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Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City's Child Welfare System

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Influenced by news reports of young children brutalized by their parents, most of us see the role of child services as the prevention of severe physical abuse. But as Tina Lee shows in Catching a Case, most child welfare cases revolve around often ill-founded charges of neglect, and the parents swept into the system are generally struggling but loving, fighting to raise th Influenced by news reports of young children brutalized by their parents, most of us see the role of child services as the prevention of severe physical abuse. But as Tina Lee shows in Catching a Case, most child welfare cases revolve around often ill-founded charges of neglect, and the parents swept into the system are generally struggling but loving, fighting to raise their children in the face of crushing poverty, violent crime, poor housing, lack of childcare, and failing schools. Lee explored the child welfare system in New York City, observing family courts, interviewing parents and following them through the system, asking caseworkers for descriptions of their work and their decision-making processes, and discussing cases with attorneys on all sides. What she discovered about the system is troubling. Lee reveals that, in the face of draconian budget cuts and a political climate that blames the poor for their own poverty, child welfare practices have become punitive, focused on removing children from their families and on parental compliance with rules. Rather than provide needed help for families, case workers often hold parents to standards almost impossible for working-class and poor parents to meet. For instance, parents can be accused of neglect for providing inadequate childcare or housing even when they cannot afford anything better. In many cases, child welfare exacerbates family problems and sometimes drives parents further into poverty while the family court system does little to protect their rights.   Catching a Case is a much-needed wake-up call to improve the child welfare system, and to offer more comprehensive social services that will allow all children to thrive.  


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Influenced by news reports of young children brutalized by their parents, most of us see the role of child services as the prevention of severe physical abuse. But as Tina Lee shows in Catching a Case, most child welfare cases revolve around often ill-founded charges of neglect, and the parents swept into the system are generally struggling but loving, fighting to raise th Influenced by news reports of young children brutalized by their parents, most of us see the role of child services as the prevention of severe physical abuse. But as Tina Lee shows in Catching a Case, most child welfare cases revolve around often ill-founded charges of neglect, and the parents swept into the system are generally struggling but loving, fighting to raise their children in the face of crushing poverty, violent crime, poor housing, lack of childcare, and failing schools. Lee explored the child welfare system in New York City, observing family courts, interviewing parents and following them through the system, asking caseworkers for descriptions of their work and their decision-making processes, and discussing cases with attorneys on all sides. What she discovered about the system is troubling. Lee reveals that, in the face of draconian budget cuts and a political climate that blames the poor for their own poverty, child welfare practices have become punitive, focused on removing children from their families and on parental compliance with rules. Rather than provide needed help for families, case workers often hold parents to standards almost impossible for working-class and poor parents to meet. For instance, parents can be accused of neglect for providing inadequate childcare or housing even when they cannot afford anything better. In many cases, child welfare exacerbates family problems and sometimes drives parents further into poverty while the family court system does little to protect their rights.   Catching a Case is a much-needed wake-up call to improve the child welfare system, and to offer more comprehensive social services that will allow all children to thrive.  

32 review for Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City's Child Welfare System

