Book Review: Tina Lee’s Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System

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

Tina Lee (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016)

The public child welfare system in the United States has a reputation for being a deeply troubled system. New York City’s system is thought to be emblematic of these systemic problems, largely due to the highly publicized mishandling of the case of Nixmary Brown, a child who was killed by her stepfather despite child welfare agents’ knowledge of the case. Tina Lee’s Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System, seeks to untangle the complexities of this system with a dual focus on caseworker decision making practices alongside an analysis of parents’ experiences within the system.

Lee’s book is structured around the contention that child welfare practice is not only shaped by profound structural inequalities of race, class, and gender, but that the system itself reproduces and amplifies these inequalities through discretionary decision-making practices, its alignment with law enforcement, and fear of media backlash, which one informant terms “New York Post law” (57). Lee argues that this system contributes to the reproduction of stratified social relations, where white middle class parents are valued and where parents of color are assumed to be inadequate parents.

Lee’s argument relies most heavily on interview material and court observations, though she supplements this knowledge base with a range of methods including shadowing two attorneys, attending various classes and meetings, and analyzing media portrayals of child welfare cases. Lee’s methods effectively support her focus on the way caseworkers perceive low-income parents of color and the way those same parents perceive the child welfare system. One of the strengths of Lee’s text is the balance she achieves in weaving together the voices of caseworkers, parents, and legal actors. Lee’s access to these groups was uneven – in addition to formal interviews, Lee spent time in family courts, parenting classes and support groups, and in parents’ homes. Her access to caseworkers, however, was limited, and while she was able to conduct interviews, she was not generally able to observe them throughout their day.

Catching a Case begins with a historical overview of the child welfare system, which traces changes and continuities in the relationship between the family and the state from the 19th century to present day. Chapter 3 presents an anatomy of a case moving through the system, written expressly for non-experts. The remaining chapters move into Lee’s argument, highlighting how social workers’ decision making is driven by fear (Chapter 4), the problematic links between Child Welfare and systems of policing, surveillance, and incarceration (Chapter 5), the way decision-making practices leave room for racialized stereotypes to shape social work practice (Chapter 6), and the manner in which deference to social worker authority — despite profound obstacles parents face — may matter more than meaningful change within a family in terms of regaining custody (Chapter 7). Lee’s conclusion draws this material together by highlighting how these practices coalesce to reproduce structural inequalities. Lee proposes some sites of hope that she sees in the system – namely legal and parental advocacy work.

Ultimately, Lee argues that the child welfare system not only misrecognizes structural inequalities based on race, class, and gender as individual parental problems, but that the system itself perpetuates these structural inequalities through its actions in the name of child protection. It provides, and demands, services that parents, caseworkers, and legal actors all agree are often irrelevant to the needs of the families who have entered the system. The surest path to regaining custody within this system involves deference and full acceptance of guilt, regardless of how parents actually see themselves and their relationship to their child. In this sense, Lee explains, caseworkers and legal actors see only the worst aspect of a parent, and define them through that narrow frame of the ‘abusive,’ or more often, ‘neglectful’ parent.

Low-income parents are particularly susceptible to allegations of neglect through the heightened surveillance of their communities and the prevalence of unstable jobs and housing, community violence and drug use, and a lack of access to supportive services such as affordable childcare. Of the 28 parents Lee follows throughout their cases, 13 experience income or housing loss during the course of the case, largely due to parental efforts to comply with strict requirements for visitations, court hearings, and required services. Lee describes parents losing their jobs after taking too much time off to sit in court waiting for hearings that are scheduled for large blocks of time in the morning or afternoon. She describes parents who lose apartments because the removal of their children changes the welfare benefit that they qualify for. A lawyer Lee interviews notes that there are “civil rights violations all over the place” (167). Most damning is Lee’s contention that caseworkers often recognize these profound injustices and structural obstacles yet feel that the outcome is acceptable because of their stereotypical view of low-income parents of color as ‘bad’ parents. As such, she illuminates how social worker perceptions of low-income parents of color not only excuse problematic institutional policies but create a sub-class of parents who do not ‘deserve’ to retain custody of their children because they cannot demonstrate compliance and meet standards imposed by child welfare agents. Notably, actors within the system at the same time view these standards as inadequate avenues for addressing the issues that brought families into the system in the first place.

Lee’s work joins a substantial body of literature concerned with exploring how the state rather than being a monolithic, anonymous entity, is enacted through the everyday practices of bureaucrats who speak and act in the name of state authority. She contributes to critiques of social services as bureaucratic nightmares, as systems filled with caring workers whose ability to help is profoundly limited by time, resources, and institutional constraints. Lee emphasizes that systems such as child welfare do not just fail their clients; they are deeply entangled in the production, and disenfranchisement, of the communities in which they intervene. And finally, 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 law enforcement and incarceration. Lee’s work is written in an accessible style, and presents a view of a complex system that is accessible for the non-expert. As such, her book will be of interest to undergraduate and graduate students interested in the anthropology of politics, law, and bureaucracy, as well as social workers, legal actors, and policy makers interested in a critique of the contemporary child welfare system.

Naomi Glenn-Levin Rodriguez

Hobart and William Smith Colleges

About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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