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Foster Care and Reproductive Justce

by Dorothy Roberts, Northwestern University

We should extend our struggle for reproductive justice to challenge the foster care system because it violates thousands of women's right to parent their children. Most of the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. child welfare system go to removing children from their homes and maintaining them in foster care. Foster care is a political institution reflecting social inequities, including race, class, and gender hierarchies, and serving powerful ideologies and interests. The U.S. child welfare system is and always has been designed to regulate poor families. Most cases of child maltreatment involve parental neglect, which is usually difficult to disentangle from the conditions of poverty. Nationwide, there are twice as many neglected children in foster care as children who are physically abused. The child welfare system hides the systemic reasons for poor families' hardships by attributing them to parental deficits and pathologies that require therapeutic remedies rather than social change.

Foster care is also marked by shocking racial disparities. In 2000, Black children made up two-fifths of the nation's foster care population, although they represented less than one-fifth of the nation's children. Black children were four times as likely as white children to be in foster care. Taken together, children of color comprised only about 30 percent of the general population, but about 60 per cent of children in foster care. Most children awaiting adoption in the nation's foster care system are African American or Latino. Researchers have detected differential treatment at every point in the child welfare decision making process - reporting, investigation and substantiation, child placement, service provision, and permanency decision making. For example, Black women are much more likely than white women to be reported by hospital staff for substance abuse during pregnancy and to have their babies removed by child protective services. Child protection decisions are influenced by deeply-embedded racial stereotypes about female immorality and family dysfunction. The racial disparity in the child welfare system also reflects a political choice to address the startling rates of child poverty in communities of color by punishing parents instead of tackling poverty's societal roots.

In the last decade, government policy has intensified its focus on "freeing" children in foster care for adoption by terminating parental rights rather than preserving families. The Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed by Congress in 1997, implements a preference for adoption by establishing swifter timetables for states to petition for termination of parental rights and offering financial incentives to states to move more children from foster care into adoptive homes. It also weakens the chances of family preservation by encouraging agencies to make concurrent efforts to place foster children with adoptive parents while trying to reunite them with their families. Federal child welfare policy places foster children on a "fast track" to adoption as a strategy for curing the ills of the child welfare system, especially reducing the enormous foster care population. Reproductive justice advocates should work to radically transform the child welfare system into one that generously and non-coercively supports families instead of tearing them apart.


More information about foster care and the struggle for reproductive justice can be found in the following sources:

  • Renny Golden, War on the Family: Mothers in Prison and the Families They Leave Behind (Routledge 2005)
  • Dorothy Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books 2002).

Rickie Solinger, Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States (Hill and Wang 2001).

Bronx Defenders Family Defense Project,

Child Welfare Organizing Project,

National Advocates for Pregnant Women,

National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,

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