  1. 4 out of 5

    Megan Verhagen

    In her book Catching a case: Inequality and fear in New York City’s child welfare system, Dr. Tina Lee explores how systemic discrimination within the child welfare system reproduce social inequalities of race, gender, and socioeconomic status by disproportionately judging low income mothers of color and punitively, rather than rehabilitatively, addressing occurrences of child neglect. Dr. Lee likens the child welfare system to that of the policing and corrections institutions, asserting that li In her book Catching a case: Inequality and fear in New York City’s child welfare system, Dr. Tina Lee explores how systemic discrimination within the child welfare system reproduce social inequalities of race, gender, and socioeconomic status by disproportionately judging low income mothers of color and punitively, rather than rehabilitatively, addressing occurrences of child neglect. Dr. Lee likens the child welfare system to that of the policing and corrections institutions, asserting that like these criminal justice agencies, the child welfare system utilizes surveillance and punitive actions in attempts to alter behavior rather than providing supportive services that may more effectively reduce occurrences of child neglect stemming from poverty. The unique contribution of Catching a case is the attention Dr. Lee pays to social institutions, like the child welfare system, and how these institutions can be seen as producing or reproducing violence in society. (view spoiler)[ According to Alvarez & Bachman (2017), “violence is any action or structural arrangement that results in physical or nonphysical harm to one or more persons” (p. 16). By this definition of violence, institutions like the child welfare system can be categorized as causing violence if they deny minority group’s access to necessary services including adequate housing, food, or health care (Alvarez & Bachman, 2017, p. 16). Alternatively stated, if the child welfare system and other institutions affiliated with the child welfare system do not adequately provide social services for the (primarily low income and minority) women who are interacting with the system, or, if these services continue to reproduce discriminatory statuses for those involved with the system, then the child welfare system and other similar social institutions are acting as structural arrangements causing violence. Dr. Lee seems to accept this view, and argues throughout this book that the child welfare system should be seen as one of the main institutional or structural arrangements contributing to the continued discrimination and inequality of poor women of color. As she states, “by not providing the services that might enable [poor parents of color] to better care for their children, the idea that they are unfit is reinforced and reproduced” (p. 14). This idea of being ‘unfit’ parents is disproportionately carried by women of color with low socioeconomic status, especially when the involvement of child welfare services create or exacerbate the challenges these parents face. Throughout history, the United States has dealt with child neglect by focusing blame on parents as individuals, rather than considering how structural inequalities based on race, gender, poverty, and the heteronormative view of the nuclear family might be the root cause of child neglect (Lee, 2016, p. 20). Historically, early child welfare institutions presented themselves as ‘saving children’ who were poor or ‘abandoned’. Early definitions of child maltreatment included behaviors strongly associated with poverty, such as having children out at unreasonable hours, having only one parent consistently caring for the child, not adequately providing children with food, clothing, ect… In general, all of these criteria were strongly associated with poverty, and early child welfare systems seemed to be just as concerned with punishing parents for not living up to middle class standards just as much as they were concerned with child abuse or maltreatment (Lee, 2016, pp. 22-25). As child welfare systems continued to develop throughout the Great Depression and into the present day, blame continued to be placed on parents for their poverty and how it affected children even as social welfare services were reduced or eliminated. Additionally, the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States led to an increase of families of color in poverty and a proliferation of stereotypes surrounding these parents’ abilities and motivations to effectively provide for their children (Lee, 2016, pp. 25-32). As child welfare agencies continued to categorize conditions of poverty as neglect, stereotypes about parents of colors were reinforced and institutionalized within child welfare agencies, the criminal justice institutions handling child neglect cases, and throughout society in general. Dr. Lee developed these arguments after conducting a research project as part of her doctoral dissertation in 2006-2007, utilizing observational, survey, and interview methods to explore the experiences of people involved with the child welfare system in New York City. More specifically, she talked to parents, case workers, and legal actors in environments such as courtrooms, parenting classes, and support groups in order to get a more holistic understanding of how the child welfare system operates and the struggles that parents and actors affiliated with the child welfare agency face when involved in child neglect cases. Her key findings from this study address how fear, surveillance, discretion, and power within the structural arrangements of the child welfare system reproduce violence against low income women of color. Dr. Lee discussed fear with a focus on the caseworkers and other actors within the child welfare system. More specifically, she describes how the disproportionate focus on severe abuse cases either found or missed by the Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) has resulted in caseworkers being more cautions and thus more punitive when handling child neglect cases. Caseworkers within the child welfare system tend to be overworked, with caseloads that are too high for staff to appropriate devote the time and attention needed to make complex decisions about child neglect cases. By acting cautious and punitive, child neglect cases can appear in family court, and then caseworkers, attorneys, and judges can collaboratively make a decision on the case, thus diffusing responsibility if the wrong decision is made and a child is harmed (Lee, 2016, p. 58). This phenomena however, creates another issue, as family court systems and attorneys become overworked as well, and parents are forced to wait for extensive time periods for their cases to be brought to court and then processed (Lee, 2016, p. 65). Often, parents will lose custody of their children at the beginning of the child neglect case, and then they will not be able to seek reunification until weeks or even months afterwards. In fact, when Dr. Lee found that it was common for parents to wait for up to a year before settlements occurred and they were allowed to have custody of their children again, regardless of how well they followed court orders regarding visitation, service completion, or necessary environmental changes (p. 47). Essentially, Dr. Lee argues that fear within the child welfare system led to excessively high caseloads and overburdening of court systems. This burden led to extended court cases that disrupted parent’s lives and made it more difficult to achieve the necessary requirements to re-obtain custody of their children. Poor parents faced even more difficulty, as court requirements for reunification often forced them to have easy access to transportation and flexible work schedules in order to complete the necessary services and court dates. All of these issues resulted in children being removed from their parents for increased periods of time and shuffled through foster care families as cases continued to enter the child welfare system without resolving in a timely manner. Dr. Lee discusses the surveillance that disadvantaged family’s face, which leaves them at a greater likelihood for being involved in the child welfare system compared to other privileged groups. Contact with public hospitals, public schools, social service agencies, and police increased the likelihood that these disadvantaged parents would come in contact with mandatory reporters who legally are instructed to report suspicions of child neglect, even when there is not corroborating evidence (Lee, 2016, p. 81). Parents facing this higher level of surveillance become suspicious of social agencies, and are therefore less likely to access the services that might assist them. This suspiciousness of services extends to the caseworkers who are attempting to provide parents with social services. Caseworkers and child welfare reporters often ask parents about what problems they perceive as the most immediate to address. However, when parents answer these questions, there children are often removed, and the amount of scrutiny they then face to achieve custody of their children is heightened, making it even more difficult for parents to succeed. Because of this pattern, parents become suspicious of the caseworkers who should act as network brokers for the services parents feel they would benefit from (Lee, 2016, p. 94). This suspicion of caseworkers may lead to emotional outburst by parents towards caseworkers, which just