The child welfare system in New York City consists of services developed to protect the well being of children subjected to abuse or neglect and the rehabilitation of family's members charged with their endangerment. The system highlights a striking rate of “racial disproportionality”: 95% of the families involved in its services are black and Latino.
Through an ethnography of everyday interactions between families and institutions, I investigate how social suffering, racialization, poverty and gender discrimination are interconnected in shaping the child welfare pool of recipients. The majority of children in the foster care system come indeed from female-headed households which resort to public financial aid, a condition that entails a strong degree of institutional surveillance and the reactivation of the stigmatizing repertoire on “welfare mothers”
In focusing on how such forms of inequalities are produced, I analyze also how they are rationalized, re-appropriated and explained by recipients and professionals of the child welfare system and how the debate around social and racial justice issues struggles to conceptualized their social complexity and intervene to erase them. At this regard I turn my attention to the politics of community partnership, practiced and portrayed as a way to address such problematic aspects.
Putting an accent on the process of co-production of a “dense” system of control and subjectification of the population, my ethnography describes how multiple layers of conflicting practices inhabit a governmental device which is primarily about surveillance, disciplining, labeling and citizen-making. In order to do so, my fieldwork included a variety of settings: support groups and parenting skill classes for parents, family courts, community-based NGO's and anti-racist organizers who are working towards policy changes in the system.
My findings acknowledged that, as a consequence of the child welfare system's oppressive practices, there is a high degree of contestation that permeates it. The mandatory rehabilitation program appears to parents incapable of grasping the real issues of their parenting challenges and the child welfare system political economy is re-interpreted by families as a form of exploitation of low income communities of color.
Such vision could generate different outcomes in my observation. The first is the systematic dismissal not only of child welfare goals but also of a parent’s own potential parenting problems. This usually led to an extension or reiteration of the case with child protective services and possibly devolving toward a termination of parental rights. Just in a few cases I observed parents enacting a successful performance of adjustment to the system's regulation in order to quickly regain custodial rights.
Meanwhile on the other hand, the strong experience of injustices made parents, and particularly mothers, aware of their socio-political condition, pushing them to advocacy and activism as a strategy to cope with the trauma of child removal and seeing an empowering tool in the common goal of changing the system.
My research now explores and interrogates especially such activist engagement. Doing so,my aim would be to offer a deep insight not only of institutional injustice but also of the response that the same subjects elaborate on in order to advocate for equal and fair treatment thus de-stigmatizing welfare and turning it into their modality of active citizenship.
On a more theoretical level this ethnographic context allow me to discuss how political subjectivities are shaped by the intersection of structural inequalities, racial politics and institutional impact in the contemporary urban landscape of the United States.