The making of inequalities through institutional action: the case of the New York City child welfare system

Viola Castellano, PhD in Social Anthropology, University of Bologna


This article is based on my research about representations of inequalities in the New York City child welfare system, which I carried out from 2011 to 2014. The child welfare system indicates the institutional arena developed to protect the well being of children subjected to abuse or neglect in their household. It underlines a particularly controversial area for action of the social services, that reflects, while amplifying, the major inequalities that characterize american society. Most of the families that are affected by child welfare procedures are those of single African-American and Latin American women with dependent children, also economically disadvantaged. Families and the world of associationism express a widespread dissent towards the child welfare system and equate the role that child protection services carry out in inner-city communities with that of the police and the criminal justice system, especially in their abuse of the removal of children from their families and the ineffectiveness of the rehabilitation services which are mandatory for parents who want to achieve reunification. My conclusions argue that the invasive way in which the child system works is consequential to the type of supervision to which a certain part of the population is subjected. This varies, above all with respect to the different areas of the city, and is implemented through the presence of institutions such as schools, hospitals and welfare offices, to which the inhabitants of low-income communities refer to. Indeed in New York, due to its history of social and economic stratification, low income communities often coincide with African-American and Latino communities.


The structure of the child welfare system, and therefore the whole of the explored ethnographic settings, is quite complex and fragmented. Exactly as its definition states, it is a system and for this reason it is articulated in afferent services even in different administrative domains. These are mainly:

– The Administration of Children’s Services (ACS), the main public agency that coordinates the panorama of the services and administrates reporting, investigation and protection procedures of minors.

– Numerous private and non-governmental agencies coordinated and financed by the ACS, provide various services required by its users, from preventive ones for families in difficulty, to those for specific categories of users (children and parents with special needs, drug addiction, specific linguistic needs, etc), as well as numerous courses planned by the rehabilitation programme of child welfare for parents. Some of these organizations manage the most challenging aspect of the entire child welfare system, both from a logistical point of view as well as from a financial one: the selection and management of temporary custody families in which the removed minors are placed (foster care).

– The Family Court, i.e. Civil Court where cases of neglect and abuse are discussed and permission is given for the execution of the various decision-making steps in the child welfare system.

– Advocacy and community associations in defense and support of the rights of families redistributed locally in the five boroughs, and who can take part in the institutional path of child welfare in various forms, in a more or less formalized way. Among these are also present the three main providers of free legal representation for parents.


The core of my informants was made up of parents and people more or less professionally placed in child welfare, sharing a social and political commitment to reform social services for families in trouble. This group of people, who for the most part know each other, met for meetings, reunions, forums and initiatives on child welfare in which I also took part. This gave me the possibility of following them during my research year, exploring their connections, taking advantage of their contacts. It also gave me the opportunity of observing what commitment and activism in child welfare meant to them and how this came about.

The actions of the child welfare system are characterized by the specificity with which they intervene in regard to certain groups of the population: the subjects taken in care are mostly children of single women, African-American or Latin American, coming from certain areas of the city and who are usually receiving public financial aid to support their family. These features place them within culturally stigmatizing and racializing characterizations in which the concept of dependence is of crucial importance.


Starting from the reformulation of the study on poverty in the eighties in the USA, government action is not aimed any more at protecting minimum guarantees for the livelihood of all citizens as planned by the keynesian-style welfare state of the New Deal, but rather the re-integration in the labour market of citizens benefiting from state aid, so as to make them self-sufficient and free from the habit of government backing, obliging them to become independent (Susser, 1996; Mullings, 1997, Davis, 2006; O’Connor, 2001). In this way, dependence permanently assumes an exclusively moral meaning (Gordon, Fraser, 1995) and is identified in the stereotype of the welfare queen, or single women with several dependent children living on state subsidies in the slums. The opposite of the ideal citizen, they are painted as irresponsible, sexually uncontrolled, not self-sufficient, often victims of vice and dependence such as drugs and the welfare state, often conceptualized as a form of assistance which inhibit their sense of responsibility, sinking them into a state of passivity.

