Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System

Article excerpt

Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System. Jennifer A. Reich. New York: Routledge. 2005. 368 pp. ISBN 0-41594727-8. $26.95. (paper)

In Fixing Families: Parents, Power, and the Child Welfare System, Jennifer A. Reich vividly portrays inner workings of the child welfare system and offers important insights about the exercise of state power. Characterized as an ethnography of child welfare in one California county, and using data from "ride-alongs" with child welfare investigators and caseworkers, court observations, parent interviews, court documents, and informal interviews with child welfare workers and attorneys, the book accomplishes Reich's stated goal: It illustrates how child welfare practitioners communicate and reinforce dominant expectations of gender, race, and class, and how state agents, through interaction with family members, determine "who can be a family and who cannot" (p. 22).

Reich's observations inspire the thesis that child welfare decisions, such as whether a child will be removed from a parent, returned to parent, or made eligible for adoption, depend largely on a parent's capacity to "perform deference," which, in turn, hinges on a parent's race, gender, and marital status. Reich artfully and meticulously illustrates that in an underresourced child welfare environment-with such important goals as child safety and family autonomy at stake-the tipping factor in difficult child welfare decisions is often a parent's willingness and ability to demonstrate in both behavior and attitude mat she (occasionally, he) accepts the state's interpretation of events and complies with its remedies. Although the book succeeds in illuminating subtle uses of power, it also provides examples in which the imperative to cooperate is not hidden but is an explicitly stated influence on child welfare decisions.

The book illustrates the role of parental deference at different "critical moments" of a child welfare case: during maltreatment investigations, as parents participate in mandated services, and when judges make decisions about family reunification and parental rights. During an investigation, for example, Reich observes a caseworker explicitly telling a parent that "one factor in whether her kids [would be] removed was how cooperative" the parent seemed, to which the parent responds, "If I don't cooperate with you then you're gonna take my children? That's messed up" (p. 95 - 96).

Reich nicely illuminates the role of race in child welfare decisions and practices. For example, when a Black middle-class mother accused of child maltreatment invites her police officer partner, also Black, to sit in on an investigatory interview with the White local sheriff, the police officer informs the mother of some of her legal rights. In response to the unwelcome intervention, the sheriff, unaware of the police officer's profession, confronts him, "You seem to know so much about the law. How many times have you been arrested?" (p. …

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