By Kaagni Harekal
Over the past year, ‘social work’ and ‘community building’ have become catch-all phrases in conversations about prison and police abolition. The presumption in deploying these terms is that a) they are capacious and resilient enough to accommodate the kind of abolitionist scaffolding that would undergird our new, non-punitive societies and b) that these terms are stable and self-explanatory. However, Dorothy Roberts’ work on the deeply racist history (and present) of what she terms the ‘family regulation system’ in America serves to shatter these assumptions. Roberts writes:
I am inspired by calls to defund the police. But I am concerned by recommendations to transfer money, resources and authority from the police to health and human services agencies that handle child protective services (CPS). These proposals ignore how the misnamed ‘child welfare’ system, like the misnamed ‘criminal justice’ system, is designed to regulate and punish black and other marginalized people. It could be more accurately referred to as the ‘family regulation system.’
Roberts underscores the carcerality of the family regulation system that serves to further marginalize vulnerable communities through over-policing and discriminatory policies that exacerbate the conditions of structural neglect of these, predominantly Black, families without meeting their material, psychological, or emotional needs. In turning social workers into an “all-purpose substitute for police officers,” this rhetoric of ‘social work’ elides the carcerality of care work under our current system (“Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation”). Thus, by interrogating the family regulation system, Roberts insists that we unpack and explode the terms we take for granted in order to advocate for a truly just system of caregiving and family welfare that can balance the needs of Black families and communities without further buttressing the apparatuses of the carceral state.
Roberts’ is a prolific writer who has consistently been committed to issues of reproductive freedom, slavery, racism, feminism, and the family. In Killing the Black Body, Roberts traces the genealogy of the systemic denigration of Black women’s rights over their bodies and their children from the era of slave plantations up until our contemporary neoliberal moment. Roberts highlights the particularly precarious position that Black women find themselves in, being disproportionately punished (and imprisoned) while also having their community networks of support dismantled, being denied welfare, and having their children ripped away by the state under allegations of ‘improper’ or ‘inadequate’ parenting. In Shattered Bonds, Roberts continues to tug at the thread that connects the state, Black families, and Black femininity to explore the ways in which the very possibility of a Black family is foreclosed through the machinations of the state and its armatures of the foster care system, the child ‘welfare’ system, and the mass incarceration of Black people that operate within vulnerable communities. These operations work to “[dismantle] social networks that are critical to Black community welfare” (Shattered Bonds vii). As Roberts reminds us, under neoliberalism, “People suffer not only because the government has abandoned them but also because punitive policies make their lives more difficult. These two trends—private remedies for systemic inequality and punitive state regulation of the most disadvantaged communities—are mutually reinforcing” (“Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers” 1477). Clearly, then, an abolitionist approach would need to reckon with the dual thrust of both privatization and punishment that undergirds the neoliberal family regulation system. I suggest that one such abolitionist approach might need to involve the expansion and reimagination of yet another key term in this discussion: family.
Roberts points to the prevalent operations within the family regulation system that pits the needs of the mother against those of the child. Within such a formulation of the family, a child’s basic needs for sustenance and development are seen as being met solely by parents, and these needs are seen as necessarily in opposition to those of the mother; the integrity of the family is seen as only being desired by the parents, and not their children (Shattered Bonds 124). In such a framework, the state intervenes to provide special institutionalized services—primarily placing children in foster care—when parents fail to fulfill their purported child-rearing obligations. Consequently, the state’s function becomes punitive—punishing ‘bad’ parents for their perceived failures, and thus regulating and policing what constitutes a family at all. Roberts reminds us that “the child welfare system, then, is a misnomer” (“Child Welfare and Civil Rights” 177). State services become ‘residual’ in nature, stepping in to ‘protect’ children retroactively from the effects of society’s failure to adequately support children’s welfare. Tragically, though predictably, the burden of this punitive ‘protective’ function falls heaviest on African-American parents because they are most likely to suffer from poverty and institutional discrimination and to be blamed for the effects of societal and structural failures on their children (Shattered Bonds 87-92). The state therefore forecloses and makes inaccessible the possibility of family for poor people of colour; the family regulation system becomes “a state-run program that disrupts, restructures, and polices Black families” (Shattered Bonds viii).
