Under the Watchful Eye of All: Disabled Parents and the Family Policing System’s Web of Surveillance

84 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2023

See all articles by Robyn Powell

Robyn Powell

Stetson University College of Law; Brandeis University - The Heller School for Social Policy and Management

Date Written: August 23, 2023


The child welfare system, more accurately referred to as the family policing system, employs extensive surveillance that disproportionately targets marginalized families, subjecting them to relentless oversight. Scholars observe that this ongoing surveillance obstructs effective parenting, exacerbates existing injustices, and contradicts its stated protective purpose. Instead of safeguarding, surveillance transforms into a tool of control against the families it should assist, particularly those who are already vulnerable. This Article extends the analysis of the family policing system’s surveillance practices to encompass parents with disabilities and their children, revealing the unique consequences of continuous observation. The system’s ableism amplifies scrutiny of disabled parents, disregarding their disability-related needs and causing harm under the guise of protection. The culmination of this persistent surveillance results in heightened systemic harm, trapping families in an inescapable cycle of perpetual scrutiny.

In response, this Article provides a nuanced and novel analysis of the extensive surveillance targeted at disabled parents and their children by the family policing system. It begins by detailing the legal framework that supports the surveillance apparatus, investigating constitutional protections, federal and state statutes, and disability rights laws. The exploration then turns to the intricate network of surveillance ensnaring disabled parents and their families. This encompassing scrutiny includes mandated reporting, family policing system investigations, “service” plans, child maltreatment registries, and digital surveillance tools. Subsequently, the Article uncovers the harms arising from this surveillance, both directly and within a broader context of societal injustices. Concluding with a call to action, the Article proposes normative legal and policy solutions to challenge the system’s pervasive surveillance. These measures encompass revising the definition of neglect, constraining the system’s scope of surveillance, establishing rights akin to Miranda warnings, revoking mandated reporting laws, ensuring prompt access to legal representation, and reimagining support systems for families. These solutions must be integrated into broader initiatives aimed at abolishing the family policing system entirely, freeing marginalized families from the cycle of being pathologized, controlled, and punished. Ultimately, the only path to liberating disabled parents and their children from perpetual scrutiny is through the complete dismantling of the family policing system, ensuring they are no longer under the watchful eye of all.

Keywords: child welfare, disability, surveillance, family policing, family law

JEL Classification: K10, K36, I30, I38

Suggested Citation

Powell, Robyn, Under the Watchful Eye of All: Disabled Parents and the Family Policing System’s Web of Surveillance (August 23, 2023). 112 California Law Review, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4555846 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4555846

Robyn Powell (Contact Author)

Stetson University College of Law ( email )

1401 61st Street South
Gulfport, FL 33707
United States

Brandeis University - The Heller School for Social Policy and Management ( email )

United States

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