Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Viola Castellano and ‘Set to See Us Fail’

Viola Castellano’s new book Set to See Us Fail looks at how on how inequalities are reproduced, measured, managed, and contested within the child welfare system of New York. Here she tells us what drew her to this complex issue and what her work has revealed.

Thank you for joining us Dr. Castellano. Before we begin would you please tell us something about your studies and research to date?

Since the inception of my research path, I focused on the anthropology of policies and the ethnography of institutions. From my first fieldwork on housing policies for a Sinti community in Venice to my research on the child welfare system in New York, to my current one on asylum and border policies in the EU-African political space, my efforts have always been addressed to understand how different forms of inequalities are expressed and reproduced by institutional and policy apparatuses.

In particular, I looked at those governmental areas aimed at assisting/controlling specific population groups, who are constituted as a policy category, and who are often racialized. In so doing, I engage with policy recipients as silenced but knowledgeable subjects whose interpretations of institutional action are crucial not only to understanding how the latter unfolds but also  how the inequalities and injustices it might foster are experienced and understood by those who are impacted by them.

What led you to focus on issues around child welfare and why choose New York?

As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, I spent  six months in New York after my graduation. I had an experience in an antiracist association that introduced me to the issue of “racial disproportionality” in the NY child welfare system. I looked more into the data and found out that New York was and still is one of the cities in the US where the disparity between the Black and White population present in the system is at its highest. This factor and the privileged access to the field I had through the associative network I knew made me decide to focus on it for my PhD research.

How did you go about your research? Did you spend very long in New York?

I built the ethnographic setting from my connections through the associative network I mentioned. From there, I expanded field sites where I conducted participant observation of parent advocacy associations and the Family Court system, together with the various initiatives and work groups that revolved around racial disproportionality and inequalities in the NYC child welfare system. The interviews I collected were based on a snowball sampling starting from the contexts where I conducted participant observation. I lived intermittently in New York between 2010 and 2015, and conducted fieldwork for 1 year and a half.

Does your book focus on a particular neighbourhood or is it a city-wide study?

The book doesn’t take a specific neighbourhood as a field site but is more concerned with following research interlocutors in the various locations and institutional settings where they moved. Because my study is strongly connected with social and racial justice initiatives active at that time in the child welfare system, I engaged for example both with legal advocates working in Brooklyn and parent-led organizations working in Manhattan.

In my analysis of how state surveillance is enacted in the city, I used the invisible border between East Harlem and the Upper East Side to illuminate how different classed and racialized geographies in the city, even if spatially contiguous, give birth to radically divergent experiences of citizenship.

Could you briefly outline how child services in NY are organised? And is it well-funded and supported?

The child welfare system, named Administration of Children Services, is the governmental agency in New York that administers the investigations of abuse and neglect signalled to the agency, as well as coordinating and funding various services ranging from preventive services, to foster care, to parent rehabilitation. Decisions about cases are made by judges sitting in the Family Courts; meanwhile, community-based and advocacy organizations support families and parents in their institutional path. The agency has more than 2 billion budget per year and is funded through a blend of federal, state, and city funding. It depends on which priorities each Commissioner and city administration has, but it is safe to say that a large part of the funding is devolved to foster care services, although cyclically, efforts are made to redirect part of the budget to preventive and in-home services for families.

Who are the families that the welfare system most often deals with?

The child welfare system is one of the institutions low-income and racialized urban communities experience the most. Together with the criminal and juvenile justice system, it heavily shapes their interaction with governance. Families with a case with ACS are overwhelmingly of color, impoverished and female-headed. There is a strict connection between this outcome, mainstream narratives and representations of Black motherhood and parenthood, and the moral economies regarding deservingness and poverty in US statecraft. These representations, which have been historically produced outside and within welfare regimes, are intimately tied to the material and socioeconomic processes of dispossession impoverished and racialized communities are subjected to and the degree of state surveillance they endure.

How well do you think NY child welfare discharges its duties?

Child welfare agencies are tasked with a highly complex and delicate matter: regulating families’ lives and assuring children’s welfare. They are constantly tensed between the two aims, perceived often as the opposite, of protecting the child and keeping the family together. Therefore their action is always located on highly political and contested ground. The size and approach of child welfare services have always been heavily influenced by tragic events such as child fatalities in the care of a family member, because they expose the agencies to negative public opinion. This dreaded possibility is one reason social workers move cautiously, preferring a preventive approach or child welfare policies to try to standardize their practices as much as possible. Most importantly, the book argues that it would be too limiting to understand child welfare policies without thinking about their relationships with urban governance and other institutional apparatuses.

