Let’s talk about the early origins of what would become the child welfare system, which emerged through the “child-saving” efforts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


It is commonly believed that the first child welfare system was created in 1874 in response to the abuse of a girl named Mary Ellen Wilson, but there’s actually more to that story. 


In the second episode of Season 1, we investigate the early history of the child welfare system from the time of emancipation during the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.

Listen on Spotify

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Google Podcasts

Listen on Amazon Music

About Our Guests: 

Dorothy Roberts is a distinguished professor of Africana Studies, Law & Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the award-winning books Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and most recently, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.


Geoff Ward is a Professor of African and African-American Studies and the director of the WashU & Slavery Project at Washington University in St. Louis. His scholarship examines the haunting legacies of historical racial violence and implications for redress. His award-winning book, The Black Child Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice, examines the rise, fall and lasting remnants of Jim Crow Juvenile Justice.


Episode Notes:



Hosts: Josie Pickens & Jaison Oliver

Producer: Sydnie Mares

Editor: Imani Crosby

Continue Learning

Introduction to Family Policing Abolition: An upEND Syllabus


Building on the continuum established in Module One, Module Two reviews Black children’s continued separation and enslavement following the formal abolition of slavery.  This is a companion to The upEND Podcast.



Jaison Oliver

Coming up this episode on The upEND Podcast. 


Dorothy Roberts

The government’s approach to Black children, and this is entirely in line with what he was saying about the different views of the child when it came to Black children, the government’s approach was to put them in the emerging juvenile justice system and to treat them more harshly than white children who are placed there. And sometimes to segregate Black girls, for example, in the juvenile justice system because of the idea that they would contaminate the white girls because of their supposed inmate predisposition to criminality.


Geoff Ward

A white caseworker interviewing for a job. And he’s asked, “was there much delinquency in the court you previously worked in?” He worked in another county. Said “well, there’s a little bit of a problem of white boys having sex with Black girls. But it’s a good thing” he says in the interview “because it’s protecting the white girls.”


Various Voices

Families separated through Child Protective Services voiced their anger on the steps of the state capital today.

They say the system has a history of racial discrimination.

Stop kidnapping Black children. 

This CPS system is just a part of a bigger system. We have to destroy the whole damn thing.


Jaison Oliver

53% of Black children will be investigated by the child welfare system by the time they turn 18.


Josie Pickens

The family policing system forcibly separates over 200,000 children from their families every year. Can a system that began with racist intent ever become a system that makes all children and communities safe?


Jaison Oliver

We know the answer is no. Absolutely not.


Josie Pickens

Welcome to the upEND Podcast, a podcast that looks toward the abolition of the child welfare system, which we end up in more accurately called the family policing system.


Jaison Oliver

In this podcast, we contemplate the history of family separations in the US, the current state of the family policing system, and what a future without family policing can look like.


Josie Pickens

We’re your hosts. I’m Josie Pickens. 


Jaison Oliver

And I’m Jaison Oliver. Let’s get started. 


Jaison Oliver

Welcome back to The upEND Podcast. In this episode, we’ll be talking about the early history of the child welfare system from the time of emancipation during the mid-19th century through the early 20th century. We’re excited to have two guests join us today, professors Dorothy Roberts and Geoff Ward.


Josie Pickens

Geoff Ward is a professor of African and African-American studies and the director of the WashU & Slavery Project at Washington University in St. Louis. His scholarship examines the haunting legacies of historical racial violence and implications for redress. His award-winning book, The Black Child-Savers: Racial Democracy and Juvenile Justice, examines the rise, fall, and lasting remnants of Jim Crow juvenile justice. 

Dorothy Roberts is a distinguished professor of Africana Studies, Law, and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the award-winning books, Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and most recently Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families-and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. So welcome.


Dorothy Roberts

Thank you.


Jaison Oliver

So we’ll start this off. Just please, Dorothy, if you can talk about the focus of your work and some of the connections that you examine between family policing and other contemporary issues.


