Book Review: System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation by Lauren Silver.

AuthorMcCartney, Jason
PositionBook review

Silver, Lauren J. System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015. xii + 198 pages. Paperback, $29.95.

There are many misconceptions involving the welfare system and teen parents in the United States. In a culture valuing individualism and less government intervention, poverty and social assistance are commonly perceived to be due to personal failure or parental incompetence. Teen parents are generally viewed as selfish and short-sighted. Teenage, African American parents experience added stereotypes involving criminality and sexuality. All of these cultural labels inform legal and political debates, and shape how state or local agencies support families in the child welfare system.

In System Kids: Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation, anthropologist Lauren Silver provides a detailed review of this system. Silver's insightful critique exposes a fundamental disconnect between the daily lives of mothers living in the system and system mandates and protocols that restrict optimal or healthy family outcomes. The book is based on Silver's two years as a program manager in a welfare system in a major U.S. city and additional subsequent time shadowing constituents in the same system. She spent numerous hours with clients, case managers, and program administrators, and documented a diversity of experiences at all levels. At times Silver found herself serving as an advocate supporting mothers seeking satisfactory solutions and effective services.

Silver's primary goal was to document how local and system-level bureaucratic barriers impede or prevent residential and educational mandates. A classic, local-level barrier experienced by many mothers involved a general lack of available childcare, which impacted mothers' participation in continued education. Mothers were forced to regularly skip classes or have unsanctioned babysitters (for example, boyfriends) stay with their children. In most cases, case managers were fully aware of this significant deficiency. At the system-level, Silver noticed conflicting system narratives that shaped staff behaviors and management expectations. One pervasive belief was that clients be sufficiently destitute and worthy of external support. This seems logical given the overall lack of system funding. However, on the other hand, clients were expected to exhibit sufficient personal responsibility and a potential for the successful...

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