Professor’s book reveals problems in NY’s child welfare system

By University Communications
December 2, 2016
Tina Lee, an associate professor, works with students in one of her anthropology classes in Harvey Hall.

Photo: Tina Lee, an associate professor, works with students in one of her
anthropology classes in Harvey Hall.

After 14 months of being virtually embedded in New York’s child welfare system — interviewing parents, caseworkers and lawyers — Tina Lee came to a realization: The system may be as broken as many of the parents and children who badly need it.

“It’s simply not able to provide the help these parents need. Instead, it blames them for their problems and tends to deal with them punitively in an attempt to reform their behavior,” she said.

Lee, an associate professor of anthropology from University of Wisconsin-Stout, has written a book based on her research, “Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System.”

Lee conducted the research from 2006 to 2007 for a doctoral thesis. She received a Ph.D. in anthropology in 2010 from City University of New York. Afterward she spent two years turning the thesis into a manuscript. The 245-page book was published earlier this year by Rutgers University Press.

The extra work of rewriting the thesis into a manuscript and finding a publisher fulfilled one of her initial goals — to make the work accessible to the public so it might help lead to changes.

She studied New York’s system in part because it’s among the largest in the country and is similar to systems in other large U.S. cities, giving her work national value. “It’s a world a lot of people don’t know about,” she said, adding that her book may be the first to examine all aspects of such a system.

Tina Lee, front row third from left, returned to New York this fall to discuss her book.New York’s system, which has had to deal with budget cuts, simply has too many cases for caseworkers to take the time to separate willful neglect and severe abuse by parents from less severe cases involving generally good parents who lack critical resources, such as a job.

“It’s triage,” she said, describing the surface treatment often given to complicated cases.

In 2007, caseworkers in New York dealt with more than 55,000 reports of child abuse, neglect or neglect and abuse. On average, each caseworker had about 60 percent more cases to handle than they believed was appropriate, Lee said.

Time after time Lee saw parents have their children taken away because they lacked money, housing, child care and other basic parenting necessities. Once the parents entered the welfare system, the system’s requirements exacerbated the problems.

During the study, 13 of the 28 parents that Lee followed became worse off financially in part related to issues caused by the system. Some parents lost their jobs because they had to take time off for numerous court hearings; others quit their jobs to provide child care because the system required it and they couldn’t afford to pay for child care; others lost housing.

The cover of “It is particularly short-sighted and, I would argue, punitive to ask parents to focus solely on changing their behaviors and doing everything possible to prove they care about their children while their financial and work lives deteriorate,” Lee wrote.

She would dearly love to see change, but she believes it will require New York to commit more resources as part of a new paradigm focused on equality. What’s needed are parents with more education, an effective mental health system and better drug, alcohol and child care services, along with a higher minimum wage, she said.

“The key is providing a safety net to parents and not tolerating the high rates of childhood poverty in a devel0ped country,” Lee said. “If we can get to that place, a pretty big chunk of these problems will disappear. Then the system could focus on the problems it is supposed to, severe abuse and willful neglect.”

Lee said the more time she spent with system officials and parents, including doing a survey, going to court hearings, attending support meetings and going to homes so they could see she was trying to objectively study the issues, the more they opened up to her.

“I came in with questions. Just how does it work? I saw one woman become homeless, lose her daughter to foster care and then (because of stress) lose a lot of weight. I also saw people who lost their children get them back,” Lee said.

Aimee Cox, a professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York, calls Lee’s book “an important contribution” that reveals racism and classism within the system.

Lee’s research revealed biases that she hopes can be corrected. “I’m interested in making a dent in inequality,” she said, noting that the issues within New York’s child welfare system parallel issues involving policing in the U.S. and with the Black Lives Matter movement.

With her book out, Lee returned this fall to New York to speak to the city’s Child Welfare Organization Project, an advocacy and support group for families in the system. She worked with CWOP during her research.

Student research project

Lee’s research experiences in New York also will benefit students at UW-Stout and possibly Dunn County.

She has been asked to do similar research in Upper Midwest states by an East Coast attorney, who has received a grant for a national study on child welfare cases involving drug abuse. Lee will train several of her students, majoring in applied social science, to do research in spring 2017.

“It’s a great opportunity for students,” Lee said. “They’ll gather data about the system, including conducting interviews and visiting courts, similar to what I did in New York.”

The student research could lead to another study by Lee, of the child welfare system in Dunn County. “What is child welfare like in a rural, mostly white community?”



Middle Photo: Tina Lee, front row third from left, returned to New York this fall to discuss her book, “Catching a Case,” with the city’s Child Welfare Organizing Project.

Bottom Photo: “Catching a Case: Inequality and Fear in New York City’s Child Welfare System,” was written by Tina Lee and published this year.