The Transformation of American Child and Perinatal Protection

A third of American children experience child welfare surveillance, some before they are born. My dissertation-based book project, Punitive Protection: The Transformation of Child Welfare and Perinatal Regulation (1935–2000), demonstrates how American child welfare transformed from a sparsely staffed agency network focused on multiple children’s issues into a sprawling multi-billion-dollar system narrowly focused on child maltreatment. Drawing on archival, survey, geospatial, and legal data, I argue that growing acceptance of child welfare authority over disproportionately poor and minority families (1935–1980) enabled legislators to expand regulation of substance-using pregnant women through the threat of child removal (1980–2000). Existing scholarship links the regulation of pregnancy to the criminalization of poverty or conservative anti-abortion efforts, conforming to mainstream welfare scholarship on criminalization and anti-abortion trends in the 1990s. My findings confound this narrative, showing that by the 1990s public and professional opposition had doomed criminalization efforts to failure. Instead, both liberal and conservative legislators harnessed child welfare’s legitimation as a protective authority, expanding child welfare interventions in substance-exposed infant cases, while reframing invasive surveillance and family separation as supportive social services. Child welfare as a case of broader welfare governance illuminates how the evolving surveillance powers of professional authorities reproduce gendered, racialized, and socioeconomic inequality in the daily lives of American families, while shaping our moral assumptions about parenting norms, risk, and the boundaries of intervention.

Education and the Regulatory State

In a paper recently published at the American Journal of Sociology, I examine how New York religious schools that defy state curricular requirements still receive millions of dollars in taxpayer funding and special accommodations for state-funded services. Moving beyond theories of weak governance, I show how school advocates draw from a toolkit of conflicting cultural elements to construct three flexible and interactive sets of legitimizing tactics that position them as deserving of state support: compliance markerscategory conflation, and discursive resonance. In this case, driven by irreconcilable notions of the best interests of children, advocates build on culturally resonant conceptions of equality and educational competency to legitimize groups for whom non-compliance is a norm, not a deviation. The recursive process of developing legitimation tools gradually reshapes long-standing practices of both the regulated schools and the regulators. This framing maps out the tactics that shape contested meanings of compliance in a complex regulatory field, while shedding light on how the legitimation of alternative views and practices shapes contemporary American governance.

Making Sense of Data

My research projects build on an array of large and complex datasets, inspiring an interest in how the application of diverse data sources—archival, administrative, and legal—can explain the complex institutional factors that underlie social inequities. As part of my dissertation research, I constructed a digital archive of American child welfare, digitizing forty years of survey data on child welfare funding, staffing, and maltreatment statistics for quantitative analysis, as well as constructing a quantitatively and qualitatively coded original dataset of four decades of child welfare discourses, based on content analysis of professional journal articles. Building on this experience, I work as a consultant on archival data for the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System at Cornell University, where I am also collaborating on a project on historical child mortality rates. My fascination with complex data led me to co-author, with Zawadi Rucks-Ahidiana, a paper published in Sociological Methods and Research, which introduces a mixed-methods analysis technique, “Contextual Text Coding” (CTC), for working with large corpuses of textual data.

Professional Authority and Child Welfare

In a paper entitled “From Population to Problem: The Transformation of Child Welfare, 1935-1980,” I show how infrastructural expansion and jurisdictional contraction reshaped child welfare into a system focused on child maltreatment.  Existing research roots the expansion of child welfare in the “rediscovery of child abuse” as a social issue in the 1960s. Integrating archival and reconstructed historical survey data, I argue that child welfare agencies did not “rediscover” child abuse, so much as they lost jurisdiction over most other child welfare issues. In the 1940s and 1950s, child welfare advocates sought to construct children as a population in need of a wide array of specialized rehabilitative services, a framing that helped them rapidly expand child welfare infrastructure. By the late 1960s, the growing dominance of a managerial logic of welfare governance narrowed child welfare’s jurisdiction to clearly defined “hard services” with measurable outcomes, like foster care and adoption. These shifts converged with increased reports of child abuse in the 1970s-1980s, reorienting a now vastly expanded child welfare infrastructure to narrowly surveil disproportionately poor and minority families for parental inadequacies.

Regulating Mothers: Child Welfare and the Expansion of Perinatal Interventions (1980-2000).

 This working paper tracks how child welfare’s increasing focus on minimizing risk of potential maltreatment shaped policy responses to infant substance exposure. Pervasive risk reduction discourses framed the substance-exposed infant as a paradigmatic case of a child who was not necessarily harmed, but seen as “at risk” for future harm. Drawing on data from professional journals and conferences (1978-2000) and two case studies of state policy development, I show how from the 1970s through the present, legislators rejected criminalization measures and instead authorized child welfare agencies to respond to substance-exposed infants, linking similar language of “risk” to the protective authority of child welfare. The legitimation of child welfare’s protective function obscured the brute power of child removal that underlies its coercive authority, enabling legislators to expand what they framed as supportive interventions in pregnant and postpartum women’s behaviors.

Pathologization of Poverty: Race, Income, and California Child Welfare Outcomes

In collaboration with Jessica Lopez-Espino, we examine why child welfare interventions have superseded evidence-based medical recommendations in dependency court cases, and how this approach impacts low-income and minority substance-using mothers and their infants in California. To answer these questions, our study combines an analysis of the evolution of Californian policies involving substance-using mothers (1980-present) with an ethnographic study of a contemporary California juvenile dependency court. The policy research tracks how legislation formalized the role of child welfare workers in addressing substance abuse and treatment. This legislative process in effect erased the real impact of poverty on parents, leading to more aggressive interventions in the lives of low-income women of color. The ethnographic materials highlight how court decisions involving mothers with substance abuse issues are influenced by the cultural and individual beliefs of court staff and child welfare workers about parental responsibility and substance abuse—in ways that contrast with current evidence-based medical approaches. The ethnographic data thus illustrate how the processes that institutionalized child welfare as the primary authority over substance-using mothers impact the cases of mothers in juvenile court today.

Organizations, Religion, and Social Change

In a separate line of research, I apply organizational analysis to study religious change and communal continuity. In a paper published in Qualitative Sociology in 2019, I show how younger religious Americans respond to the tensions between self-actualization and communal practices, paradoxically dismantling organizational authority in order to reinforce cultural values that strengthen traditional authority. Current research indicates that young Americans, driven by socioeconomic shifts and cultural trends prioritizing self-actualization, are increasingly disinclined toward traditional communal organizations. Yet a search for self-actualization may, in fact, lead religiously inclined young adults to traditional communal organizations, which are characterized by relatively strict organizational norms. To explore how such organizations respond to the tension between self-actualization and communal practices, this paper presents a multi-method study of an urban Jewish congregation that experienced a large influx of young adults. The paper demonstrates two related outcomes of the resultant tension: first, the strategic integration of self-expressive content into traditional organizational practices, in a manner that allows these practices to become vehicles for self-actualization; second, the leveraging of these young adults’ transience, in both formal and informal ways, in order to maintain organizational stability. Both of these processes undermined previously entrenched norms in the synagogue and displaced the older organizational leadership, even as it moved the synagogue in a more religiously engaged direction. These seemingly paradoxical outcomes contribute to our understanding of how communal organizations respond to young adults’ self-actualizing inclinations.