In carefully chronicling the history, logic, and operations of the child welfare system and Tennessee’s fetal assault law, Dorothy Roberts and Wendy Bach give us accounts not of singular systems, but of something much more wide-ranging: an almost suffocating network of authorities surrounding marginalized mothers.
Throughout America’s history, the deep-seated idea that poverty is fundamentally a moral failing on the part of the poor has shaped social welfare policies and practices. If they could run their lives properly, the logic goes, they would not be poor in the first place. Accordingly, poor and non-white folks cannot be trusted to care for their children, and thus need to be coerced, through the threat of punishment, into forms of supposedly “therapeutic” state interventions.
When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton reportedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” To understand our current system of family policing and punishment, we similarly need begin from the idea that this is a profit-focused system, one that extracts resources by investigating, surveilling, prosecuting, and separating low-income families.
According to the official organs of the family policing system, their goal is to ensure that children are safe and receive proper care. But a closer look at this system demonstrates just how little concern it has for the well-being of children. Instead, its primary purpose is to punish parents – a cruelty exacerbated by the fact that we live in a country that makes parenting nearly impossible.
What is the relationship between “non-reformist reforms” and academic research? Scholars can, of course, write about the legislation and policy that they believe will advance transformative change. Yet the way a group seeks reform – how a group organizes and fights for political change – is as important, if not more, than the substance of the reform. Scholarship should thus highlight and analyze the work of organizers on the ground who are indispensable to achieving transformational change.
The carceral state is in a deep legitimacy crisis, with questions about its proper function up for public debate, and social movements pushing for care, public safety, and accountability. Municipalities, meanwhile, are experimenting with non-police responses to varied social problems. These efforts are important: they signal that abolitionist organizing and social insurgency have built sufficient power that the political elite has had to respond. But as Dorothy Roberts and Wendy Bach teach us, care often provides cover for criminalization, and the deployment of professional services often works hand in glove with systems of punishment.
In 2013, a group of Tennessee legislators made it a crime for a pregnant woman to transmit narcotics to a fetus. The law’s supporters offered many of the traditional justifications for criminal law, but they also leaned heavily on a less familiar argument: that creating this crime would, in effect, create care. Indeed, they argued that criminalizing this behavior was a logical response to Tennessee’s opiate epidemic and healthcare crisis, as it would create incentives for judges to draw more treatment resources into court. However, to the extent that the women prosecuted under this law received any care from our legal and social welfare systems, that care was corrupted by its location within or near punishment systems.
Far from promoting the well-being of children, the so-called child welfare system weaponizes children as a way to threaten families, to scapegoat parents for societal harms to their children, and to buttress the racist, patriarchal, and capitalist status quo. Torn Apart tears off the benevolent veneer of family policing to reveal its political reality and argues that it must be abolished. To achieve this end, we need a paradigm shift in the state’s relationship to families — a reimagining of the very meaning of child welfare.