With Friends like These, Black Children Don't Need Enemies ; A Law Professor Claims Social Service Organizations Are Systematically Destroying African-American Families

Article excerpt

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. …


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