize children. Part III will explore the harmful intersections among the child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems underscoring the ways that interaction between these systems compounds harm. Part IV offers some community-centered strategies that account for intersecting systems and advance the move towards abolition.
Kele Stewart, Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being: Dismantling the Inequitable Intersections Among Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice, and Education, 12 Colum. J. Race & L. 630 (2022).