Dorothy Roberts: Child Welfare’s Paradox

Today was the annual Wythe Lecture at William & Mary, which featured Dorothy Roberts, the Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at Northwestern Law School. The topic of this year’s lecture was the operation of the foster care system in urban, African-American neighborhoods.

While I do not have a transcript, I jotted down some of the unnerving statistics with which Prof. Roberts began her talk. African-American children account for only 13% of the total child population, but they make up one-third of children in foster care. In some ubran neighborhoods, such as central Harlem, 1 in 10 children is assigned to a foster parent. As a result, foster care agencies have become a pervasive presence in African-American neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.Chicago According to one Chicago woman with whom Prof. Roberts spoke, DHFS agents were everywhere and residents had to be careful what they said on the streets. This gist, it was clear, was that residents of these neighborhoods were under constant government supervision.  Though neighborhood residents resented this paternalistic government presence, they simultaneously expressed a yearning for more services, more help from the agency. This paradox was at the heart of Prof. Roberts’ lecture.

So why do the residents of such inner-city neighborhoods simultaneously resent and desire a stronger DHFS presence?  The explanation, according to Prof. Roberts, is that poor, inner-city families are using foster care as a means to obtain otherwise unavailable social services. Monthly payments to foster parents provide incentives to poor families to enroll in foster programs, often transferring their children to a relative in what is termed “kinship caregiving.” Because their children are nearby, the trade-off in privacy is worth the benefit of foster payments. Illustrating this sentiment was the Chicagoan who complained that the only way for families to get help was call the Abuse hotline. Even if the help was needed for something other than abuse. And in exchange for this “help,” mothers must give up their children and relinquish significant privacy rights. As Prof. Roberts questioned, why should one segment of the population be forced to make this choce:  a welfare check versus the loss of their children and the invasion of their privacy.  Is this trade-off the purpose for which the foster system was designed?

One reason for the current forced trade-off, which was unmentioned by Prof. Roberts, lies in our government’s choice in the 1990s to essentially dismantle the welfare system. Perhaps the system required the change, but rather than offer a fix, state governments reduced the welfare rolls, took the money the federal government had allotted for welfare and spent it on things that had little to do with solving the systemic problems of urban poverty. So while tax dollars may no longer be bankrolling Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the problems of the urban poor have not changed, and in fact persist. Now it’s worth noting that between 1959 and 1977, the “percentage of people living in poverty was cut in half.” But the problem didn’t solve itself; it took a concentrated effort of government-sponsored social services, designed specifically to address certain neighborhood ailments.  Simply cutting such services and giving up won’t solve our still-persistent problems and they won’t be solved by leaving our foster care agencies, which are supposed to be focused on children’s needs, as the neighborhood’s sole provider of social services.  In fact, as Prof. Roberts’ lecture demonstrated, when no social services exist, desperate families are forced to give up their children and privacy just to get by. This is not only an inefficient use of our tax dollars, but it is a disturbing injustice. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’m hopeful for any change: after all, any kind of spending preceded by the word “domestic” and “discretionary” is destined for the dustbin in this year’s budget.

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Published in: on February 13, 2007 at 12:52 am Comments (1)

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