As asserted by Susan Brin Hyatt, the type of racialization of poverty that went hand in hand with the emergence of the new model of welfare has not been carried out openly but has slipped into the characterization of what Ida Susser calls “media-visible periphery” of the inner city, which defines the urban black ghettos (Hyatt, 1995; Susser, 1996). Scholars instead are focusing more and more not only on  structural disadvantage of the inner city, such as  work and urban segregation or the state of neglect faced by schools and institutions, but also on the vitality of community activism which animates those areas. They bear witness to an urban context put in difficulty by structural factors but where it is still possible to find forms of politically organized protest against the order of things and discourses (Maskovsky, 2012).


The practice of scrutinizing the community starts from the public assistance and welfare offices, where caseworkers check candidates requisites to access financial aid. The caseworkers appointed to investigate the living conditions of many women who come to them are in close contact with the child welfare system and the agencies of the ACS, and are also mandated reporters, thus obliged by law to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect towards children of adults they encounter in their offices. For example the necessity to submit to a drug test to join the economic support programme called TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) automatically incorporates, if the test is positive, the opening of a case with the child protection services. Therefore through the welfare system the structure of hypervigilance of the inner city comes to life and is developed in the divisions of its system of regimentation (Polsky, 1991) and control. The archetypes of anti-citizenship of the underclass are deposited in the interpretive network of the social workers, orientating the decision-making process as well as pre-convictions with respect to the possibility of reunification or adoption.


Between the eighties and nineties, when the concept of the underclass was highly publicized and when the attack on welfare measures resulted in a stigma of dependence, cases of removal of children reached their historical peak in New York, with 50,000 children in temporary custody, while the number is now around 15,000. There was therefore a drastic decline, also reflected at a national level, probably due to the end of the crack-epidemic, in the use of family networks as an alternative solution to foster care and the development of a movement for the defense of rights of parents. There wasn’t however a pacification of relations between communities and institutions for child welfare and many civil rights organizations denounce the excessive number of subjects taken into care which the ACS still practices even today. On the other hand everyone recognizes the substantial change of the agency, which has had to open up, willing or not, to new political subjects such as parents and representatives of the community who have sought a path of recognition within institutional hierarchies and structures of the child welfare system.

However the deep inequalities that characterize society and especially american cities are still heavily represented in the child welfare system.


The population of New York City is composed of 44% white, 27% latinos, 25% black, and 11% Asians but the numbers are turned topsy-turvy when you look at the demographics of users of child welfare. Among the 15.000 children in foster care a percentage of around 47% is in fact made up of African-American children and 29% Latinos. The population of white children is considered to be around 3% . National statistics instead show how African-American children have double the possibilities of ending up in foster care compared with those of other ethnicities, which more or less reflect the percentage of the total population, although it is useful to point out how the white population tends to be always under-represented in child welfare (Statistics extracted from “Child Welfare Outcomes: 2007-2010 Report to Congress” Children’s Bureau, New York, as well as other urban areas such as Chicago and Washington, have such peaks of racial disproportionality thanks to a series of factors that are linked to the social geography of cities in the North East, consequential to the migrations and the stratification of the black population in urban centers throughout the history of the United States in the last century.