Dorothy Roberts

I would say that most of my work over the last 30-plus years has been focused on the regulation, devaluation, and punishment of Black women’s childbearing and motherhood and the ways in which Black women have resisted that devaluation. My first book, Killing the Black Body was on that long history, starting from slavery into contemporary issues that devalued Black women’s childbearing and care for their children. 

I began focusing on the prosecutions of Black women who were pregnant and using drugs in the late 1980s, early 1990s. That’s when I began my academic career. And that’s when I discovered the child welfare system or what I and I know upEND calls the family policing system, when I learned that thousands and thousands of Black mothers were having their children taken from them at birth on allegations of using drugs while pregnant. And that brought me into the emerging reproductive justice movement. 

I became an activist in that movement and my book was used a lot by activists for reproductive justice. And reproductive justice emphasizes not only the right not to have a child, the human right not to have a child, not to be compelled to be pregnant, but also the human right to have children and to take care of your children in a safe and supportive environment and community. 

And so that work is intimately, inextricably connected to my work against family policing and for family justice. I think of it as a reproductive justice issue. I’ve also done a lot of writing and activism against prisons and other forms of policing and written about the need to abolish prisons and worked in that space as well. And I’ve seen how prisons and criminal punishment and family policing, not only are very similar in the way in which they operate to target the most marginalized communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities as a form of oppression, but how they are entangled in a carceral web with each other. 

In other words, they’re not just similar to each other, they work together. And similarly, how our movements to abolish prisons and police must be connected to a movement to abolish family policing. So all of my work since the late 1980s, I think is very much related to the abolition of family policing.


Jaison Oliver:

Thank you. Thank you. And Geoff, you’re coming at this from a different approach, but still definitely strongly connected in terms of looking at the family policing system. So please tell us about the focus of your work and some of these connections that you examine there.


Geoff Ward

Yeah, you know, it was interesting to hear Dorothy talk about her journey through this work and where it’s taken her. My work has similarly kind of unfolded in some ways that I didn’t anticipate getting into, as I was first getting into this. And they touch on similar themes, but in somewhat different ways. 

I should say maybe for starters that I’m a sociologist, really a historical sociologist. I’m interested in how the past maintains a presence in the social world and what we might do with this presence of the past. And this is an interest that really originated in my research for the book that became The Black Child Savers. In that work, I was really struck by a movement I was writing about, this movement led by generations of Black women beginning with Black club women in the 1880s and 90s, who from the outset understood the unequal protection of children and youth as a problem of genocide, they describe it. They described the Jim Crow juvenile justice system as a genocidal institution that was, “killing the seeds of a people.”

And while there were certainly literal killings of, you know, state killings of Black children enslaved and then ostensibly free post-emancipation, they were really talking about the systematic withholding of opportunities for full self-realization for Black children relative to their white counterparts. Educational opportunities, health care, other kinds of opportunities that would facilitate their future, their potential for mobility and flourishing and human flourishing and so forth. They described this as a genocidal institution, really talking about the problem of collective violence that resulted from this separate unequal system of youth justice that was projecting into the future, the social, economic, political disadvantages that would affect entire Black communities. 

And that really got me interested in thinking more about and getting a better understanding of how histories of racialized violence shape subsequent patterns of conflict and violence and inequality. And so as I was finishing that book and then after it was published, I was really beginning to focus more broadly on how these histories of racialized violence, in particular racist political violence like lynching and so forth, but also the history of enslavement are related to subsequent patterns of conflict, inequality, and violence in communities across the United States. 


Josie Pickens

Thank you both for those answers. And I guess we should begin as we move forward talking about the origins of the child welfare system and where we might be able to locate early forms. I know that Professor Roberts, you’ve talked about your work and your work around looking at the experiences of Black families, of Black women, during and after chattel slavery. We know that when we’re thinking about family separations in this country, we can also think about how settler colonialism fits into that conversation. But if we’re thinking about the child welfare system as a system, can you talk to us a bit about where we can find or locate those earliest forms.


