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The Maternal Control Complex


Kelley Fong (@kelley_fong) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Investigating Families: Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services.

This post concludes 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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Wendy Bach’s book Prosecuting Poverty, Criminalizing Care is nominally about prosecutions in the criminal legal system – specifically, prosecutions of women who used drugs during pregnancy under Tennessee’s fetal assault law, in effect from 2014 to 2016. Dorothy Roberts’s book Torn Apart nominally about interventions by the child welfare system, which Roberts terms the family policing system. In carefully chronicling the history, logic, and operations of these specific systems, though, Bach and Roberts draw our attention to something much more wide-ranging.

The two books give us accounts not of singular systems, but of an almost suffocating network of authorities surrounding marginalized mothers. As Bach and Roberts show, adjacent, supposedly supportive systems such as healthcare and education get drawn into criminalization and family policing. These systems turn families in: Collectively, about half of reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) come from education, medical, social services, and mental health personnel. State statutes mandate these professionals to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect – a hazy, highly discretionary designation – to CPS authorities who are empowered to forcibly separate families. Roberts recounts the all-too-common experience of Angeline Montauban, who called a domestic violence hotline looking for help, only for the hotline staffer to alert CPS, which subsequently removed her toddler son.

These systems also turn over families’ personal information – often, it seems, without a second thought: Bach’s research revealed that nearly all the criminal allegations of women prosecuted included detailed information obtained by healthcare providers. Hospital personnel, Bach learned in interviews, “are often willing and eager to share information with prosecutors.” As Roberts explains, CPS refers parents to therapy, only for the referred counselors to “collect private information to use against the parent” – for instance, as CPS builds the case for family separation in court. Reflecting on these information channels, Bach invokes the well-known line from a welfare recipient interviewed for Austin Sarat’s landmark study: “The law is all over.” The interviewee continues, “I am caught.”

Sociologist Victor Rios, drawing on in-depth research with Black and Latino teenage boys in Oakland, conceptualizes what he terms the youth control complex. Rios defines the youth control complex as “a ubiquitous system of criminalization” emerging from “socializing and social control institutions” alike. For youth routinely criminalized, stigmatized, excluded, and monitored by a “web of institutions,” including community centers, schools, and their own families, indeed, the law is all over.

Bach and Roberts show us something analogous: a parental – really, a maternal – control complex, in which the systems marginalized mothers encounter are poised to further marginalize them. For women who have often experienced substantial trauma and adversity, it feels like wherever they turn may turn them in, turn them over. Bach quotes a Tennessee woman who explained that during her pregnancy, she was “scared to death” about being open and honest with her doctor, “because the laws in effect prevented [it from] being a care issue. It became a law, a liability issue.” A mother I met during my research in Rhode Island, whom I’ll call Desiree, echoed these sentiments when describing her experiences facing extreme poverty and hardship: “Everything is official, official.” She mimicked what she heard from the bureaucrats she encountered: “I have to call that person. I have to call this person.” Desiree was afraid to ask for help, she added, “because I’m scared that it’s gonna work against me.” In times of need, mothers understand service providers as potential agents of social control and punishment.

Not all mothers are subject to the maternal control complex to the same degree. As Roberts explains, poor families and Black families are more heavily surveilled, through increased engagement with public agencies and greater exposure to policing. Both Bach and Roberts discuss discriminatory drug screening practices at labor and delivery hospitals, with Black and low-income parents especially likely to be tested. These inequities stem, at least in part, from the judgments of frontline helping professionals. Bach interviewed healthcare providers who affirmed that despite similar rates of illegal drug use by class, “when it came to looking for drug use during pregnancy… higher-income women were not the focus,” as they tended not to arouse suspicion. Roberts recounts her personal experience being chastised by her son’s teacher based on the teacher’s presumption that Roberts, as a Black mother, was irresponsible. Only upon learning of Roberts’s international travel via her position as a university professor did the teacher deem her “acceptable.” Other mothers, especially other Black mothers, cannot so readily shield themselves from the maternal control complex.

That the maternal control complex consists of helping institutions makes it all the more insidious. The control is intertwined with care – oftentimes, support and services that mothers genuinely want for their families. Roberts interviewed Black women in Chicago who told her they wanted more CPS involvement in their neighborhoods, as, poignantly, they recognized the material assistance CPS sometimes provided. But as Roberts explains, “offering help within a coercive system is a Trojan horse: the gift of aid draws families into a snare that can lead to crushing state intrusion.” In this context, mothers can’t be sure who to trust. Supportive services carry risks. A Rhode Island mother I’ll call Christina, weighing the benefits and costs of home visiting services aimed at promoting maternal and child health, put it this way: “The good is, they do help you. But the bad is, do I really wanna risk if they feel as though I’m not taking care of my baby according to their book?”

Rios concludes that we must move away from the youth control complex to create a youth support complex, “a ubiquitous system of support that nurtures and reintegrates young people placed at risk.” What might it look like to envelop mothers in support? Bach and Roberts offer some examples in line with a broader vision of care and community: centering patients’ rights by rigorously enforcing privacy protections, for instance, and providing income supports directly to families. Ultimately, their thoughtful and generative work offers an invitation – really, a challenge – for all of us: to envision, then enact better ways of caring for one another. Desiree, articulating a response to the maternal control complex, put it plainly: “You’re humans. Just like me. Why can’t you just help me?”