Risky Mothers: Child Welfare and the Technocratic Regulation of the Maternal Body

Matty Lichtenstein, Florida Atlantic University

For decades, advocacy organizations have promoted an interdisciplinary framing—involving collaborative health, social service, and state interventions—as the best approach in cases of infants exposed to maternal prenatal substance use. However, across the United States, state legislatures have primarily authorized one profession to intervene in substance-exposed infants: child welfare professionals. How did child welfare become the predominant authority to regulate this problem? The findings in this paper indicate that current accounts linking pregnancy regulation to conservative and pro-criminalization trends in the 1990s overlook the social-contextual variables that shaped the development of current norms in pregnancy regulation. Combining historical content analysis of professional journals with a case study of California, the paper argues that both conservative and liberal legislators began expanding child welfare authority during the 1990s due to two intertwined factors: child welfare’s risk management approach to managing marginalized mothers that fail to meet gendered expectations of maternal behavior, and the profession’s pre-existing resources to implement such population management practices. I explain these findings with a theory of gendered risk governance, in which professional and state actors manage marginalized mothers through risk management practices and discourses that reframe the reproduction of gendered, racial, and class inequalities as a neutral process of family regulation.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 126. Public Health and the American Welfare State