Anthropology and ethnography can be useful tools to disentangle the layered and stratified processes underlying each child welfare case and highlight how daily interactions between professionals and families occur in broader cultural, economic, and racial orders and power relations.

And what do those on the other side – the parents and children – make of it?

As I met the individuals and organizations involved, it became clear how critical families and communities are to the system. The widespread opinion is that social services intervention in a family crisis could paradoxically intensify problems rather than solve them. Therefore, an institution designed to preserve the welfare of the most vulnerable members of society and provide assistance to families in trouble is often experienced by parents as punitive and stigmatizing or simply as dysfunctional, bureaucratic, and deaf to the real needs of families. This widespread perception contributes to a lack of commitment to the parental rehabilitation path, a delay in reunification or even a termination of parental rights, and a performance of compliance that doesn’t substantially change family dynamics. There are also ways in which the system can be used as a resource, and services that are vital to families’ well-being can be accessed, as well as cases where children’s removal is necessary for their safety. Still, I would say that in my experience, I could observe how the system adds a further and massive layer of complications to already very complicated lives.

How do you think the NY approach compares to that of other US cities or other large and diverse international cities?

New York is an interesting case because, from one side, it represents one of the most striking cases of disproportionality, a phenomenon also present in other large cities in the US as Chicago.

I believe this feature speaks about the fundamental contribution urban dynamics of racial and economic segregation and exclusion play in the makeup of the child welfare pool of recipients.

On the other side, the lively history of civil society participation and negotiation with urban governance in New York created the condition for unfair and unequal aspects to be exposed, contested, and addressed in attempts to system reform. Mine is not a comparative study, but it is essential to mention how other anthropologists who have dealt with the medical-legal system of child protection in different national contexts of the so-called Global North have likewise examined the forms of pathologization and stigmatization of Black and Indigenous mothers as well as a punitive attitude towards impoverished communities.

An issue with care services can sometimes be that staff on the ground often come from very different backgrounds to the families they work with and the children they need to protect. Is this true in NY too?

I would say that at the time of my research, what I noticed was quite the opposite: those working on the ground and taking up the wearing role of knocking on families’ doors, were often people were also often women of color living in the same neighborhood as the families they investigated. During the research, I have met more than one parent who was investigated by ACS and, at the same time, had previously worked in a context where she also responded to an institutional role as a mandated reporter or was directly working in the child welfare system. But as Tina Lee noted in her ethnography (2016), sharing a neighborhood did not necessarily mean that caseworkers were free from perceiving their clients through the racially coded discourse of the culture of poverty. Additionally, the job of caseworker has been described to me as an exhausting, time-consuming, and—in the long term—dehumanizing profession, which leads to an “exhaustion of compassion” typical of social work (Sennett 2003).

What do you think those working within the city’s services would make of your book?

I hope child welfare professionals and practitioners could find this book, with all its limitations, interesting because it locates the child welfare system in ampler social and urban dynamics. The peculiarity of this case study does not lie in its analysis of the child welfare system, per se, but in how the inequalities expressed and reproduced in this context are grafted onto preexisting ones, reproduced and reinforced by the child welfare system itself, and understood among practitioners and families. It deals with the way citizenship is produced as a stratified and differentiated set of relations through the daily interactions between professionals and welfare recipients.

What are you working on now? Will you continue with issues around child protection or the anthropology or work more generally? 

My current research is focused on policies of border externalization and EU-African partnerships to prevent undocumented migration and includes fieldwork in the Gambia as well as in Germany. As in my previous research on the child welfare system, I focus on the perspectives of policy recipients, namely migrants deemed to be returned to their home country, but engage also with the professional spheres and actors that revolve around border and migration policies. As a continuation of a path already started with the research on the child welfare system, this research embraces even more strongly a commitment to public anthropology and has a collaborative methodology.

VIOLA CASTELLANO is Senior Research Associate at the Chair of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Bayreuth. Previously, she worked at the Department of Education of Bologna University and at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning. Her research interests revolve around ethnography of institutions, welfare and migration policies, borders externalization and global inequalities.


Debating Inequalities in the Child Welfare System of New York

234 pages, bibliog., index

eBook & Hardback

Set to See Us Fail is published in our Anthropology at Work series.

For the latest news on our books and journals please sign up for our email newsletters.