March 26, 2021 symposium – Columbia Law School

Call for Papers

Almost twenty years ago, in Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, law professor Dorothy Roberts systematically dismantled any pretense that the child welfare system functions to serve the interests of children.  Through data, documentation, history, analysis, and family narratives, Professor Roberts called out the racism at the heart of a system that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of families. “If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system,” she wrote, “you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor Black families.” Professor Roberts built on earlier analyses of child protection intervention that identified poverty as the leading reason for the state removing children from their families, and on the long legacy of early Progressive activists’ efforts to assimilate immigrant families who were a threat to “American” norms by conditioning assistance on intrusive and punitive interventions in their lives.  We mark the 20th anniversary of this groundbreaking book with a symposium, Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being, on March 26, 2021, at Columbia Law School.  The symposium is co-chaired by Professors Nancy Polikoff (American) and Jane Spinak (Columbia). Professor Roberts will deliver the keynote address. This is a call for papers on the theme of the symposium;  papers and responses to the symposium will be published in the Columbia Journal of Race and Law (CJRL) in a symposium issue and in the journal’s online publication.

The child welfare system is a regime of public, private, and faith-based entities, courts, and individuals authorized by force of law to intervene in families, remove children from their parents temporarily or permanently, and terminate the parent-child relationship. Child removal is not the end result of all interventions by the child welfare system but parental interaction with anyone in the child welfare system takes place under the specter of possible child removal, interference with family autonomy, and loss of parental rights. When children are removed from their families, they are generally placed in a massive foster system in which the state provides vastly more money and assistance to strangers to raise other people’s children than it is willing to provide parents to raise their own children.  It is the coercive power of the state to destroy families that distinguishes the child welfare system and its actors from any other existing or envisioned system of providing assistance to families to promote the well-being of their children.

Since the very formation of a formal child welfare system – first in the creation of the original juvenile court and later in the development of federally funded state child protection agencies – advocates, lawyers, judges, scholars, policy makers, activists, parents and children have written and spoken about the defects in, and harms inflicted by, the child welfare system.  Historic and current critics have identified, among other concerns: vague standards of child maltreatment; misidentifying poverty as neglect; widespread due process violations; inadequate, untimely and ineffective legal representation; differential application of laws; the role of the courts in perpetuating inequality and injustice; the demonization of mothers and the disregard of fathers; denying services that are legally mandated to prevent child removal or reunite families who have been separated; drawing families under court supervision to receive services; inadequate mental health and substance abuse treatment and the ever-more-frayed safety net; inappropriate family reunification requirements; misdiagnoses of child abuse; drawbacks of mandatory and anonymous reporting; debilitating and demoralizing consequences of child abuse registries; financial incentives  for foster placements and adoptions but not for returning children to their parents; the foster-care industrial complex; mistreatment of and bad outcomes for children in foster care; the impact of increasing income inequality; and, unrelenting, ongoing, structural racism, seen especially in the devaluing of the relationships between Black mothers and their children.

Since the publication of Shattered Bonds at the beginning of this century, reform efforts have, for the most part, focused on making the current child welfare system work better without fundamentally challenging its existence.  Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being is an opportunity to critique this limited reform approach and consider radical change to re-imagine how society cares for and protects children while honoring their bonds to their families and communities.  The past two decades have seen abundant critiques of the American criminal legal system and its reliance on physical and financial punishment, incarceration, and isolation.  A forceful prison abolition movement envisions replacing imprisonment, policing, and surveillance with alternatives that respond effectively to harm without putting people in cages or increasing the prison industrial complex, and that instead create and support healthy, stable families and communities. Parallels exist between the criminal legal system and the child welfare system; most obviously, both trace their practices to colonization and slavery, mass immigration and displacement of native populations, and the resulting and lasting inequities that have ensued and continue to disproportionately target poor people of color and especially Black and Native American communities.

The prison abolition movement has produced a robust body of scholarship. Strengthened Bonds: Abolishing the Child Welfare System and Re-Envisioning Child Well-Being seeks to generate equally insightful, imaginative, and important scholarship in support of abolishing the child welfare system and creating a radically new approach to child well-being.  We encourage papers from all disciplines and from community members and activists on any relevant topic.  We will consider traditional articles, essays, and pairing authors with responders, as well as interest in responding to the symposium on particular issues or in general, and interest in participating in the symposium and then submitting a response.

Among possible topics are:

  • Short term vs. long term goals of child welfare system abolition;
  • Lessons from transformative and restorative justice;
  • Can reforms be stepping stones to abolition;
  • What child welfare system abolition can learn from prison abolition;
  • Building a movement to abolish the child welfare system;
  • The roles of affected parents, families, and former foster youth;
  • Patriarchy, sexuality, reproductive justice, and the child welfare system;
  • Racial capitalism and the child welfare system;
  • What ending structural racism looks like
  • The foster-care industrial complex;
  • Disability justice and the child welfare system;
  • Immigrant justice and the child welfare system;
  • The child welfare system’s historical roots in White supremacy;
  • Preventing and eliminating child abuse without the child welfare system;
  • The surveillance tentacles of the child welfare system;
  • Christian fundamentalism and the child welfare system;
  • LGBT youth and parents and the child welfare system;
  • Native American families and the child welfare system;
  • The role of lawyers in the abolition of the child welfare system;
  • The role of child welfare leaders in the abolition of the child welfare system;
  • The role of federal funding and monitoring in the effort to abolish the child welfare system;
  • Alternatives to the child welfare system;
  • Lessons being learned during the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Looking beyond the United States borders, what can we learn from other societies and nations as we build a new system;
  • Medical industrial complex and the child welfare system;
  • Predictive analytics, other risk assessment tools, and empirical analysis in child welfare;
  • The role of trial and appellate courts in abolishing the current child welfare system;
  • The abolition of juvenile and family courts.

The timetable and deadlines for participation in the symposium are below.  To submit abstracts and statements of interest, and with any additional questions, please email both co-chairs:  Nancy Polikoff,, and Jane Spinak,  We look forward to working with you on this pathbreaking event.

  • July 1, 2020: All abstracts and/or statements of interests for participation in the symposium and/or being a responder are due to co-chairs.
  • July 30, 2020: Co-chairs respond to proposals
  • October 1, 2020: Speakers and panelists finalized
  • December 15, 2020: Articles due to CJRL
  • March 26, 2021: Symposium
  • April 15, 2021: Articles finalized for publication
  • April 30, 2021: Responses (print and online) finalized for publication