serves to reproduce a cycle of surveillance, scrutiny, and judgement. Overwhelmingly, disadvantaged families face a higher level of scrutiny than other families. Their reliance on public services, the presence of mandatory reporters in these services, and the low standard of suspicion necessary to require a child neglect report all lead to these families being involved in the child welfare system regularly. The increased level of surveillance they face leads to parents of disadvantaged families to distrust their caseworkers or social service providers, which makes it much more difficult to achieve the results necessary for children to be returned to their parents custodies. Thus, increased surveillance decreases accessibly of social services, thus reproducing the environmental and structural factors that cause the poverty associated with child neglect. Dr. Lee notes that child care workers have a large amount of discretion when making decisions about whether or not children are at risk with their families or in their homes. The legal definition of child neglect is, “if he or she has been impaired physically, mentally, or emotionally, or if he or she is in ‘imminent danger’ of being impaired as a result of a parent or caretaker’s failure to provide a ‘minimum degree of care’” (Lee, 2016, p. 105). This definition allows caseworkers the ability of consider a broad range of cases and events that could be considered neglect, and thus grounds for child removal. When Dr. Lee asked parents about how they felt about the abuse of neglect, they often reported feeling that their parenting had been judged based on isolated events, rather than the entirety of their parenting, which biased caseworker perceptions of their ability to parent (2016, p. 109). The discretion that caseworkers have for defining child neglect carries over into the family court system. Attorneys and judges are able to use parental problems or risk factors to individualize or pathologies a parents problems, thus focusing the blame on parental behavior and actions rather than systemic or structural causes (Lee, 2016, p. 116). Issues that tended to be associated with child neglect cases included parental mental health, drug use, domestic violence victimization, as well as issues more related to poverty such as leaving children unsupervised or with inadequate guardians, not having enough food in the house, or having unhealthy living environments in general. By viewing these characteristics as a parent’s individual failing, judges can assign parents to services without addressing the underlying needs and causes motivated by poverty and discrimination (Lee, 2016, p. 116). While most caseworkers take factors of incident/issue severity, prior history, and parental compliance into account when determining whether cases of child neglect are legitimate, there is a high amount of discretion that allows for caseworker or legal actor variability in the treatment of parents and their children (Lee, 2016, p. 117). This discretion is especially concerning, as it can allow for racial stereotypes, gender biases, and other misconceptions of poverty to influence the way that an actor of the child welfare system judges a case of child neglect. Based on these perceptions and their linkages to case outcomes, child welfare services can be incredibly influential in reproducing the institutional structures that created the foundation for child neglect to occur in the first place. Dr. Lee describes in great detail the power differentials between parents accused of child neglect and child welfare caseworkers. Caseworkers can essentially hold parents children hostage, in the sense that if parents do not comply with their demands, they will lose the chance for future custody or contact with their children. Facing this threat, parents may agree with caseworkers assessments of the problems they have, regardless of whether or not they actually experience said problem (Lee, 2016, p. 141). Compliance with the caseworker’s assessments and requirements results in a greater likelihood of reunification with children, whereas disagreement with the caseworker’s assessment leas to an increase in custody denials or at the very least, more complicated custody requirements (Lee, 2016, p. 144). Disadvantaged parents are often held to standards that may be achievable by more privileged families with access to disposable resources, but caseworker requirements often put them at a disadvantage. Parents are expected to comply with all social service requirements regardless of whether or not they feel they are affected by the problem that service focuses on, they are expected to access social services quickly regardless of long waits and isolated service locations, and parents are expected to complete these tasks in a respectful manner, with no displays of emotional turmoil (Lee, 2016, pp. 179-180). When held to these standards, it becomes very easy for disadvantaged families to fail in achieving caseworker goals, and thus, their chances of reunification decrease. The effects that structural factors and social institutions have in reproducing or causing violence is considered far less often in research on child neglect cases and social welfare in the United States. By focusing specifically on how institutions and social structures act as a causal mechanisms for child neglect and family separation, Dr. Lee is able to provide much greater insight into how our social service institutions have disproportionately affected disadvantaged families across history, reproducing the stereotypes and discrimination that already affect parents abilities to raise their children. Dr. Lee’s use of multiple different research methodologies and sample characteristics allows a more holistic image of the child welfare system to emerge that would otherwise be cloaked if she had not decided to consider justice system actors, caseworkers, and the parents affected by child neglect cases themselves. The emerging depiction of the child welfare system is one where increased surveillance of disadvantaged families causes increased contact with a child welfare system that is overburdened and faces responsibility for children potentially suffering from a crime that is ill-defined, allowing caseworkers to utilize discretion and power in order to establish greater control over parents, pathologies the problems of parents that contribute to child neglect, and thus reproduce the stereotypes and discriminatory practices that create the root causes of child neglect in the first place. In accordance to Alvarez & Bachman’s (2017) definition of violence, Dr. Lee used her research to display how institutions like the child welfare system create structural arrangements that harm both children and families. Other reviewers of Dr. Lee’s book note that it accessibly proves readers with information necessary to emphasize the huge need for reform within the child welfare system (Maldonado, 2017; Rodriguez, 2017). The use of multiple methodologies and fieldwork used to gather the data and stories that supported Dr. Lee’s arguments were similarly praised, with reviewers believing that she was able to provide a detailed account of the child welfare system, including an examination of the way that various causes and effects of violence and discrimination are facilitated across a diverse sets of actors (Maldonado, 2017; Rich, 2018). As Rodriguez (2017) notes, “Lee pushes us to question whether a ‘helping’ field such as child welfare might be better understood as a punitive field, linked intimately with systems of law enforcement and incarceration”. While not reviewed by criminologists in the past, it is clear that Dr. Lee’s book will be a valuable resource for anyone studying the links between racial, gender, and socioeconomic discrimination, social services in the United States, and the criminal justice system. The primary limitation of Lee’s study relates to generalizability and external validity. While utilizing multiple different methodologies to collect data, the sample size for various aspects of the study were fairly small, with interviews conducted with 24 parents and 28 actors from the child welfare system, and 42 surveys collected from parents involved in the child welfare system for cases of child neglect. Additionally, this study was conducted in New York City, thus bringing into question the generalizability of findings to the child welfare system within the United States as a whole. While Dr. Lee was able to collect rich data, researchers must consider the differences between child welfare systems operated in different geographical and demographic locations. There was one voice I found to be absent in Dr. Lee’s Catching a case, and that is the voice and experiences of service providers. If I was asked to replicate this study (especially in an environment with unlimited resources), I would attempt to gather a more diverse and randomized sample that was representative of the child welfare system, and I would also want to conduct interviews with service providers from the agencies where parents access services in order to obtain custody of their children. Given the vital role that these services play in addressing the problems that either parents or caseworkers have identified, I believe it would be insightful to hear their considerations of program and service effectiveness, and different ways their services might be employed to address the structural barriers that the criminal justice system is unable to change. (hide spoiler)]

