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210 pp., 5.5 x 8.5, notes, bibl., index

ISBN  978-1-4696-2259-0
Published: February 2015

System Kids

Adolescent Mothers and the Politics of Regulation

By Lauren J. Silver

System Kids considers the daily lives of adolescent mothers as they negotiate the child welfare system to meet the needs of their children and themselves. Often categorized as dependent and delinquent, these young women routinely become wards of the state as they move across the legal and social borders of a fragmented urban bureaucracy. Combining critical policy study and ethnography, and drawing on current scholarship as well as her own experience as a welfare program manager, Lauren Silver demonstrates how social welfare "silos" construct the lives of youth as disconnected, reinforcing unforgiving policies and imposing demands on women the system was intended to help. As clients of a supervised independent living program, they are expected to make the transition into independent adulthood, but Silver finds a vast divide between these expectations and the young women's lived reality.

Digging beneath the bureaucratic layers of urban America and bringing to light the daily experiences of young mothers and the caseworkers who assist them, System Kids illuminates the ignored work and personal ingenuity of clients and caseworkers alike. Ultimately reflecting on how her own understanding of the young women has changed in the years since she worked in the same social welfare program that is the focus of the book, Silver emphasizes the importance of empathy in research and in the formation of welfare policies.

About the Author

Lauren J. Silver is assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University-Camden.


“Vividly brings to life the hopes, frustrations, and reality of how the [Supervised Independent Living] program functions for both clients and workers.”
--Women’s Review of Books

“A powerful example of feminist ethnography at its best. . . . Among its many strengths are its accessibility, presentation of multiple perspectives, and a strong systemic critique.”
--Journal of Women and Social Work

“An intimate and intense account of teenage mothers navigating the complexities and paradoxes of welfare bureaucracy.”
--Gender & Society

“Creatively juxtaposes these two positionalities--care provider and care recipient--calling into question the assumed power dynamic of controlling, middle level administrative case managers and passive social service recipient.”

"Lauren Silver writes about young mothers' experiences navigating child welfare systems with detailed intimacy.  Silver's previous experience as a social services program manager alongside her close and insightful scholarly observations and analysis challenge us to reimagine what our systems can be. I hope her challenges and suggestions will be read widely and taken up by youth policy workers, analysts, and theorists."
--Wanda Pillow, University of Utah

"Beautifully written and meticulously researched, System Kids is an outstanding account of young mothers caught up in the child welfare system. Lauren Silver shows how these mothers' lives crisscross a variety of state arenas--from systems of welfare to health care to education to mental health to criminal justice. In the process, Silver reveals how social power operates through a complex matrix of gender, race, class, and age divisions that deepen the culture of fear surrounding these women. She also exposes how the young women develop complex strategies to negotiate among the different, and often contradictory, demands placed on them by these public institutions. System Kids is a rare achievement: it combines insightful social analysis with innovative policy recommendations, while remaining close to--and thoroughly honest about--young mothers' lived experiences."
--Lynne Haney, New York University

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