According to Louis Wacquant the shifting of the black population, especially African-American, to the industrialized cities of the North-East in the early decades of 1900, has created a form of containment and exploitation of the black population, confined to specific areas of the city, around which were built actual symbolic borders of “caste”, going on to establish the historical form of the ghetto (Wacquant, 2009). This period, between the thirties and sixties of the 20th century, was characterized by the heavy use of black labour in the Ford-type industry of that period, placing the black population on the margins of the education system and therefore also of competitiveness in the labour market. The civil rights movement changed the political urban structure and questioned the traditional forms of the division of work and economic and cultural hegemony that had spatially shaped the metropolis and regulated the production of wealth. In reaction to the renewed vitality and civil participation of the African-American and latinos communities and to the disintegration of the american, industrial economy as a result of outsourcing and financialization, recent forms of capitalism, the ghetto became what Wacquant has redefined as hyper-ghetto, featuring the remnants of the ghetto in symbiosis with the form-institution of a prison (Wacquant, 2004). The massive presence of the police and the practices related to it, perceived as discriminatory and brutal in these neighborhoods, establishes a regime of criminalization which was explored by many researchers (Wacquant, 1999; Bourgois, 2003; Alexander, 2010). The recursion between regimes of surveillance which the inhabitants of the inner city are subject to, is reflected for example, in the way in which the mandated reporters are redistributed in various contexts in which people move daily and through which they experience their citizenship. These places are hospitals, public schools, welfare offices, dormitories for the homeless. At the same time, even if there is an institutional hyper-visibility of the inhabitants of the inner city, the most disadvantaged populations suffer simultaneously a “regime of disappearance” from public debate and national policy priorities (Goode, Maskovsky, 2001) that lead the causes of urban hardship and poverty back to the individual responsibility of each person.


This discrepancy in the way of living social citizenship, the “dual cities” to which Mollenkopff e Castells (1991) refer, is also reflected in the interaction between citizens and institutions in the child welfare system, as pointed out by the testimonies of some of the collaborators with whom I spoke. Legal representatives both of children and parents, as well as a few ACS employees have described how the procedure taken is very different in the case where the family does not belong to the category of the “not deserving poor”, but the upper-middle class. Mike Arsham, former director of Child Welfare Organizing Project, summed up this duality with the expression “We do not receive calls beyond 96th street”. In fact CWOP is located on 110th street, but the people who frequent it also live in Queens, Brooklyn, and Bronx, but not ten blocks south of the agency. How is this difference pragmatically traced in daily interactions between the child welfare system and citizens? Gathering testimonials, I built an exemplification of some of the dynamics involved in shaping this varied modulation of citizenship. For example, if a teacher suspects abuse being committed on a child beyond 96th street, resuming the correlation with East Harlem, the procedure that will be activated will be radically different from that of a school on 120th street. Parents will be summoned (while in public schools this is rarely taken into consideration, it is preferable to call the social services directly), the school director will be questioned, experts (psychologists, pedagogues) will be mobilized. The issue will be ascertained in part through intimate, private, discreet channels. Even in the case of the intervention of the social services, the modality of how to take charge of the family will divert from the usual paths. What middle and upper class and basically white families do, as an employee of ACS explained to me, is to “lawyer up” or immediately interpose between ones personal right to privacy and the social services, their own lawyers, through which the ACS is obliged to mediate. From this moment on the behavior of the agency for the protection of minors changes and it maintains the tone the least invasive as possible, also for fear of an appeal, which is common practice in the United States in the interaction between public and private organizations and individual citizens. Many social researchers have underlined how the same technologies of welfare involve the removal of the borders between public and private sectors (Ong, 2003; Rapp, 1987; Roberts, 2002). This removal is carried out in a selective way, practicing paternalistic policies towards groups of the population that are conceptualized as incapable of responsibly and civically managing the scope of what is protected as private for others. In fact in the practice of lawyering up it is not simply the possibility of a greater economic availability that plays a decisive role: what is involved is a sense of legitimacy, of an authorization for the intimacy and respect of the borders between public and private that poor families cannot appeal to.


