An Unintended Abolition: Family Regulation During the COVID-19 Crisis
25 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2021 Last revised: 11 Sep 2021
Date Written: March 31, 2021
In a typical year, New York City’s vast family regulation system, fueled by an army of mandated reporters, investigates tens of thousands of reports of child neglect and abuse, policing almost exclusively poor Black and Latinx families even as the government provides those families extremely limited support. When the City shut down in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, this system shrunk in almost every conceivable way as mandated reporters retreated, caseworkers adopted less intrusive investigatory tactics, and family courts constrained their operations. Reports fell, the number of cases filed in court fell, and the number of children separated from their parents fell. At the same time, families found support elsewhere, through suddenly ubiquitous mutual aid networks and through infusions of new government entitlements. This large-scale reconfiguration of the family regulation system represents a short-term experiment in abolition: in this period, New Yorkers moved away from a system that oppressed poor Black and Latinx and not only envisioned but built a more democratic and humane model to protect families.
This Article argues that this new model kept families just as safe. Data from the courts and from the City’s Administration for Children’s Services reveals that during the shutdown period, there was no rise in child abuse. Furthermore, once the City began to re-open, there was no perceivable “rebound effect,” i.e. a delayed, compensatory rise in reports. Thus, this Article positions the COVID-19 shutdown period as a successful case study, demonstrating one possible future absent the massive, oppressive apparatus of the family regulation system.
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