Survived & Coerced: Epistemic Injustice in the Family Regulation System

65 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2021

Date Written: August 30, 2021


Calls to defund the police in the summer of 2020 were quickly followed by calls to fund social service agencies. Some included the funding of the family regulation apparatus. These demands fail to consider the shared carceral logic of the family regulation and criminal legal system. I utilize the term family regulation system to more accurately describe the surveillance apparatus that is commonly referred to as the "child welfare system". By using this term, I highlight that the family regulation system not only intersects with but mirrors the criminal legal system. The general premise of the family regulation system is that it is non-adversarial and rehabilitative, geared towards child safety. In practice, involved parents, including survivors of domestic violence, encounter an intrusive, disempowering surveillance system. The removal of children and extensive supervision mechanisms operate as powerful coercion tools, especially for survivors, who may find the state actively engaging in unwanted family separation. Family regulation cases, which already disproportionately affect Black and Brown families, further perpetuate the subjugation of marginalized experiences. Survivor narratives that do not align with the expectations of the family regulation system are discredited and instrumentalized to justify family separation, and even the termination of parental rights.

The effects of lengthy "Child Protective Services" (CPS) involvement on a family's life are rarely discussed in ways that center the experiences of marginalized domestic violence survivors and their individual, authentic knowledge and needs. The family regulation system depends on compelling Black and Brown families to participate in the reproduction of existing knowledge to legitimize its purported goal of child safety. This system, ostensibly there to protect children, facilitates harmful knowledge production by coercing false narratives and excluding alternate knowledge. This article analyzes knowledge production within the family regulation system through the framework of epistemic injustice theory. Epistemic injustice theory examines how hegemonic power structures discredit and subjugate marginalized knowledge. I make the novel argument that the concept of a survivor's "lack of insight" into their own abuse is a form of epistemic injustice. The cycle of subjugating marginalized knowledge is embedded in a carceral power structure that pathologizes poor mothers and labels them "weak" and "dependent". I argue that the dismantling of epistemic injustice will require more than mere counter-narratives. In response to the current reckoning with carceral systems, a growing social movement led by directly impacted parents, demands an end to their silencing and the crediting of their knowledge.

Keywords: Domestic Violence, Carceral Systems, Carceral Logic, Criminal Legal System, Epistemic Injustice, Family Law, Family Regulation, Family Regulation System, Defund Movement, Feminist Legal Theory, Race and the Law, Poverty Law, Child Welfare

JEL Classification: K14: Criminal Law

Suggested Citation

Washington, S. Lisa, Survived & Coerced: Epistemic Injustice in the Family Regulation System (August 30, 2021). Columbia Law Review, (2022 Forthcoming), Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1716, Available at SSRN:

S. Lisa Washington (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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