The example of Joy, a mother I met at a parents support group that was held in CWOP can provide a window on how representations and experiences in life intersect in determining both the probabilities of entering in contact with the child welfare system, and the will to get out of the interpretative network of the institutional apparatus. When Joy decided to take part in the support group she had been living for some time in a condition of extreme difficulty and her last hope to be able to change it was fading. Her three children had been in foster care for years and Joy had failed to prove to the judge and social operators that she had completed her rehabilitation. Her commitment was judged to be too intermittent and her willingness to try with every means to regain custody of her children too weak. The first time that Joy entered the support group she hardly looked at any of the other participants, closing herself behind an ostensibly empty and indifferent expression. Everything in her behavior, in her gestures, in her inability to control her exasperation, indicated the condition of frustration and panic that possessed her, so much so that even her capacity to articulate her story in a coherent way was partly invalidated. Joy had struggled for years with the child welfare system. The story of her life was a concretion of all the multiple stigmatizing aspects that sometimes add together in the case of the users of the child welfare system: she was a young African-American woman, coming from one of the poorest areas of Brooklyn, unemployed, an unmarried mother with drug problems, she had fought for years against a form of bipolarity and ADHD, she had suffered domestic violence, and had been in foster care as a child. As if that wasn’t enough, all three of her children had been diagnosed with ADHD, the reason why they needed attention and resources outside the norm. Joy was the archetypal image of the underclass, her numerous problems constituted a sort of “mosaic of deviance” where different pieces fitted together to give life to the paradigmatic image of the “anticitizen” (Singh, 2000). If Joy is almost an abstraction, a sign of the prototype of the target of the child welfare system, Joy is at the same time a woman, a mother, a person who has expressed and dealt with her experience as being characterized by multiple forms of oppression. Joy wondered constantly about the political dimension of her personal history, also because an experience of foster care in childhood had characterized her life since the early years by a constant interaction with institutional apparatuses. Her existence had always been conditioned by the different forms that the state took in the attempt to deal with people like her. As pointed out by Sennett “inequality is such a fundamental element of human experience that individuals are constantly striving to give it a meaning” (Sennett, 2003, p.104). It was exactly her awareness of how her individuality was perceived by institutions that made her exclaim “I don’t want to be another African-American woman with mental and addiction problems who is not capable of taking care of her own children!”. This phrase, pronounced as a desperate demand during the support group, marked the beginning of the agency’s path to recovery that Joy then embarked upon. Joy, therefore, is not a passive subject, dragged along by the pathologizing currents of the inner city, in which debris like drugs, violence the inability of a responsible management of her sexuality and motherhood are entangled. Joy is a person forever in battle. Her very existence has to be earned daily, in a context where she is deprived or thought of as a node of anti-social, irresponsible and dangerous behavior. In a way her life is established by the daily invention of her demand to be there. As Joy’s example shows, the process of blaming that involves parents once they enter the network of the system makes the possibility of reunification a difficult goal to achieve, both from a psychological point of view or a pragmatic one. The reform introduced in 1996, the ASFA (Adoption and Safety Family Act) reduced the months available for parents to prove their rehabilitation to 15, which in the case of a situation of chronic hardship from multiple forms of social suffering (from drug addiction, to a perpetrated condition of being homeless, to a situation of domestic violence deeply rooted in family dynamics) are often not sufficient. To resolve the many problematic sides that sign the lives of these people the social services ask the parents in question to make an extraordinary effort, at the same time as having to deal with economic, relational, psychological, emotional, physical issues, (as in the case of addiction to heavy drugs). The performance that is requested from the parents is further burdened by the need to confront the world of institutions that is often demonized by the communities in which the families belong, the latter knowing only the side of control and repression.


The distance that marks the language, the assumptions, the horizon of meaning that characterizes the institutional world from that of the more marginal urban communities is seen by parents as an uncomfortable legacy and at the same time as an irreducible force that severs at the origin the possibility of mutual recognition. The general attitude towards the child protection service is similar in part of that towards the police, whose role in the community is seen contradictorily as necessary and harmful, and that embodies in an exemplary way the insoluble knot expressed by the couple security/control. Therefore what is challenged is not its function but how its intervention is structured. In her works, Nancy Scheper Hughes has analyzed the multiple forms of violence to which minors are subjected in different cultural contexts but having in common social suffering and marginalisation. The american anthropologist has, in this regard, confirmed how the welfare reform in the United States hit above all the very children, the main recipients of the extinct AFDC programme (Scheper-Hughes, 1998).