Dorothy Roberts

Yes, well, I think that’s a really important question that the dominant answer to is wrong. There’s this narrative about the origins of the child welfare system, that it began in 1874 when a little girl named Mary Ellen Wilson was being beaten and starved by her caretaker whom she called Mama. And that because there was no child welfare system in existence, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children came in, oh, I should say that it was formed. But prior to that, they had to rely on abuse of animal legislation in order to address this abuse of this little girl in her home. And that’s the traditional story that Mary Ellen’s abuse in her home alerted reformers to the need for a child welfare system to protect children from abuse by their parents. 

Now, it turns out that that story is just false, and misstates a lot of facts, and isn’t even the origin of the child welfare system. So, Mary Ellen Wilson was actually being abused by a foster parent after she was taken from her mother. And there already existed at the time advocacy for a form of state intervention into families for white children. 

But I think what is important to add to the narrative and really transforms the narrative is to look at a judicially imposed system for removing Black children from their families which began immediately after the end of the Civil War. And was part of the effort that I think people know more about of southerners to take back control of the South, keep in place white supremacy, continue to exploit Black people, by imposing Black Codes, the convict leasing system, a whole system where Black people could be picked up by police officers, were picked up by police officers, put in jail just for everyday activity, sometimes just being in the street, and were also often leased out to companies, coal mines and railroads and other companies that were rebuilding the South and forced to work literally to death. And a part of that effort to virtually re-enslave Black people was also to continue to exploit the labor of Black children and to continue to impose white domination on Black families. 

And so the child apprentice system was utilized either through existing apprenticeship laws or in some cases new laws that were passed. That permitted white people, sometimes the very former enslavers of Black families, to go to court, allege that Black parents were neglectful, and judges would routinely put these children into the involuntary servitude of white people to work for them. 

Now the apprenticeship system was supposed to be a way for children to learn a trade, to be educated. And this did not happen in the case of Black children. They were forced to work. And in fact, some Black parents brought lawsuits, some successful under the new state constitutions that included an equal protection clause. This happened in Maryland. Arguing that Black children were not being treated equally as white children under these apprenticeship systems. But tens of thousands of Black children in southern states were returned to former white enslavers through this court ordered system. And I think it’s eerily alike the contemporary foster system that allows judges to remove children from their homes on allegations of parental neglect and place them in state custody. 

So I see that as an even earlier form of fostering, foster care, the early, certainly the earliest form of so-called child welfare system for Black families. Because even the system that advocates for the child welfare system point to, the one that supposedly emerged out of the abuse of Mary Ellen Wilson, only addressed the needs of impoverished white children. And Black children were ignored by that system while they were being apprenticed out to former white enslavers to be forced to work. 

Now, another aspect of the roots of today’s child welfare system is the military’s use of child removal in its wars against Indigenous people. For Indigenous Native tribes, the origins of the child welfare system for them is in the military campaign of kidnapping Native children and confining them originally to military camps and then boarding schools as a literal weapon of war. And this began in 1879 and continued for decades and then eventually morphed into an official adoption policy by the US government in collaboration with the Child Welfare League of America. To find Native families neglectful, take their children, place them in either white homes or white dominated orphanages to be adopted by white families. And this eventually led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in the 1970s, but for decades there was an official U.S. policy of assimilating Indigenous children by forcibly taking them from their families and putting them with white adoptive parents. 

Now let’s go back to what was happening with white children at the turn of the 20th century. Again, the narrative of benevolent charitable establishment of a child welfare system to save children from abusive parents is false, even for white children. There began to be a movement by wealthy reformers in Northern cities to what they saw as rescue impoverished children from parental neglect and also from institutions because historically white impoverished children were put sometimes with their parents in poor houses and almshouses and made indentured servants. And so there was a movement, a reform movement, to place these children instead in orphanages and what were called free foster homes. 

