Book Reviews

‘Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System’

Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System Tina Lee, Rutgers University Press 2016

Anthropologist Tina Lee immersed herself in the exotic culture of a child welfare agency, its folkways, “clients,” employees and contractors. She has returned with an eye-opening report.

Anthropologists describe, not prescribe. Their expeditions yield close-up views of the rituals and radically different practices of far-away societies. With their help, we can reflect: Would we like to live like the Melanesians? How about the hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

The tribes that Professor Lee studied perform their exotic rituals right here in the United States. New York City’s child welfare system, the subject of “Catching a Case,” is much like child welfare services throughout the U.S. Without saying so directly — for anthropologists do not judge — “Catching a Case” presents a system of people, policies, procedures and processes that frustrates nearly everyone.

How can a nation that in many ways is the envy of the world systematically fail in a function as basic as protection of its most vulnerable children? Lee’s expedition into what one might call America’s Heart of Darkness provides invaluable illumination. She has tunneled into the system and has used the urban anthropologist’s investigative headlamp to bring many of its customs, functionaries and victims out of the shadows.

A book of fewer than 250 pages cannot shine a spotlight into every corner of a complex of problems. It remains for a future investigator to illuminate what one might call the dark and dank but vitally important sub-basement of the child welfare business: its finances.

In this reviewer’s home state, a single county, Los Angeles, spends more than $2 billion per year. In the U.S. as a whole, annual expenditures are in the double- and perhaps triple-digits of billions of dollars. The actual amounts are hotly disputed. Various interest groups, each with its own political axe to grind, report wildly disparate numbers.

How much is accomplished by the various components of foster care spending is equally nontransparent. “Olivia,” a mother, told Lee what she thought of the “parenting skills” classes that she and most other mothers were required to attend. A waste of time, Olivia said: “You could have told me that stuff when my kids was little … So it just be wasting my time going there. But I’ll go, because that’s what the judge wants.”

Lee comments: “going to a class was not going to help [Olivia] to find a decent apartment,” for finding an apartment satisfactory to the child welfare agency was the crux of Olivia’s problem: The agency had taken her children into foster care because she could not afford a larger apartment and she was unwilling to move her children and herself into one of New York City’s “shelters.” “Carl,” a caseworker, was equally skeptical: “We hope it fixes it, but it doesn’t … Which, a parenting skill class is, the actual content of the classes is, it doesn’t address anything …”

America’s child welfare agencies spend a great deal of money on mandatory “parenting” classes for parents whose children are in custody. How much good do those classes do? Are classroom lectures effective in changing parenting styles? How much harm do the classes do by forcing desperately poor parents to pass up employment opportunities because the class schedule requires the parent to be in a classroom when their potential employer would require them to be on the job?

So far as this reviewer knows, no one has looked for answers to those questions, nor for answers to many other questions concerning foster care finances. We know for sure that each program benefits the foster care system’s employees and their supervisors, managers and/or the professionals and paraprofessionals who provide the services. We seldom if ever know the extent that parenting classes and many other facets of the foster care industry benefit the children who are the industry’s raw materials. Do foster children usually emerge from the system in better or worse condition than when they entered? Which components of foster care are cost-effective, which are counter-productive? The definitive book on that subject — perhaps an entire shelf of books — remains to be written.

Twenty-seven years ago, in its final report, the U.S. National Commission on Children lamented: “If the nation had deliberately designed a system that would frustrate the professionals who staff it, anger the public who finance it, and abandon the children who depend on it, it could not have done a better job than the present child welfare system.” Tina Lee’s book presents a wealth of facts, based on close-up face-to-face interviews and observations that enable the reader to reach her or his own conclusions.

Anyone who thinks that America’s child welfare system may be in need of major improvement should read and reflect on “Catching a Case.”

Edward Opton, Ph.D., J.D., is an attorney affiliated with the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C.


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