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Book Review:
Disappointing Look at Child Protection

Investigating Families

Kelley Fong, (2023)

Kelley Fong's, "Investigating Families," is a pretty exasperating experience. I read the book carefully, underlining key passages in most chapters. I was willing to do this because Fong writes well, is usually accurate (but not always) in her scholarly claims and has a cogent, compelling perspective with which I largely agree, i.e., that CPS involvement exacts a large emotional cost on low income mothers, even when CPS caseworkers are benign and supportive of parents (both emotionally and with concrete services) which for the most part they were in Fong's sample.


What's exasperating is that in her sample of 120 cases (83 in Rhode Island and 37 in Connecticut) there are only a couple of serious maltreatment cases and no children physically or emotionally injured by child maltreatment. There are no cases of chronic neglect or chronic multitype child maltreatment, categories I doubt that Fong even acknowledges exist, no drug overdoses among young children, no physically abused or sexually abused children.


On p. 233, Fong states: "When people learn I observed CPS investigations, they sometimes say something like, "Wow, you must have seen some pretty awful things." But I didn't, at least not in the way one might think. I focused on run-of-the-mill, mundane CPS cases; the vast majority involved children deemed safe at home." This focus has some advantages, but not for considering CPS reform as a whole. If child protection cases as a whole were ( or are) as Fong describes, she would be right that there is no reason to have a CPS system that delivers much needed assistance at such a price. The U.S. could substitute a family support agency with no coercive powers for the current child protection system, with little if any repercussions on child safety. 


In Fong's sample, all but a handful of cases did not require an agency with coercive powers of any type. My estimate based on other research and my own personal experience (Fong has no CPS experience) is that about two-thirds of families with screened in CPS reports could be served far more effectively in a non-coercive family support agency. This is (in my view) the most important implication of Fong's book, i.e., for families struggling with multiple poverty related adversities, the current system is poorly designed to put it mildly. This should not be a surprise as U.S. child welfare systems in their current form were created and designed to identify seriously physically abused children and then expanded to address alleged sexual abuse, with neglect cases as an afterthought. In some states, this goal has translated into the idea that more surveillance is better than less, e.g. higher screen in rates are better than lower rates. My view is the opposite, within broad parameters.  


Fong is critical and judgmental regarding CPS caseworkers actions, whatever they were. She acknowledges that most of the parents she interviewed liked their caseworkers and appreciated their help. Regarding such comments, Fong states: "Those( parents) whose cases promptly closed ( i.e. most parents) often gushed about the compassion, warmth and respect their investigators conveyed." If parents liked their caseworker, they "gushed." If they did not like their caseworker, they felt unheard, silenced or were forced to bend to CPS power and implied threats. Some of Fong's most astute observations regard a mother whose child was removed from her by police for highly questionable reasons and remined in state custody for two years due to concerns regarding her volatile temperament, absent any evidence of neglect or abuse. In team meetings, Fong states "Christina had learned to craft a story of self transformation," though in truth " nothing changed."  She regained custody of her young son only because of a change in the judge hearing her case. Fong is at her best at describing CPS and the courts when authorities dispensed with the mask of helpers and exercised their power in an unapologetic way. There are a few examples of this type in Fong's descriptions of termination proceedings; but she has little to say re the circumstances that brought these children into foster care, or preceded a termination action.


 After six chapters of unrelenting, incisive criticism of the U.S. child protection system, I looked forward to a chapter on CPS reform, expecting an abolitionist perspective, but I was mistaken. Her recommendations are sensible and common sense, but not radical. Fong would narrow the grounds for CPS intervention, and re this recommendation she is on solid ground. She recommends putting more CPS staff into hotline positions to divert cases to community family support agencies, and she recommends increased investments in community based services. Fong discusses the income support programs that supported families during the pandemic, and recommends addressing economic adversity through multiple avenues that do not involve investigating parents. However, this agenda is far too modest to conclude a book that has ripped CPS to shreds for 200 pages. Her comments suggest that she is ambivalent at best about the idea of transforming CPS through poverty related services, because she believes the costs of a coercive system on families cannot be moderated by an infusion of concrete services. Nevertheless, this is clearly what the parents in Fong's sample want, and it is what must happen for child protective systems to become less punitive, more family friendly and more effective.


 The challenge for reformers is that policymakers have turned a deaf ear to periodic proposals for a  family support agency parallel to CPS, which would remain intact for the most serious cases. Two prestigious commissions on child maltreatment fatalities have recommended this approach to child protection reform and in both cases the recommendation was DOA, along with the remainder of the reports' recommendations. In this regard, abolitionists are more realistic than some of their critics. There is only going to be one public child welfare system in the U.S.; the question is what does it do and at what cost?                

-- Dee Wilson

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