One of the leading advocates for this was the Reverend Charles Lauren Brace, who in 1853 founded the New York Children’s Aid Society. And he made it clear in his book, The Dangerous Classes of New York and 20 Years Work Among Them, which was published in 1872, he felt that poverty predisposed children to become criminals. And they had to be transferred from their dangerous environment to more wholesome environments through a foster care system. And so he advocated, and this was now being established in laws that allowed for judges to remove children from their families and place them in substitute care. And so this is the origin for white children, which eventually becomes the foster system that disproportionately takes Black children from their families, you know, when we get to the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. 

But that system not only took children from their impoverished parents, white children, and placed them in so-called foster homes, but also involved shipping tens of thousands of children from Northern cities to the Midwest and the Southwest to supply free labor for farm families. They were advertised as free labor. These families in the Midwest and Southwest were able to select children they wanted to work for them involuntarily. And this was so, so frequent and such a massive transfer of children it was called the orphan trains. 

Of course, these children mostly weren’t orphans. They were impoverished children removed from their parents. But this was a way of supplying free coerced labor of children to thousands and thousands of farms in the Midwest and Southwest. So we could take all of these origins, whether it’s the so-called apprenticeship of Black children, which was really a way of re-enslaving them, forcing them to work for white families in the South. All of this is an origin that is oppressive and that is not at all about protecting children, supporting families, but it’s about using children as weapons of oppression against the most marginalized groups in the nation.


Jaison Oliver

We hope you’re enjoying The upEND Podcast. A quick note: upEND is funded through the generosity of people like you who believe that ending the harm of the family policing system will help us to create a safer future. If you’re enjoying this podcast, we hope that you’ll consider donating to our work. Visit upendmovement.org/donate for more information.



Josie Pickens

You know, this idea of benevolence and the fact that whether we’re talking about Black children or Native children or even white children, like this idea that the child welfare system is a helping system is a myth and a myth from its origin. A myth that continues today. So thank you for that answer. And Dr. Ward, I know that you spoke a bit earlier about this shift from white children and the services that might have been provided and the difference between the way that white children were treated in not only what would become the child welfare system, or what we would come to know as the child welfare system, but even if we’re talking about early aspects of the juvenile justice system. Like there were obviously two different kinds of sets of rules for white children and Black children. You spoke a little bit about that earlier and I just wanted to see if you’d like to expand and talk a little bit more on that.


Geoff Ward

Sure. Yeah, I want to start by talking about another Mary, and that’s Mary Crouse, who, in the juvenile delinquency context, the Mary Crouse case in Pennsylvania, 1838, is often pointed to as the sort of institutional of the juvenile justice system, and particularly the distinction of the juvenile court. In 1838, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court essentially ruled that the state is the penultimate parent of the country. In this case involving Mary Crouse, who was incarcerated and was denied due process protections. And the state held that this is constitutional, in part because the state has authority as a parent of last resort, and also because the benevolence of the rehabilitative ideal negated a need for due process protection.

And so this created really the tremendous discretion of the system, which has been really critical to its systematic over-policing and under-protection of certain kinds of people, including, of course, people of color, children of color, and their families, but also poor white kids who were, say, children of immigrants, and particularly girls whose bodies are being policed, who’s sexuality is being policed by these early systems. 

Interestingly, many researchers, myself included, I mean, I just kind of learned about Mary Crouse from other historical work, and I didn’t dig into her case. Many researchers were under the impression that she was being held without having committed a crime on the basis of being deemed a child of poor character or, you know, incorrigible. But a study was published last month where researchers conducted, looked at archival materials and concluded that Mary Crouse had killed a two-year-old child, leading to her incarceration. 

But setting that aside, I think another really key issue here with respect to the origin story and with respect to your question about differential treatment, I think, is the idea of the child itself. The idea of the child, I would really is sort of the idea of the child. a fundamental sort of foundation of all these issues. The idea is, in short, that children are a different kind of human being, different in the sense that they are more malleable in terms of their character as compared to adults, more vulnerable. Need protection and also crucially less culpable because they’ve not fully formed, you know, a moral sensibility. We don’t expect that of children until a certain age. 

