Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Scholars of juvenile dependency law have pointed out that key legal statutes that require parents to provide a “minimum degree of care,” and “adequate food, clothing, or shelter” can be subjective and vulnerable to considerable discretion (Bullock 2002; Lens 2015). The ramifications of decisions made in juvenile dependency courts are life-altering, as children can be removed from their parents’ legal custody indefinitely. My paper explores how parents and court staff define care for children throughout the course of juvenile dependency proceedings. Neglect is the most common allegation against parents involved in juvenile dependency proceedings (USDHHS 2018) and numerous studies have shown that findings of neglect are more frequently assigned to low-income families (Dale 2014; Sedlak et al. 2010). This work interrogates the extent to which low-income, racialized communities of color are able to challenge and reshape narratives of their supposed parental deficiency.
My paper highlights the ways in which parent-litigants critique, resist, or attempt to comply with court orders in the process of contesting their categorization as deficient parents in juvenile court. Drawing on 18 months of participant observation in a juvenile dependency court in California, I discuss parents’ alternative definitions and activities of caring for their children in ways that are often illegible to court staff and social workers in dependency court cases. This work challenges us to explore what it means to care for children in light of rampant income inequality, displacement, and criminalization faced by low-income minorities in the United States.