Leslie Paik, Trapped in a Maze: How social control institutions drive family poverty and inequality

Families often end up in contact with the child welfare system because of difficulties navigating NYC’s public systems to address family challenges. Trapped in a Maze by Leslie Paik follows NYC families as they navigate systems including child welfare, juvenile justice, health and mental health, courts, schools and public assistance.

Appointments swallowed days of parents’ lives, produced conflicting diagnoses and demands, and made work difficult, contributing to poverty. Among the 63 families she interviewed, more than half had dealt with 3-5 different city systems and 17% navigated 6 or more. Paik examined how families negotiated to get needs met or to extricate themselves from system monitoring. Here, she explains what she learned:

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: Most of my work has been on juvenile justice-related issues. How do people understand and experience these systems and processes? How do the court and court actors understand it? Where is the disconnect happening? I want to understand the implication of those misunderstandings.

I started to interview families with children in juvenile delinquency cases, and the study sort of ballooned to family involvement with many different systems with many different members of the family. These are intergenerational involvements due to poverty, racism, classism and sexism.

Q: Some of the families’ “mazes,” as you call it, are truly insane, like a family being involved with 17 different agencies. What did you notice as you observed families trying to navigate?

A: A lot of what I saw was a million little cuts. One kid was in a group home. He had an untreated mental health issue and couldn’t stay still. He also was being seriously abused by his father. When he saw his father, his dad was beating the shit out of him. With all of that happening, he violated curfew, which led to further delinquency involvement, which escalated from there. There were missed opportunities to intervene effectively.

I also saw that families’ past experiences were informing current ones, and so were other experiences in the many different systems that family members were involved in. We don’t think enough about all the different ways that past involvements impact current involvements.

One family in my study was system-involved for generations. The grandmother was taking care of the grandchildren, and she was in child welfare as a kid herself—her mom thought she was uncontrollable. This family’s trauma was untreated over generations and never fully addressed. It’s so normalized—the levels of pain that systems either create or exacerbate. So in some ways, families assume this is what happens with systems and they find ways to cope. Whether a system was punitive and therapeutic, it often caused pain for generations, in one of the most resource rich places in the world.

Q: What were some of the impacts on families?

A: No one truly asked parents what they wanted for their kid. In one family, the school was trying to force medication for a child with ADHD. The grandmother didn’t think he needed it but would go to the school if he forgot his medication in the morning. She said, “Otherwise they’ll ACS call on me.” On the flip side, we saw a therapist end treatment of a 5-year-old who had experienced sexual abuse because the child said he didn’t need it. So we see kids who are overmedicated and also kids who are not being treated for mental health needs enough. Parents felt like none of their voices were being heard by any institution, but they had no other option.

Police were also very present, definitely. We saw kids being racially profiled, and on the other hand, the police were also the first responders. With mental health issues, police can be called to take children to the hospitals, and we saw families use them that way. The mothers only knew to call the police in these situations and didn’t have an alternative.

Another consequence is that system navigation sets people back economically. They are running around everywhere to appointments and that makes it hard to work. The time they spent navigating all of these things, and managing the logistics of navigating, and the emotional and psychological impact – it was a lot. They often felt like, “Once I get past this I can work,” but then there was another thing.

Lastly, an impact was isolation. The families had lots of caseworkers trying to help them and they also had siblings, cousins, uncles and friends in the neighborhood who were equally embedded in these systems, but they still had a sense of isolation. Even though they had networks, they were not relying on them. They felt, “I don’t want people in my business,” or, “They have their own problems, I have to figure out mine.” Sometimes they felt shame. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, these systems have deep consequences that further marginalize people in our society.

Q: In the book, we see parents just totally confused. We also see people in systems unable to hold any coherent story about kids and families that have been involved with them for months or years. Can you talk about how that happens—and often led to escalating punishment?

A: In these hospitals, the doctors were super smart, and they were people of color committed to serving their communities. They even had patient advocates to help families. But each institution is fundamentally myopic. Their tasks and training are purely about health, or behavior, or safety, and that’s understandable, but they couldn’t see beyond that.

Staff on the front lines also don’t have time to work with families for hours and hours. It takes time to get to know families, and it takes flexibility to really help them. Yet no one sits with the family to really get to know them and, over time, holistically support them in meeting their needs.

Some parents would fight back and say, “I know myself better than you do.” They would question and challenge. That’s important. And there was always one or two staff that saw them. They would say, “At least I feel heard by this one person.” This meant a lot even if it didn’t materially change anything.

Q: What do you see as possible ways to address these issues?

A: I believe there can be a redefinition of what it means to coordinate support. The book Radical Help by Hilary Cottam is an amazing book. My policy recommendation is to read her book. She ran really amazing pilot programs to test out how systems can really put down their institutional barriers and truly be in collaboration with families.

We can think about “redefinition” in terms of increasing the people who are walking alongside families—what does that look like? For example, someone I know welcomed a Ukrainian refugee, so they welcomed the family and said, “We recognize the needs you have right now are overwhelming and we will be with you.” It was also through their church, so they had support from their community to help them.

Being with someone is about knowing that you can’t do everything for another person or family, but you can become someone who knows them, who accepts them, who doesn’t judge, who will be learning along the way. That takes being willing to love this family and to know where they’re coming from. It also takes being cognizant of the effects of intergenerational trauma and oppression. Ideally, it’s someone from the community who embodies that perspective. It also means that you have a wider community surrounding all of you with help when you need it.  

Q: What do you hope a reader will take from your book?

A: I want readers to recognize family efforts to stay afloat. It can seem like families are stuck in place, but the energy it takes to maintain that place is a lot. You can think about them as fallen heroes, like war heroes, to survive the child welfare system of New York City, and that’s just one institution. Then there’s the onslaught of it, the multiplier effect of having all of these institutions in your life.

Families are working really hard to provide for their children in ways many people don’t understand because we have the luxury not to do what they have to do to survive. There were a lot of times that I was sitting with families and thinking, “I feel really uncomfortable right now.” There were times that were stressful, and they were yelling. But at the same time, I could see the lengths they would go to just to get things like diapers or formula. These families have a deep resilience and tenacity and very strong bonds that we don’t recognize when we quantify parental skills as being about making a bunch of appointments.