The same Scheper-Hughes however, warns in the preface of the book “Small Wars”, how social scientists have not always been ready to denounce and condemn child abuse for fear of falling into the attitude of blaming towards parents, considered political and social victims (Scheper-Hughes, Sargent, 1998, p.23). What one risks doing is not to analyze the complexity of being a parent, assuming without any criticism the belief in an immovable and inevitable maternity, that one gives exactly in the same way apart from the socio-economic conditions of the people. Equally, in child welfare the management of difficulties caused by a condition of existential and practical insecurity is not often taken into consideration as a decisive force among the possibilities of shaping parental styles. But one has to wonder, as Teresa, mother of 5 children and parent advocate told me “why does neglect happen? Does it happen when she’s alone, does it happen when the bills are too piled up? People are doing this by themselves”, referring to the situation of isolation and lack of support that too often characterizes the incriminated families.


In my field experience, many times, I had the chance to reflect on the strength of these women, who with several children, odd jobs and apartments that were too small and in difficult areas, struggled hard to survive and take care of their children, of different ages and needs and with very different problems. Their ability to take charge of their responsabilities, to endure a state of continued stigmatization and marginalization, to claim their right to exist were aspects that struck me each time. In the analysis made on poverty it is easy to slide into victimization, and it is that which Scheper-Hughes and Sargent urge to avoid. What is often not mentioned is the incredible strength necessary to pursue such complicated lives. While learning to know not only these women but also the people who work with them, what immediately emerges about their life is the difficulty of choices to be made and the continual drive for survival that they lead (Rapp, 1987). The will of many of them to commit themselves socially and politically to a child welfare reform in the wake of the closure of their personal cases with the ACS also testifies the ability to project themselves in a dimension of active citizenship, which contradicts the popular imaginaries that concern them.

New York is an incredibly complex, stratified place, containing extreme contrasts within its space while unraveling them in its urban layout. However this tangle of social dimensions is sometimes formed exclusively in the visible, spatial dimension, in the possibility of crossing the city, in the proximity of radically different  places. Currently the spectacle of poverty and urban decay, which reached its peak in the seventies and eighties, has been incredibly reduced by securitarian politics and by the action of improvement and urban cosmetics that was carried out by the Giuliani administration and has been continued by that of Bloomberg. Urban interventions such as the high line, a garden/pedestrian walkway/exhibition space in Chelsea, has drawn thousands of tourists, becoming one of the symbols of the renewed, central role of the city in a global landscape and an example of elegant sustainability.


New York though, is still the city of projects, of areas forgotten by urban renewal and where 32% of minors under 17 years of age live under the poverty line (United States Census Bureau In my research I tried to investigate, analyzing for example the evident, nameless boundaries between East Harlem and Upper East Side, how much this socio-economical gap is positioned and finds one of the points of origin in the radical separation of the experiences of the city that its inhabitants have.

Child welfare in New York is one of the most controversial at national level, due to the inequalities that it highlights, but precisely because of this the rich political and civic life of New York has created a debate that generates a ground for battle and negotiation between citizens and institutions, a result not taken for granted in the rest of the United States. The type of associationism that characterizes New York neighborhoods is hard to find in other places in the USA and the city has always played a cutting-edge function in regard to the political awareness of the minorities, acting as a breeding ground for social experiments and a political laboratory for involvement (Sanjek, 1998).


The fate of this debate is unknown for now, but we can detect the opening of a discursive space that previously was not a matter of discussion and that is already leading to structural changes in the same organization. The emergence of numerous committees for racial disproportionality analysis and the establishment of a section of the ACS dedicated to the defense of families constitute some of the evidence. Whether it’s attempts at the rationalization of inequalities aimed at weakening the degree of dispute or a new awareness of the need for transformation of the system is a matter of opinion, but I think it’s important, however, to register the possibility of both.



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