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The Deep Roots Linking Help and Punishment


Tina Lee is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

This post continues a symposium on Dorothy Roberts’s Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World and Wendy Bach’s Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care.

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While conducting research on New York City’s “child welfare” or “family policing” system in 2006 and 2007, I interviewed parents who had been reported to and investigated by the Administration for Children’s Services. In many of these interviews, the parents were angry that help for problems they faced (drug use, housing insecurity, mental health issues, domestic violence, etc.) was forthcoming only after a painful investigation and, too often, the loss of custody of their children. One mother, whose children had been placed in foster care, reflected on the counterproductive nature of approach: “They think they can punish you into getting sober.  And [what] they don’t realize is by taking the children and giving you no reason to live, that you get so depressed.” One father reported that when even while his family was in a shelter together, they received no real help, and that it was only after his children were placed in foster care that social workers began attending to their problems.

Both Wendy Bach and Dorothy Roberts’ recent books shed light on this situation. They are powerful indictments of just how deeply intertwined coercion and punishment are in systems that are ostensibly about providing care for children and families and the extreme harm that this linkage causes. Bach convincingly demonstrates that offers of care through criminal justice systems are a “smokescreen” for punishment and attempts to extend systems of punishment, while any care that is received is degraded by its proximity to punishment. Roberts thoroughly dismantles the idea that care or safety is the goal of “child welfare” systems, documenting its pervasive harms and roots in efforts to control black and indigenous people in the U.S. In other words, harm and coercion is a “feature not a bug” of public “welfare” systems.

This linking of punishment and coercion to paltry efforts to provide minimal levels of care for marginalized groups has extremely deep roots in U.S. culture. First, throughout our history, the deep-seated and pervasive idea that poverty is fundamentally a moral failing on the part of the poor has shaped the policies and practices to deal with poverty and its effects. Second, the United States (and the colonies that came before it) are best described as built on a bedrock of racial capitalism. In other words, profit-making, the basis of our economic system, has fundamentally been bolstered by defining some people as less than fully human and available to either be exploited, cast out, or have their land stolen. Minimal and degrading systems of social support have been constructed as much to control unrest, crime, and other social problems that threaten middle-class folks or profit-making itself as they have been out of concern for the well-being of individuals living in poverty.

Systems that deal with children viewed as “at risk” in some way (boarding schools for native children, juvenile justice systems, or the modern child protection system) play a fundamental role in dealing with the negative effects of profound inequalities while continuing to preserve them. Don Lash’s When the Welfare People Come puts this in explicitly Marxist terms:

Real or perceived dysfunction in working-class families reduces the supply of labor power and raises the threat of a disruptive class…[T]he Marxist notion of social reproduction…is essential to understanding why capitalism needs to regulate poor and working-class families, and therefore why it needs an ideological framework to justify that…[T]he child welfare system helps to make the impoverishment and societal neglect of children tolerable to the larger population by promoting the idea that children are valued and protected. Perhaps of even greater importance, the system situates blame for the danger and harm imposed on children on their families rather than on the material conditions of their existence.

The idea that poverty is a moral failing and that poor white folks (who are racialized) and racial “others” are to blame for their poverty and for the conditions facing their children helps to account for the persistent linking of social supports and coercion throughout U.S. history. According to prevailing cultural beliefs, poor and non-white folks do not make good decisions, cannot be trusted to care for their children, and thus need to be coerced, through the threat of punishment, into forms of supposedly “therapeutic” state interventions. If they could run their lives properly, the logic goes, they would not be poor in the first place. As Andrew Polsky puts it in his book The Rise of the Therapeutic State:

Public therapeutic intervention aimed as marginal citizens proceeds from the assumption that they cannot govern their own lives…Lower-class clients…[require] wholesale personal and family reconstruction…Further, resistance on their part will not be tolerated. The state has the legal tools to impose client status upon marginal citizens and the coercive instruments to complete them to remain in that exposed position.

Family interventions are key in “regulating the poor” because of the central role the family has in passing down culture and values. If you believe poverty is caused by the wrong values and behaviors, then removing children or trying to force parents to behave differently makes sense. For example, Charles Loring Brace, a key figure in the creation of private systems that were the precursors to our modern child protection systems, was driven by the belief that taking poor children out of their families and city slums was the only way they would be taught proper morals and behaviors and saved from a life of poverty and crime. Similarly, child separation has long been part of attempts at subjugation of marginal groups, whether this took the form of boarding schools that explicitly tried to destroy indigenous cultures, removing children from the families of the enslaved, or punishing civil rights activism.

Roberts and Bach not only document how family policing and laws that criminalize drug use in pregnancy continue this legacy of linking assistance to punishment and coercion, they also provide concrete examples of how these systems operate in a social and political context that starves public systems while providing new opportunities for private entities to profit from child separations. Roberts discusses how cash-strapped agencies hire private consultants to find new revenue streams, including through taking social security benefits from foster children. Bach discusses the example of Vivitrol, an opiate blocker that the company had trouble selling to doctors for a variety of reasons related to its therapeutic limitations. The company instead marketed it to drug courts who were happy to require its use. In short, not only are these systems dealing with social problems through punishment, they also continue to create more opportunities to exploit the very individuals they proport to help. Given the harms caused by these practices, it is no wonder that calls for abolition are growing.