So before these US specific institutions were developed, there was reliance on English common law to adjudicate cases involving children. And English common law very explicitly established these age ranges wherein you would be presumed incapable of crime or presumed capable, and the prosecutor or defense would have to argue that you were capable in the sense of knowing what you were doing and being culpable. And so this idea of the child, I write about this a lot in The Black Child Savers because I think it is really one of the two places that you see white supremacy really derailing Black children and families’ access to these emerging child welfare ideals and associated institutions. 

We know from early cases, from 1828 in New Jersey, an enslaved African-American child is executed, inconsistent with patterns of mitigating the severity of sentencing for children. You have the 1830s case here in Missouri of a girl named Mary who was executed in a case in Alabama from the 1850s, 1858. 

So historically and still today, we see that Black children are, whether enslaved or free, are being denied equal access to this idea of childhood, and recent research has shown, to the idea of childhood and all of its supposed protections. And I think we should, we can come back to this because I think it’s a fraught, you know, it’s a really complicated problem. What do we do with this idea of childhood? It’s complicated in part because it sort of disregards the interests. I mean, it sort of rationalizes the punitive excess in the case of adults. And so it’s problematic in many respects. But that has been the sort of orienting framework that has really driven the development and the unequal protection of the juvenile system. 

And we know from recent research that Black children continue to be denied access to this idea of childhood. There are studies that look at implicit and explicit bias that show that people routinely overestimate the ages of Black children, and that they also routinely regard them as more culpable for crimes than their white counterparts. So this is, I would say, this has been a really important driver of this story historically. 

But a crucial piece of this, and this is something I really try to emphasize in my work, and I think we need to talk more about, is the issue of power inequality. Because Black families and Black communities themselves very much subscribe to an idea, the idea of the Black child. Believed in the rights of Black children to these things like leniency and also developmental resources and support. And this is really what drove these generations of activists who I’ve written about. So the issue of white supremacist ideology coupled with a near monopoly on power, white monopoly on power historically, was really crucial to the ability to systematically apply this idea differentially in ways that have harmed and continue to harm.


Josie Pickens

So I’m thinking about the last things that you brought up, Geoff, around the courts, the legal system, and how there were some judges or some people who were working in the system to try and, I guess, offer some type of aid, some type of support for families that were obviously being mishandled, mistreated in the system. Dorothy, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to talk a bit about the tactics that were positioned in the opposite way. What tactics did we see that legally undermined the autonomy of Black families in service of capitalism? We’ve talked about this a bit in white supremacy then, and like what are we seeing today that is similar to what has been happening really since the origins of this system.


Dorothy Roberts

There are just a few points I’d like to add that I think are important. So one is that, when I was describing the history of the origins of the formal child welfare system and pointed out that Black children were not served, if you want to use that term, their needs were not addressed by the formal child welfare system until Black people began to demand that they be included in a variety of welfare programs that were developed to support impoverished families as part of the civil rights movement. 

Of course, there was a backlash against Black families, and we see that as Black families began to be attended to by the child welfare system, the system became more punitive and began relying more on taking children away from their families and less on services to intact families. But during that period where Black children were not being addressed by the child welfare system, dependent Black children were being placed in the juvenile justice system. 

And Dr. Ward talked a bit about this, but I just want to emphasize the point that the government’s approach to Black children, and this is entirely in line with what he was saying about the different views of the child when it came to Black children, government’s approach was to put them in the emerging juvenile justice system and to treat them more harshly than white children who are placed there. And sometimes to segregate Black girls, for example, in the juvenile justice system because of the idea that they would contaminate the white girls because of their supposed inmate predisposition to criminality. 