This approach towards family regulation is “inextricably tied to our society’s refusal to see a collective responsibility for children’s welfare,” and on bounded and limited definitions of what constitutes the ‘family’ at all. We see a selective deployment of ‘blood bias’—the assumption that biological ties are central to the definition of family—to naturalize or denaturalize specific visions of the family (Shattered Bonds 115). For instance, ‘blood bias’ is seen as an impediment to moving children from their ‘natural’ families into ‘caring homes.’ Roberts highlights how federal and state policy has “shifted away from preserving families toward ‘freeing’ children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights” (Shattered Bonds vii). Within such a vision, adoption is portrayed as better for children than reunification with their biological families. However, typically in such cases, the ‘natural’ or demonized family is Black, while the caring homes are coded as white and affluent (Shattered Bonds 113). Further, this is yet another instance of the neoliberalization of the state, where services are transferred from the “welfare state to the private realm of the family and market, while promoting the free market conditions conducive to capital accumulation” (“Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers” 1477). In such a system, safety nets are unravelled while simultaneously, private parties are roped in to increase struggling families’ reliance on adoption to fulfil the needs of their children.
However, if this ‘blood bias’ can be deployed in the service of neoliberal machinations, it can ostensibly be turned against it. If a denaturalized idea of the family has become a possibility under the aegis of neoliberalism, then we might be tempted to consider the ways in which this denaturalized idea of the family can be widened, as opposed to sequestered, in order to envision a more expansive idea of care-giving and community building. Following Roberts’ injunction that “[r]ather than divesting one oppressive system to invest in another, we should work toward abolishing all carceral institutions and creating radically different ways of meeting families’ needs,” (“Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation”) it might be worth interrogating the gendered, sexual, and racial structures and genealogies of the nuclear family under capitalism, as feminists such as Sophie Lewis, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Battacharya, Nancy Fraser, Silvia Federici, Melinda Cooper, Alexis Pauline Gumb and Roberts’ herself have done. Then, we may arrive at a new definition of the term family itself.
An abolitionist reimaging of the family—and therefore of ‘family regulation’—would advocate for the extension of “the values now located exclusively in family life –solidarity, respect, and commitment to others’ development–across a society [which] requires the elimination of ‘the family’ in its meaning as a special place for those values.” We must recognize that care-giving, mutual aid, and community building are collective duties and processes, and cannot remain isolated within the ambit of an allegedly ‘competent’ or ‘appropriate’ private unit. While the role and nature of the state in such a schema can and must be debated, this move towards widening definitions of family might allow for the recognition of conventionally uncredited forms of support—friendship, religious communities such as churches, neighbours—that are invaluable to the growth of children and parents alike, thus realigning the children’s welfare movement with that of radical feminism. Within an abolitionist horizon, care, love, aid, and support belong to everyone; we are all worthy of it.
 Roberts writes, “The end to the welfare safety net coincided with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997, which emphasized adoption as the solution to the rising foster care population. Both can be seen as neoliberal measures that shifted government support for children toward reliance on private employment and adoptive parents to meet the needs of struggling families. This convergence marked the first time the federal government mandated that states protect children from abuse and neglect without a corresponding mandate to provide basic economic support to poor families.63 Both the welfare and foster care systems, then, responded to a growing black female clientele by reducing services to families while intensifying their punitive functions. The main mission of child welfare departments became protecting children not from social disadvantages stemming from poverty and racial discrimination but from maltreatment inflicted by their mothers.” “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers,” p. 1485.
Ho, Rosemarie, and Sophie Lewis. “Want to Dismantle Capitalism? Abolish the Family.” The Nation, 28 June 2019, www.thenation.com/article/archive/want-to-dismantle-capitalism-abolish-the-family/.
Roberts, Dorothy, and The Imprint staff. “Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation.” The Imprint, 16 June 2020, imprintnews.org/child-welfare-2/abolishing-policing-also-means-abolishing-family-regulation/44480.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Child welfare and civil rights.” U. Ill. L. Rev. (2003): 171.
Roberts, Dorothy E. Killing the black body: Race, reproduction, and the meaning of liberty. Vintage, 1999.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Prison, foster care, and the systemic punishment of black mothers.” Ucla L. Rev. 59 (2011): 1474.
Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. Civitas Books, 2009.
Silverstein, Sophie. “Family Abolition Isn’t about Ending Love and Care. It’s about Extending It to Everyone.” OpenDemocracy, 24 Apr. 2020, www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/family-abolition-isnt-about-ending-love-and-care-its-about-extending-it-to-everyone/.