Researcher’s Book Shines Light on Flawed, Child Welfare System

By Tom McLaughlin

Imagine being 16 years old and being placed alone in an apartment with your child, and required to attend school, work part time, and negotiate childcare and health services – all with the fear of losing much-needed benefits if these demands aren’t met.

Although the situation might sound insurmountable, this is a daily reality confronting countless young mothers admitted into supervised independent living (SIL) programs, explains Lauren Silver, an assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University–Camden.

silver2“While these women are expected to make the transition to adulthood, we are putting them in a really unattainable situation, where they have to prove their worth as mothers through these self-sufficiency indicators,” says Silver. “We are expecting from them what we wouldn’t expect from other youth.”

Silver shines the light on the daily lives and challenges of adolescent mothers and their caseworkers as they navigate the child welfare system in her new book, System Kids, Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation (The University of North Carolina Press).

The Rutgers–Camden researcher combines critical policy study, current scholarship, ethnography, and her own experiences as a child welfare program manager to examine the great divide between what is expected of these young women and their lived reality. Throughout System Kids, Silver demonstrates how social welfare “silos” force these youth to occupy multiple identities across the system, reinforcing unforgiving policies and imposing unnecessary demands on the very women that the system was designed to help.

“Not only is the system failing in its mission to promote child wellbeing and welfare, it is actually creating obstacles that are further hindering the success of these young mothers and their families,” says Silver. “We are putting the problems on the backs of these youth, rather than shining the mirror on the systematic problems that are leading to a culture of fear and failure.”

As Silver explains, youth in the SIL programs that she has studied are between the ages of 16 and 21, and primarily African American. They have all been adjudicated dependent – abused or neglected – or delinquent – found to have committed nonviolent offenses – and placed by a judge into the program. They are then housed in apartments leased by a private, nonprofit organization, which has been contracted by a city welfare agency.

Silver notes that, while the youth arrive in the program through two different streams, they typically hail from the same neighborhoods and are dealing with the same oppressions. To compound their challenges further, the women are housed in lower-income areas of cities that are fraught with a host of new issues, such as drugs and violence.

“They are placed there by the child welfare system purportedly for their wellbeing, and then they have to deal with these types of violence,” she says.

Silver’s passion to remedy the flawed, child welfare system dates back to 2001-02, when she served as a client services manager for a SIL program. With a master’s degree in hand, she had been determined to provide a stable and supportive environment for these young families. However, she soon found that “once you get into the system, you end up feeling like your hands are tied,” she explains.

Still fresh in her mind, she recalls an incident when a child burned himself while in the care of his 16-year-old mother. With limited options, Silver was regrettably part of a cross-agency decision to remove the child from the teenage mother’s custody and put him in foster care.

“Being a witness to that was the most devastating thing I have ever seen or experienced,” says Silver. “For me, looking back, I could see how I was an agent in constructing this mom as a failure.”

The experience would leave a lasting impression on Silver, who continued to ask questions. She later returned to that same SIL program and conducted two years of ethnographic research for her doctoral dissertation and, subsequently, her book.

silver-copyAs she further transitioned into her role as researcher, she made the decision, both ethically and politically, to advocate for these young mothers as well. Serving this dual role, she says, enabled her to view the multiple obstacles that youth clients and their case managers faced, and their means of creatively coping with these challenges.

As a result of this direct involvement, System Kids takes readers on an intimate journey across the cityscape as Silver helps her clients negotiate services. Along the way, she is consistently examining her decision-making processes, as well as those of other caseworkers.

She notes that, as a feminist ethnographer, there are three main tenets to which she adheres: her analysis includes examining gender in relation to identity categories, such as race, class, and age, and determining how these categories shape what can and cannot be done in terms of negotiation of services. She is also reflective of her own identity and roles in the documentation and interpretation of her research. Furthermore, she is focused on social change and considers her work to be within the framework of social justice.

“I am trying to document what happens, but I am also seeking a more just system and network of care for youth who are marginalized,” says Silver.

However, cautions the Rutgers–Camden researcher, System Kids is intended to help reconstruct this system, not eliminate it – a point, she says, which cannot be understated given the current climate where services are increasingly reduced for the poor and moving towards more penal institutions.

“I am critiquing SIL programs, but I am saying, ‘Don’t get rid of them,’” says Silver. “The girls have told me themselves, ‘Without SIL, I would be dead or in prison.”

Instead, Silver is arguing that a more collective, nurturing environment can be created for these women and their families. She hopes her book can thus be a “conversation starter” with policymakers.

“I want to bring the stories of these women and their caseworkers into the conversation when they are setting these policies,” she says. “It’s about what you bring to the table – and whose voices are heard at the table.”

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