HIST 365, winter 2004, Week 9
Reading and Discussion Questions
Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: Introduction, 103-172, 223-276.
1. Dorothy Roberts begins her book by accusing the child welfare system
of “shattering the bonds between poor Black children and their parents”
(vii) and calling for programs that will dramatically decrease the numbers
of African-American children in state custody. What evidence does she
present for this argument?
2. She condemns the “myth” that the children welfare system
improves children’s lives by separating children from their biological
parents. Do you agree that a lot of people believe such separations are
good for children? What do you think the primary reasons are for removing
children from their biological parents and families, and is it your hunch
that such removals are usually warranted or unwarranted?
3. Roberts defines the child welfare system as “a state-run program
that disrupts, restructures, and polices Black families” (viii).
What is your response to this claim?
4. Americans tolerate an intolerable level of state intervention into
families, Roberts claims, largely because the color of child welfare has
darkened during the past several decades. Do you agree that the state
has too much power to intervene family life? Do you agree that the reason
is related to blackness?
1. What did the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 do?
Why does Roberts suggest that Congress changed course with the Adoption
and Safe Families Act of 1997?
2. What do “permanency” and “permanency planning”
mean in relation to child welfare policy?
3. What do you think about the length of time that agencies should be
given to work toward reunification? What are the strongest arguments for
allowing reunification efforts to take a long time? What arguments suggests
these efforts should be fairly brief?
4. Roberts suggests that there is now a strong preference for adoption
(which involves termination of parental rights) over reunification when
it comes to children in foster care. She also explains the difficulties
of caseworkers who are expected to plan concurrently for adoption and
reunification. What do you think of these competing priorities? Do you
think of foster and adoptive placements as “safer” and/or
“better” for children in the system than reunification with
natal families? What impact do you think these policy priorities have
on children, parents, and child welfare workers?
5. Roberts portrays poor Black parents as disadvantaged in relation to
foster parents and the child welfare system. What do you think of the
evidence she presents? If she is right, why do you think the traditional
respect for the rights of biological parents over strangers has been so
6. Adoption has become exceedingly popular in recent years as a solution
to the foster care crisis, according to Roberts. She objects to this adoption
strategy for both principled and practical reasons. Explain what they
are. How do you square her description of the pro-adoption policy bias
with the dramatic decline in total numbers of adoptions since 1970?
7. What is Roberts’ point in comparing child-parent separations
caused by divorce with children removed from families by child welfare
8. Do you agree with Roberts that our laws and public policies value
biological bonds between certain parents and children while actively deprecating
others? If so, does the child welfare system violate the principle of
equal protection for children, parents, or both?
9. Do you think that the child welfare system’s responsibility
to protect children from harm conflicts with its responsibility to serve
families? If so, how would you resolve the conflict?
10. What practical factors does Roberts mention that help to explain
the current bias of the child welfare system toward the removal of African-American
children from their natal kin?
11. Current policy mandates that “reasonable efforts” be
made to reunify families before parental rights are terminated. What do
you think such efforts should look like? What does Roberts think?
12. What does Roberts make of the social work research literature on
the effectiveness of family preservation programs?
13. Parents with substance abuse problems offer clear examples of the
conflict between family reunification and speedy progress toward permanency
for children, Roberts notes. Why is this so? Do you think that substance
abuse is or should be treated any differently by the child welfare system
than other adult problems (such as poverty, homelessness, food insecurity,
etc.) that make life difficult for children? Why or why not? Do you think
there is or should be a difference between a mother who abuses drugs or
alcohol during pregnancy and parents whose addictions endanger children
after they are born? Why or why not?
14. What is a “legal orphan”? Why is it important?
15. In the case of deeply troubled families, what alternatives can you
imagine to thinking about parents and children as parties whose interests
are at odds?
16. How do policies that aim for either speedy reunification or speedy
adoption adversely effect African-American children in particular? Do
you agree with Roberts that alternative arrangements such as subsidized
guardianship might be a preferable arrangements for large numbers of children?
17. What relationship does Roberts detect in the shift away from family
preservation and the debate about transracial adoption?
18. What is MEPA, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994?
19. Roberts argues that contemporary advocates of transracial adoption,
including Elizabeth Bartholet, are contemporary exponents of “child
rescue,” a philosophy articulated by Charles Loring Brace and exemplified
in the orphan trains. Do you agree?
20. “White people’s demand for white children isn’t
seen as a race-based claim, whereas the position that Black children belong
with Black adoptive parents is” (167). Explain what she means by
this. Do you agree? Would the conversation about transracial adoption
change significantly if non-white parents adopted white children? Do you
think it should?
21. Why does Roberts think that adoption cannot possibly help to solve
the crisis of most children in foster care?
1. What is Roberts’ point in beginning this part of the book with
references to a series of Supreme Court decisions that protect parents’
rights to rear their children as they see fit? Do you agree with her that
guarding against state encroachment on parents’ rights is necessary
to protect children and families? Why or why not?
2. What does Roberts mean by suggesting that the racially disparate treatment
of the child welfare system creates “group-based harm”? Why
does she believe it is inadequate to protect children case by case, one
individual at a time?
3. Explain why Roberts believes that recognition and acknowledgment of
group rights are important steps toward the protection of individual child
and family welfare.
4. Why do you think that Roberts makes a point, on p. 246, of distancing
herself from the National Association of Black Social Workers and its
famous opposition to transracial adoption? Do you agree that her theory
of group harm makes her position different from that of the NABSW in the
5. Is Roberts suggesting that a law like the Indian Child Welfare Act
be passed for African-American children? If so, do you think that such
laws should also be passed for all other minority groups in the United
States? If so, why? If not, what justification is there for treating the
child members of one group differently from the child members of another?
6. Does thinking about children as group resources affirm or violate
your understanding of childhood? Explain.
7. What is kinship care? Why isn’t it a sufficient response to
the racial injustices of the child welfare system, according to Roberts?
How does it actually perpetuate that system’s racial harms?
8. Do you think it is possible or desirable to separate the power that
government wields over children and families from the benefits that children
and families expect and deserve from government? Are forms of surveillance
and intervention necessary parts of a responsible child welfare system,
or are they proof that the system functions to perpetuate discrimination
on the basis of race or other factors?
9. Short of a radical redistribution of wealth and power in the United
States, how do you think Roberts’ analysis could be applied to child
welfare? What do you think about the list of reforms on the bottom of
10. Several decades after the eradication of Jim Crow laws, what new
obstacles do analysts like Roberts face in arguing that racism is the
main reason why child welfare is a punitive and damaging system?
11. Child welfare is based on the premise that the state has positive
obligations to serve children’s health, education, and well-being
and that these services are beneficial public goods. Has reading Shattered
Bonds made you think differently about what it means for the state
to exercise its authority and intervene in child and family life? If so,
12. Picture yourself as 1) a worker in the child welfare system, 2)
a struggling parents, and 3) an elected official. After reading this book,
what do you do?