  2. 5 out of 5

    Quin Rich

    A searing, incisive, and accessible account of the systemic racism, sexism, and class oppression of the US child welfare system. As Lee compellingly argues, the child welfare system has always operated as a mechanism for disciplining the poor, particularly poor mothers. Before the mid-20th century, these were primarily poor European immigrant families. From mid-century onward, the system target poor Black and indigenous families, particularly mothers. Rather than seeing the problems families fac A searing, incisive, and accessible account of the systemic racism, sexism, and class oppression of the US child welfare system. As Lee compellingly argues, the child welfare system has always operated as a mechanism for disciplining the poor, particularly poor mothers. Before the mid-20th century, these were primarily poor European immigrant families. From mid-century onward, the system target poor Black and indigenous families, particularly mothers. Rather than seeing the problems families face as caused by larger social injustices, the child welfare system pathologizes poor parents of color and removed children in an almost punitive way. This history forms the background for Lee’s ethnographic study of the NYC child welfare system. Lee’s particular contribution is in her detailed fieldwork examining the daily operation of this system. Going beyond rhetoric and sensationalist journalism, Lee demonstrates how the child welfare system functions to blame poor mothers for their own poverty and thereby reproduces relations of “stratified reproduction,” in which certain populations are seen as unfit to parent. This book is a must read for any left/feminist/anti-racist scholar concerned with the wellbeing of children. As Lee makes clear, the wellbeing of children cannot be separated from that of their families and communities. A systemic, political analysis of child welfare, and not an individual blaming of “bad parents,” is what is sorely needed. We need a revolution, not more vigorous child removal.

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