The Networked Family: Reframing the Legal Understanding of Caregiving and Caregivers

71 Pages Posted: 11 May 2008

See all articles by Melissa Murray

Melissa Murray

New York University, School of Law


Recent efforts to reconcile family law theory and doctrine with the lived experiences of families have focused narrowly on expanding the definition of the legal family to accommodate those in non-traditional family arrangements. By contrast, scant attention has been paid to the disjunction between law's understanding of caregiving and how families actually function in providing care. Law understands caregiving to be the work of parents; accordingly, it creates two caregiving extremes - one is either a parent, with the rights and responsibilities of that status, or one is a legal stranger without any entitlements. In focusing on these two poles, law disregards the caregiving continuum that exists between them. This Article explores this interpolar space and the non-parental caregivers who occupy it. Intuitively, we recognize that there are caregivers who are neither parents, nor strangers; and empirical and sociological evidence makes clear that parents do not provide care autonomously, but rather, rely on networks of non-parental caregivers. Indeed, in other doctrinal areas, like sentencing and public assistance, law acknowledges these caregiving networks explicitly. This Article examines three theoretical approaches for expanding the legal construction of caregiving to accommodate the way in which parents rely on caregiving networks comprised of non-parental caregivers. Recognizing these networks, it further argues, would help reconcile family law with the reality of family life, while advancing family law's stated interest in enabling and facilitating caregiving within families.

Keywords: family, caregivers, caregiving, parental rights, legal recognition

Suggested Citation

Murray, Melissa, The Networked Family: Reframing the Legal Understanding of Caregiving and Caregivers. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 94, No. 2, 2008. Available at SSRN:

Melissa Murray (Contact Author)

New York University, School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States


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