Kelley Fong

Investigating FamiliesIn her new book, Investigating Families: Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services (Princeton University Press), UCI sociology assistant professor Kelley Fong offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the impact CPS policies, practices and procedures have on the vulnerable families caught in their crosshairs. Drawing upon interviews with low-income mothers and experience embedded with CPS, Fong sheds light on what happens when we turn to an agency focused on parental mistakes as our primary solution for families facing adversity. Below, she shares her findings as well as alternative strategies for ensuring child and family well-being.

What motivates your research on Child Protective Services (CPS) and its impact on marginalized mothers and families?

Many people don’t realize how pervasive CPS is in the US. Taking children is one of the most powerful and terrifying things the government can do, so we might think we would only wield this threat in the most extreme circumstances. But it turns out that today, one in three kids experience a CPS investigation during childhood, and these rates are even higher in low-income families, Black families, and Native American families.

I’d been interested in children and families for a while. As an undergrad, I took several classes that touched on CPS in various ways, and then I worked on foster care reform after graduating. When I started grad school, there was a lot of sociological research coming out about the impacts of proactive policing and mass incarceration on social life, especially for young Black men. I thought there might be something analogous happening with CPS and the women in these same communities. I wanted to hear from them. I started by interviewing low-income mothers. Then, I wanted to look at the other side of these encounters. Researchers have rarely been able to embed with CPS, but I had some wonderful research partners in Connecticut who enabled me to shadow CPS workers as they conducted investigations.

Could you share some of your key findings and what they mean for those most impacted?

Fundamentally, CPS is oriented around child abuse and neglect. This means that they’re focused on how parents themselves are harming their kids or exposing them to harm and, as I mentioned, they have the power to remove kids from home. But today, so much of what comes to CPS is essentially family adversity in some form, like domestic violence, substance misuse, mental health needs, and homelessness. And while affluent White parents may have the resources to keep these conditions from affecting their kids or from coming to the attention of authorities, low-income parents and parents of color often don’t have that luxury.

So my research considers what it means that an agency focused on parents’ wrongdoings has become our go-to for dealing with families facing adversity. It amplifies mothers’ sense of precarity, even when children remain home, as is typical. The investigation itself is terrifying and digs into all aspects of families’ personal lives. Those facing the greatest challenges are seen as “risky” and shuttled deeper into the system. And it makes mothers think twice about reaching out for help or confiding in those who reported them to CPS. Essentially, our response to family adversity is structured around destabilizing mothers, around surveilling and evaluating and correcting them, no matter how respectful and well-meaning CPS and adjacent professionals may be.

How does reliance on CPS as a "first responder" to family misfortune and hardship affect the way society addresses family poverty and adversity?

It means that rather than actually addressing the root causes of poverty and adversity – low wages, insufficient labor protections, a weak and paternalistic welfare state, disinvestment in communities beyond the affluent, and so on – we are instead focused on what individual mothers are doing wrong. This is misguided and not actually getting at the problem. It continues a legacy of racism, threatening Black and Native American families in particular. And it’s unjust, as those in power make parenting extraordinarily difficult, then blame and penalize families for those challenges.

Based on your insights and observations, what changes or reforms do you believe are necessary in the current approach to addressing family adversity and child protection? What are some alternative strategies or models that could be used as a more effective response to ensure child and family well-being?

There’s a lot we can do right now to “narrow the front door” to CPS specifically, so that fewer families come into contact with the agency. I am inspired by grassroots efforts to educate mandated reporters on how to respond to families they are concerned about by offering support rather than rushing to report. It’s also great to see organizations that frequently report, such as hospitals, revising their reporting practices, and even jurisdictions like LA County trying to rethink the reliance on CPS reporting. CPS agencies themselves could shift screening practices to ensure that only situations posing serious child safety issues require CPS intervention. Clarifying child maltreatment statutes – for instance, to state that homelessness does not constitute child neglect – could help with this.

But of course, we don’t want to leave families homeless. So we also need to develop and invest in supports for families facing adversity. It’s a different approach to child protection, one that tries to ensure families have what they need to raise their kids. Fortunately, we know what works. There’s a growing research base on how material supports like cash assistance and childcare subsidies prevent abuse and neglect. The Expanded Child Tax Credit, which recently expired, was an enormous boon to child welfare. Supporting families and investing in community amenities like libraries and parks is child protection work. It may feel easier to turn the task of child protection over to CPS. But as I heard one CPS official say, it’s not CPS but communities that keep kids safe.

-Heather Ashbach, UCI Social Sciences

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