System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation

System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation

System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation

System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation


System Kids considers the daily lives of adolescent mothers as they negotiate the child welfare system to meet the needs of their children and themselves. Often categorized as dependent and delinquent, these young women routinely become wards of the state as they move across the legal and social borders of a fragmented urban bureaucracy. Combining critical policy study and ethnography, and drawing on current scholarship as well as her own experience as a welfare program manager, Lauren Silver demonstrates how social welfare "silos" construct the lives of youth as disconnected, reinforcing unforgiving policies and imposing demands on women the system was intended to help. As clients of a supervised independent living program, they are expected to make the transition into independent adulthood, but Silver finds a vast divide between these expectations and the young women's lived reality.

Digging beneath the bureaucratic layers of urban America and bringing to light the daily experiences of young mothers and the caseworkers who assist them, System Kids illuminates the ignored work and personal ingenuity of clients and caseworkers alike. Ultimately reflecting on how her own understanding of the young women has changed in the years since she worked in the same social welfare program that is the focus of the book, Silver emphasizes the importance of empathy in research and in the formation of welfare policies.


Soon after sundown, in the dimly lit front room of her inner-city apartment, eighteen-year-old Maleka told me about registering for nursing school and the challenges she faced with childcare. All the while, Maleka repeatedly swatted at her wall with a towel, keeping the scurrying roaches from making their way down to her two boys, playing on a secondhand couch. The swatting seemed so habitual that I wondered whether this was something she repeated every evening. It did not distract her from our conversation, nor did it bother her two boys, who continued to play.

This simple, disturbing act represents the many extraordinary, but seemingly minor, efforts of young mothers to protect their children. Maleka lived alone with her sons in an apartment leased by a Supervised Independent Living (SIL) program. The local child welfare agency, Children and Youth Services (CYS), funded this program through a government contract and expected SIL to facilitate residential, educational, and social services. In spite of the dangerous environments and bureaucratic obstacles they encountered on entering the child welfare system, young mothers in SIL persevered. I came to know the SIL program and its young families first as a program manager with concrete responsibilities and then later as a researcher who continued to advocate for clients.

Once the child welfare system assumes legal custody of abused or neglected youth, the youth are in care and the government provides for their well-being. How do we understand the “care” provided, given the circumstances that Maleka and her children and many other young families face? How would an adolescent’s living alone with her children in dangerous and pest-infested conditions . . .

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