Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Heide Castañeda, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kevin Yelvington, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Tara Deubel, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Mary Armstrong, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John Robst, Ph.D.


child protection, political economy, poverty, race, street-level bureaucrats


‘Child safety’ has become a central concept of the modern child welfare system, an institution whose purpose is to protect children from abuse and neglect. What safety means and how it is best accomplished, however, are highly contested and characterized by definitional ambiguity, inconsistent bureaucratic interpretation, and operational variability. Situating this research within the anthropology of the state, the purpose of the current study is to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which the state enacts power in matters of the family and childrearing through the child welfare system, casting a critical lens on the strategies used in the name of child protection. By critically interrogating these processes, this study explores the implications that the emphasis on child safety and the methods that are considered justified in its name have for the broader well-being of children and families, and imagines alternative possibilities for improving the welfare of children.

Through the use of qualitative and ethnographic methods, inclusive of interviews, focus groups, participant observation, and analysis of bureaucratic documents, this research examines how child safety is constructed, understood, and operationalized by Florida’s child welfare agencies, and how conceptions of safety promoted by the state compare with the experiences of children and families coming into contact with the system. The project explores diverse perspectives and experiences of front-line workers and system-involved youth, in conjunction with official state discourse as laid out in legislation and policy, to gain further insight into what is meant by child safety, how its conception might vary across different communities and populations, and how ideas about gender, class, and race influence the ways in which risks to child safety are interpreted by the state. The use of ethnographic methods employed in this study produce a contextualized understanding of how the state operates in a particular setting, which help to illuminate larger processes of state power.

Findings reveal the ways in which state intervention via the child welfare system privileges particular definitions and ideologies of the family, parenting, and child safety that are culturally-specific and class-based, resulting in a system that explicitly targets and further destabilizes marginalized families (e.g. the poor, racial minorities, and single mothers). The analysis, furthermore, sheds light on the disjunctures and contradictions that arise through the state enterprise, as well as the implications these have for how the state is experienced and navigated, both by those who work within and those who come into contact with the child welfare system. Recommendations are provided for how the system could better ensure the safety of children by addressing structural inequalities and increasing families’ access to resources.