I also think when we talk about the view of the child, this is where I think my work on Black mothers really comes in because they’re two sides of the same coin. The idea that Black children are prone to criminality and dysfunction and can’t be controlled, that they need harsh white supervision. That is paired with stereotypes of Black mothers, which have been circulating in dominant US culture since the time of slavery, that Black mothers are incapable of caring for their children without white supervision, that Black children are better off away from their mothers, that they need to be saved from their mothers, and that their mothers pass down a depraved lifestyle to their children, almost biologically. In fact, some of the stereotypes about Black mothers are that Black mothers lack, biologically, a loving care for their children and are innately incapable of caring for them. 

And if we think about the stereotypes, the most common stereotypes of Black mothers all have to do with Black mothers in capacity to care for their children and in fact being dangerous to their children like the sexual licentious Jezebel, the mammy, the welfare queen, the Black crack addict who supposedly created the Black crack baby. All of these stereotypes that span the entire course of US history to today are the other side of the stereotypes about Black children. They got those negative traits supposedly according to these stereotypes from their mothers. And I think this really has underpinned the way in which Black children and their families have been treated by a white supremacist state from the time of slavery through the period we’ve been talking about to today. And that Black mothers don’t really care. There’s no loving connection between Black children and their parents, especially their mothers, well, the parent. The fathers are absent, according to this stereotype. And so it’s not really harmful to Black children….


Josie Pickens

And the mothers are negligent.


Dorothy Roberts

The mothers are negligent. So there’s no harm to taking children away from their families. It’s only beneficial to them, regardless of all the problems, you know, it’s beneficial for Black children to be separated from their families.


Geoff Ward

And it’s compounding, this separation. One of the cases I write about, the examples I write about in The Black Child Savers is from North Carolina where there’s a white caseworker interviewing for a job in a juvenile court. And he’s asked, this is early 1900s, really around the 1930s. And he’s asked, “was there much delinquency in the court you previously worked in?” He worked in another county. And he said, “well, there’s a little bit of a problem of white boys having sex with Black girls. But it’s a good thing,” he says in the interview, “because it’s protecting the white girls.”

So it’s an example of how what Dorothy’s talking about in terms of the separation and being pushed into this system, where you’re then subject as a young person to this sort of systematic neglect. The court is itself saying, this official who’s applying for a job again, is saying fortunately, we’ve been able to sacrifice the interests and wellbeing of these girls, according to their contemporary beliefs, standards, to protect the futures, including these white girls’ future prospects as wives and mothers and so forth. And then, once these Black girls come of age, once they’re out in the world adults that have their own children, they will be demonized. 

Again, the same logic will be applied in the later instance to make some claim about their immorality or their being unfit to be a parent and so forth. So this is to go back to Dorothy’s point about the entanglement, these entangled carceral webs that really stretch from not only the juveniles to the adult, sort of, criminal systems, but our social welfare systems, our school systems, and our health systems and so forth.


Dorothy Roberts

Yes, so that brings me to your question about how the courts and legal systems implement these toxic and white supremacist ideas about Black families. And there are just so many ways the whole family policing system is based on accusing, investigating, punishing disproportionately Black families. And I think built on these ideas about Black families, that the system itself is grounded in these ideas of Black families incapable of caring for their children and the need to impose white supervision over Black families. 

So the whole system is based on that, but courts then intervene in families in these terroristic ways. Based on the excuse that they’re saving Black children from their assumed to be harmful families and specifically saving them from their mothers who are stereotyped as being harmful to them, passing down a depraved lifestyle to them. And then, and then, because of that ideology of innate Black inferiority and danger and irredeemability. This goes back to what Geoff was saying about the idea of the child. These children, under this ideology, can’t be rehabilitated by the system. And that’s played out when you see overlap between the juvenile justice and criminal punishment system and the child welfare system, family policing system for Black children. 

It’s so common that there are names for this, “dually involved” children or “crossover” youth. These are the labels placed on children, disproportionately Black children who go from being in the family policing system into the juvenile justice or prison system because of the way the foster system is structured. It’s not because there’s anything innately within these children that predisposes them to delinquency and crime. It’s because they have been placed in a foster system that predisposes them to being shuttled into the juvenile system or the adult prison system. And it’s very clear, many studies have shown this, that children in foster care, especially Black children, are at higher risk of going into the juvenile delinquency system and they’re more likely to get harsher sentences. They’re more likely to spend more time there. 

