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Research Seminar: Mical Raz

November 20, 2019 @ 12:00 pm - 2:00 pm

Mical Raz, MD, PhD, is the Charles E. and Dale L. Phelps Professor in Public Policy and Health, and an Associate Professor of History and Medicine at the University of Rochester. She is also a practicing hospitalist at the Strong Memorial Hospital. She is the author of What’s Wrong with the Poor? Psychiatry, Race, and the War on Poverty (UNC Press, 2013)  and The Lobotomy Letters: The Making of American Psychosurgery (Rochester, 2013), and her new book, tentatively titled Abusive Policies, is under contract with UNC Press.

Talk Title: “Abusive Policies: Race, Class and the Making of American Child Abuse”


Abusive Policie: Race, Class and the Making of American Child Abuse examines the shaping of child abuse policy from the late 1960s and onwards, questioning the creation of a system that ostensibly viewed abuse as an illness, but all too often responded with the highly-punitive and destructive step of removing children from their homes. This book examines how child abuse policy moved away from a focus on poverty and other social inequalities as risk factors for child abuse, and instead, highlighted the intra-psychic roots of abusive behavior. At the same time, interventions moved away from support for struggling families, to an emphasis on reporting and investigating allegations of abuse, broadly construed. Contemporary views of race, class and gender played a powerful role in this debate, shaping perceptions of child abuse in ways that were often directly at odds with the available data at hand. Abusive Policies maps the history of our current child abuse policy and its racial and socioeconomic ills. Ultimately, this book shows what is at stake when our society willfully ignores social and racial inequities, instead focusing myopically on the role of the individual. This choice contributed to the creation of a child welfare system that disproportionately targets poor and minority families. These already disadvantaged families bear the brunt of coercive family intervention, yet their children are no safer, and often less safe as a direct consequence of intervention.

The introduction begins in the 1960s, with the “discovery” of child abuse by pediatricians, and their interrelations with policy-makers and legislatures, leading to the development of mandatory reporting laws in all fifty states, as well as medical guidelines for physicians caring for at-risk children. In the first chapter, the focus shifts to the development of the Child Abuse Prevenetion and Treatment Act in the early 1970s, and examines the intentional efforts of Senator Walter Mondale (D-Minnesota) and others to circumvent discussions of race and class. It introduces the advocacy group Parents Anonymous and its role in portraying child abuse as a scourge of white middle class mothers, a depiction completely incongruent with both contemporary and current data on child abuse. Chapter Two contrasts the “class-free” “color blind” approach to child abuse, with what experts were finding in their research, and examines the work of child welfare researchers across the political spectrum, and their advocacy for addressing social determinants of health as a method to reduce the maltreatment of children. It questions why the advice of experts was ignored, in favor of the more palatable yet less accurate approach propounded by Parents Anonymous and other activists. Chapter Three focuses on the rise and subsequent expansions of mandatory reporting policies, questioning why a policy devoid of empirical data became so well- accepted, highlighting the unintended consequences of increased reporting. Chapter Four focuses on the disproportionate removal of children of color from their homes, and evaluates how child removal became a legacy of child welfare interventions. In particular, it contrasts between public outcry concerning the over-removal of Native American children from their homes, with the relative acceptance of the over-removal of urban African American children, a disparity evident to this day. It concludes with the passage of the 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. Chapter Five focuses on two key episodes in the 1980s. I revisit famed child sexual abuse day care scandals, particularly the McMartin trial, and highlight the continuities, including with involved individuals, funding streams and approach, with the work of Parents Anonymous, explored earlier in the book.  I contrast it with the panic over “crack babies,” and the use of child abuse statutes to confine and punish pregnant women who are addicted to drugs. Both episodes demonstrate the racial politics of child abuse interventions; neither resulted in increased safety for vulnerable children.

The book ends by questioning the legacy of child welfare policies since the late 1960s. A deliberate attempt to avoid implicating socioeconomic status and race in child abuse led to the creation of our current child welfare system, which disproportionately intrudes into the lives of low income and minority families. I emphasize the importance of recognizing the complex history of our current child welfare system in any attempts at future reform. I argue for a complete reform of our child welfare system, which would separate child abuse investigations from the provision of services.

For a copy of the pre-circulated paper — Chapter 5 “Child Abuse in Black and White: Two Moral Panics in the 1980s”  — please send a note to mark.solovey@utoronto.ca.


November 20, 2019
12:00 pm - 2:00 pm
Event Category:


IHPST Common Room
VC 303, Victoria College