With friends like these, black children don't need enemies

A law professor claims social service organizations are systematically destroying African-American families

Jornell typifies the black welfare mother who cannot comprehend, let alone navigate, Chicago's labyrinthine foster-care system, which seems determined to prevent her from regaining custody of her little boy.

She had her first child 25 years ago, when she was 15. Dropping out of school, she moved in with her boyfriend's mother, who took over raising the child. She passed a GED test, took some secretarial training, and worked at an assortment of temporary jobs. "By the time she reached her 30s," Dorothy Roberts writes in "Shattered Bonds," "Jornell was plagued with severe health problems that kept her from holding down a job. She was overweight and diabetic, and she had started drinking and smoking crack." Since then, she has tried to turn her life around and hold onto her second child, who was born in 1998.

After becoming pregnant, she stayed clean and sober and enrolled in a prenatal program. Jornell was shunted from one welfare caseworker to the next until the baby was judged at risk and taken from her. She was subjected to numerous evaluations to determine whether she could be trusted to raise her son. Although a clinical psychiatrist concluded that she loved and would care for him, the Parenting Assessment Team recommended against immediate reunification with her son, who remains in foster care.

Welcome to the world of Chicago's child-welfare system, which confronts poor, predominantly black people. Roberts's blistering polemic notes that nearly half of the children who are taken from their mothers and placed in foster care nationwide are African-American. That grim statistic becomes even more so given that black children constitute just 17 percent of the nation's youth. Chicago's foster-child population is 95 percent black.

What are the public policy implications of this sorry situation, particularly given the most recent welfare reform, which promises to destabilize still more black families?

Roberts asks and answers this question in a way that is certain to inflame passions. Rather than recycle the standard theory that child protective services treat all poor families dreadfully, she says, "Black families are being systematically demolished." Thus, Roberts puts a sinister twist on Daniel Patrick Moynihan's warning four decades ago of the black family's impending disintegration.

Roberts is a professor at the Northwestern University School of Law. She's written scores of articles and essays, and her scathing social criticism about reproductive rights has caused considerable consternation among those who would just as soon ignore the harsh challenges that have routinely confronted poor black women in America.

One may bristle at her thesis that women of color are being singled out by a white-dominated society bent on the destruction of their families. But it's hard to dispute her statistics about the dramatic racial disparity of children in protective custody and how that disparity is replicated in the nation's jail and prison populations.

Concluding that there is scant evidence to suggest the foster-care system is benefiting black children, Roberts calls for substantive changes - respecting the cultural differences of poor families while addressing the deprivation that exists in many homes. She envisions a child-welfare system that is "culturally competent," which is to say more attuned to the diverse clientele it serves.

Moreover, she would give parents a greater say in the way services are delivered. This would, Roberts insists, remove the neocolonial aspect of an essentially racist program.

Roberts's blunt accusations are bound to offend, but she revels in raising the hackles of what she regards as a comfortably numb society that has for centuries treated people of color with a not-so-thinly-veiled contempt.

Alan Miller is an editorial writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

"Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare"

By Dorothy Roberts

Basic Books 341 pp., $27.5

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