It’s because of the way in which the system itself criminalizes Black children. And so whether we’re talking about the accusations, the reporting, the investigations, the removals, the placement of children in congregate care in so-called residential treatment facilities and other kinds of settings that criminalize them or the termination of their relationship with their families. All of this is the way in which the court system implements these white supremacist ideologies that Geoff and I have been talking about.


Jaison Oliver

Yeah, these are great connections that you all are making. I think I want to kind of finish up with one last question to you, Dorothy. Looking at your work and especially your work with mothers targeted and harmed by the system directly. How has that informed how you look at the system and then how you carry about your historical research?


Dorothy Roberts

Yes, well, you know, I’ve been working on investigating the family policing system and as an activist against it for more than 20 years and I became both knowledgeable about how oppressive the system is and passionate about working for its abolition largely because of the Black mothers I met in the course of doing my research. And I early on met a mother in Chicago, I was teaching at Northwestern at the time, named Jornell who was fighting to get back her son after he was taken from her on grounds of medical neglect as a newborn baby. And she had formed a small group of other Black mothers in Chicago whose children had been taken. 

And by the way, in Chicago at the time, probably is still true today, almost all the children removed from their families in place of foster care are Black. It was more than 90% at the time. So, if you’re going to put together a group of mothers, it’s probably going to be Black mothers who have been terrorized by the system. And they were really a kind of support group, because it’s very, very hard for them to organize. They were trying to get their children back, and they were under extreme scrutiny with impossible demands from the system in order to get back their children. 

And so they’re resisting, and this is an important example of resistance by Black mothers, helping each other to navigate the system, speaking out as much as they can, very courageously, because when you speak out against the harms to your children in foster care, or against the violation of your rights, or in favor of a better way of helping your family, you’re seen, especially as a Black mother, as being resistant, as being aggressive, as not acknowledging your faults, and it’s held against you. It’s held as a reason why you shouldn’t be reunited with your children. So those very courageous mothers I met early on were really important to my understanding how terroristic and harmful and oppressive the system is, and also understanding that it has to be abolished. 

You know, these mothers called what happened to them a form of slavery. They used those terms. They talked about their children being kidnapped from them and they explained why. And when you stand by Black mothers whose children have been taken from them by the family policing system, you learn how it is the opposite of helpful and supportive, the opposite of rescuing children. It’s making their lives harder, and it’s a form of punishment, and it’s an extension, it’s an arm, a very powerful arm of a white supremacist state. 

And so I have kept close with Black mothers organizing to abolish family policing over all these years and am really hopeful and uplifted by the organizing that has expanded dramatically in recent years, led by people like Joyce McMillan of JMACforFamilies and the mothers at Rise and other organizations that are fighting to abolish the system and also implementing the kinds of community-based supports for families that continue the legacy that Geoff was talking about of Black women who are creating a radically different way of caring for children than what the U.S. state has subjected Black families to.


Jaison Oliver

I really appreciate how you spoke about the organizations that are in existence today. And I want to make sure that our audience is seeing the connections between the organizations that we have now and then those early Black women’s clubs that Geoff talked about earlier, that were so important in fighting back against family policing and separations, against the juvenile justice system, and the ways that they were targeting and explicitly seeking to harm Black children and Black families. So yeah, these are really important connections we want to show take place even in the earliest histories of the child welfare system or the family policing system.


Dorothy Roberts

I mentioned when I was talking about the apprenticeship system and Black people’s protest against it that there were some successful cases. And there was a decision decided in 1867 by Justice Salmon Portland Chase, who was an antislavery lawyer and became the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court under President Lincoln. In fact, he succeeded Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision. 

