Ellen Herman

Department of History, University of Oregon


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?

Part 2

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 easily displaced?

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 authorities?

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?

Part 3

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 early 1970s?

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 p. 268?

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, how?

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?