Skip navigation
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title: Family Policing or Family Preservation? A Historical Analysis of the Foundations of Child Welfare and Black Families in New Jersey
Authors: Paine, Isabel
Advisors: Mann, Anastasia
Department: Princeton School of Public and International Affairs
Class Year: 2024
Abstract: This thesis offers a historical analysis of the establishment of New Jersey’s Child Welfare System, focusing specifically on the perceptions of Black families by white Progressive reformers. In 1899, New Jersey founded its State Board of Children’s Guardians, marking the inception of the state's Child Welfare System. This Board has since evolved into New Jersey’s current Department of Children and Families. As highlighted by scholar Dorothy Roberts, the current Child Welfare System disproportionately targets and disrupts Black families both in New Jersey and across the nation, resulting in a family policing state with deep historical roots. While scholars often examine the separation of Black families during the Antebellum Era or the 20th-century welfare reform period, the late 19th and early 20th Centuries witnessed the rise of a sweeping Child Welfare Movement in the industrial Northeast. This movement was driven by a new Christian belief in children as malleable and innocent beings. Simultaneously, as noted by scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad, this era witnessed the racialization of Black families in phenomena such as crime, poverty, labor, childhood, and motherhood. Structural blame was attributed to white poverty, while personal blame was placed on Black poverty. Black parents and children labored more and worked lower-paying jobs compared to their white counterparts. While sometimes included in a new definition of innocent childhood, Black children were also exploited and demonized. Black mothers, working more than white mothers, faced criticism for not staying home with their children, but they were still expected to work. Combining Roberts’ and Muhammad’s insights raises a critical question: did the racialization of crime, poverty, labor, childhood, and motherhood influence how Progressive white agents viewed Black families during the genesis of New Jersey’s Child Welfare System? I chose to focus on New Jersey due to its historical reputation as the ‘slave state of the North’ and the limited existing scholarship on its Child Welfare history. To address this question, I conducted extensive archival research online and at the New Jersey State Archives. To explore the racialization of Black families during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, I analyzed census records, State Reports, and other primary sources. To gauge the potential impact of racialization on the perspectives of the State Board’s agents toward Black families, I examined case registers authored by white agents between 1895 and 1915. Over nine three-hour visits, I meticulously reviewed the accounts of every Black child who entered the System during that period, transcribing over 22,000 words of agent reports. Additionally, I transcribed 8,000 words of miscellaneous administrative documents related to the State Board’s establishment. In conjunction with a close-reading analysis, I employed MAXQDA software to identify patterns in the Case Registers. Drawing from my research on the racialization of Black families around the turn of the 20th Century, I developed 30 specific codes related to crime, poverty, labor, childhood, and motherhood. I systematically assigned these codes to sentences and paragraphs that exemplified each code’s theme. This process not only revealed the agents’ belief in white households as suitable environments for Black children, but it also showcased the significant levels of kinship care and mutual aid within Black communities at the time. A limitation of my argument is the absence of a comparative analysis of white agents’ portrayal of white children during the early stages of New Jersey’s State Board of Children’s Guardians. Nonetheless, my analysis demonstrates that, influenced by the racialization of crime, poverty, labor, childhood, and motherhood, white Progressive reformers adopted racialized perspectives towards Black families, driven by their perception of the state as a surrogate parent. Due to their racialized views of what constituted a proper home, caseworkers overlooked strong alternative community forms of care such as mutual aid and kinship care.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, 1929-2024

Files in This Item:
File Description SizeFormat 
PAINE-ISABEL-THESIS.pdf1.76 MBAdobe PDF    Request a copy

Items in Dataspace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.