And he was on federal circuit court duty in Baltimore and heard a petition for habeas corpus brought on behalf of a 10 year old Black girl named Elizabeth Turner, who had been sent back to her former enslaver by a court in Baltimore. And her mother petitioned to get her released from this apprenticeship under the new Maryland Constitution, which had taken effect in 1864. And as soon as the Constitution took effect, Elizabeth was part of a group of Black children who were sent en masse back to their former enslavers as apprentices. Thousands of Black children in Maryland were basically stolen back by White planters right after emancipation. And her mother’s argument was under the Maryland Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause that white children were being taught reading and writing and arithmetic under the apprenticeship system. whereas her daughter and other Black children were just forced to work and they won the case. 

Justice Chase held that the state’s apprenticeship law violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which was enacted to enforce the 13th Amendment. So it was brought under the Civil Rights Act, but the Civil Rights Act was passed to enforce the 13th Amendment. And so I think it’s just one of many, many examples of Black people using a constitutional or civil rights argument to fight back against the oppressive intrusions, violences against them. So I think it’s good to note not only how courts have been used to oppress, and mostly have done that, but Black people have also appealed to courts. That’s not the only or even main way, but have appealed to courts to apply the Constitution and Civil Rights Acts, especially the 13th and 14th Amendments, in abolitionist ways.


Josie Pickens

Yeah, I think it’s always important to make those connections and bring up those cases. Often people think that with what Black people have experienced in this country, there hasn’t been a fightback or hasn’t been resistance. And so I think it is very important to make sure that we offer examples of that type of resistance, whether we are talking about building communities of care outside of these systems or fighting directly within these systems. And sometimes, probably rarely, but sometimes, you know, winning and it being effective to do so. 

So this has been such a rich conversation. I thought I knew so much coming into it. And I feel like I have tripled my knowledge talking to the both of you today. So I really, really appreciate both of you being here. Lastly, I guess I’d like to ask where folks can find you. So Professor Roberts, if you’d like to begin and then Professor Ward, if you’d like to close us. Where can people find you? Where can people stay connected to your work?


Dorothy Roberts

Well, the easiest place for people to find me is at my job at University of Pennsylvania. I teach in the law school, Africana Studies and Sociology. And they can find me at my Penn Carey Law faculty profile, which is easy to access online. I’m also on Twitter. My handle is @DorothyERoberts. So that’s another way. And I tweet about these issues of family policing, the criminal punishment system, and other kinds of oppressive anti-Black violences that continue and also about the resistance, especially of Black women against it.


Josie Pickens

Thank you so much. Professor Ward?


Geoff Ward

Yeah, like Dorothy, the best place to find me is at the university where I base my practice as an academic. I’m at Washington University in St. Louis in the Department of African and African-American Studies. And I’ve been committed throughout my career to a public-facing, engaging academic practice. So a lot of my work is through digital projects and I try to make it accessible. And hopefully compelling, I also co-lead a lab called Memory for the Future. You can go to m4f.community

Memory for the Future is a public humanities lab where we’re focused on reparative memory work, memories we need for the future we want, and really shaping a cultural memory where we share some understanding of the kinds of issues we’re talking about today so that we can build on that foundation of collective consciousness, a more just and equitable future. And on that note, I just want to thank you all for this podcast. I think podcasts, though our institutions don’t recognize and acknowledge the value of podcasts in terms of things like impact in our communities, I think what you’re doing has so much impact. And I’m just really grateful to have been invited to be a part of this and to have had the honor of sharing the conversation with Dorothy Roberts, of whom I’m a great fan. 


Dorothy Roberts

And the feeling is mutual. And so thank you so much for inviting both of us and allowing us to have this important conversation and sending it out to the public. Thanks so much.


Josie Pickens

You are so welcome. And for those listening, you can check out our show notes for links to Professor Roberts’ work and Professor Ward’s work, as well as additional resources for this episode. So thank you all for tuning in!


Thank you for joining us for the upEND podcast as we explore family policing system abolition. To learn more about, upEND and our work to strengthen families and communities, visit our website at upendmovement.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @upendmovement. 


Subscribe to the upEND Newsletter