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Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare Systems Destroy Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World

Marietta Kosma
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Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare Systems Destroy Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, New York: Basic Books, 2022, 384 pages, ISBN (paperback) 9781541675445 | 9781549193170 (ebook), $32

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1In Torn Apart Roberts provides a legal analysis of the US child welfare system that is grounded in a historical, sociological, political, and economic analysis. Torn Apart could be viewed as a continuation of Robert’s book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, in which the regulation of black women’s child bearing is analyzed in detail. Roberts helps us understand how the welfare system operates in terms of federal state, local policy, institutional dynamics, community dynamics, family, and individual dynamics. Her work is significant because it centers on public policies, urgent contemporary issues, health, social justice, and bioethics especially as they impact the lives of women, children, and African Americans. The goal of Roberts in this book is to document the racial inequality in the child welfare system, as foster care has been held to be violating the constitutional rights of foster children, since it relies on threatening to take away the children of the most politically marginalized communities in America, the black and Indigenous communities.

2Torn Apart is timely not only because it was written right after George Floyd’s death, an era during which uprisings brought new attention to the abolition of the police as a viable political vision but also due to the rise of the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex. Alongside it, a burgeoning smaller movement that aims to dismantle the existing child welfare system has been ignited by black mothers involved in foster care. Roberts posits that it is necessary to envision the end of such a system and work towards the creation of a society that actually supports families and keeps children safe. She looks extensively into how the child welfare system has disproportionately impacted black families and especially black mothers.

3Following these theorizations and mapping of the contours of her analyses, Torn Apart consists of eleven chapters organized in four parts. In Part I, “Terror”, Roberts shows how child services that are deemed helpful in the general consensus are actually detrimental for a child’s well-being, impacting their emotional, physical and mental well-being. Caseworkers and police officers patrol black families to investigate what they perceive as a risk to children. Policing, from its origins in slave patrols, has operated as a means of controlling black communities through everyday physical intimidation and arrests. Black families have been disproportionately targeted because their regulation is necessary for the maintenance of a racist power structure in a capitalist society.

4In Part II, “Design”, Roberts explores the reasons why the policing of black families is more prominent today than ever. By tracing the history of family policing back to the sale of enslaved African Americans, she shows how today’s foster care system is rooted in white supremacist and heteropatriarchal logic. Part of the black codes of the nineteenth century and their effort to reinstate white supremacy was the use of apprenticeship laws that would put black children back into the care of their former enslavers. This happened in courts where white people would bring petitions to say that black families were not taking care of their children and that these children were better off under the supervision of their former enslavers. The idea that black children would be better off supervised by others than their families was present in the apprenticeship system of the twentieth century.

5In Part III, “The Carceral Web,” child protective services have been morphed into a family policing system through which black families are subjected to a high level of surveillance. A carceral logic underlies family policing propagating an unjust political structure. Roberts employs the term “foster-industrial complex” in order to describe the child welfare system (35). The expansion of the foster care system occurs at the exact time of the expansion of the prison system and as more and more black families become involved in both of these systems they become more and more punitive. Both structures operate in similar ways accusing, prosecuting, punishing.

6In Part IV, “Abolition,” Roberts poses a critique of the child welfare system and advocates for the abolition of family policing. She is an advocate of transformative justice, wanting to stop the unnecessary separation and trauma of black families. Roberts perceives abolition as a means of meeting the black families’ needs through revolutionary care to keep children safe and thriving. This burgeoning movement rests on a long tradition of resistance against state destruction of families, including social services. Roberts explains that the abolition of the US child welfare system, which is designed to punish black families, will liberate black communities.

7In conclusion, Torn Apart is timely due to its refreshing, insightful readings that expose how systemic racism continues to infiltrate our medical system and social services. Roberts captures the racial and gender inequities embedded in the US institutions, including the child welfare system. These inequities produce barriers that increase black women’s risk of coming in contact with law enforcement. Roberts’s book is useful for justice activists, legal services providers, nonprofit organizations, and scholars as it opens new investigatory trails of social injustices. Roberts delves deep into intergenerational trauma and healing through the abolition of the US child welfare system and exposes the ways in which the black community has been assaulted by various punitive state systems such as the policing system, the prison system, the welfare system, the child welfare system, also known as the family policing system. Torn Apart represents an important contribution to the constantly growing body of political sciences and social service and welfare and will prove of interest to theorists and scholars of American studies.

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Marietta Kosma, « Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare Systems Destroy Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marietta Kosma

Oxford University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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