Abstract: Failed Mothers and Risky Children: Social Work and Carceral Control of Criminalized Women (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

Failed Mothers and Risky Children: Social Work and Carceral Control of Criminalized Women

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Supreme Court, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Sandra Leotti, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY
Jennifer Muthanna, MSW
Ben Anderson-Nathe, PhD

Currently, 1.2 million women are under criminal-legal supervision in the United States. A disproportionate number of whom are poor, disabled, and racialized women. Further, it is estimated that over two-thirds are mothers. Maternal criminal-legal involvement leads to long-lasting disruptions in families and communities, and often forcible child removal and termination of parental rights. The criminal-legal system’s impact on families represents, “an unparalleled crisis” in the United States today. Current trends in child welfare and criminal-legal policy are part of long-standing colonial and heteropatriarchal ideals regarding motherhood and the family. This study joins the current critiques of the carceral state and examines how knowledge production in social work serves as a significant site through which the profession draws on carceral logics to construct criminalized mothers as “unfit.”


We conducted a critical discourse analysis of articles published in social work high impact journals from 2000-2018 (n=49). We performed a keyword search and located articles with an explicit focus on incarcerated/criminalized mothers. Analysis occurred on two levels consisting of a structural analysis to identify initial coding schema; and a detailed analysis of select articles. Detailed analysis attended to: context of text; surface of text; rhetorical means; content and ideological statements. These two levels of analysis lead to an overall synoptic analysis, or final assessment of the overall discourse.


Findings indicate that social work discourse capitalizes on the affective nature of both motherhood and childhood to engage in a form of carceral protectionism. Results reveal four discursive themes: over-reliance on theories of attachment; narratives of intergenerational crime; symbolic use of childhood; and hierarchy of motherhood. This discourse constructs the children of criminalized mothers as a priori defective and at risk, therefore as vulnerable and in need of protection. Furthermore, the persistent deployment of childhood as spectacle throughout the data produces an ontological slippage between mother and child; the risky child is the inevitable product of the risky mother. Escalated attention to risk obscures structural inequality and turns the failures of neoliberalism into the failures of individuals.


This study exposes the presence of carceral protectionism in social work knowledge production. Carceral protectionism involves protecting the innocent from the dangerous, and protecting people “for their own good.” From this vantage point, the children of criminalized women are deemed “innocent” and in need of protection from their “unfit” mothers. Consequently, the needs/rights of mothers are devalued in the name of protecting children from harm. In this way, discourses on vulnerability and innocence authorize punitive and coercive interventions. Ethically speaking, appeals to carceral protectionism are problematic for social work because they conceal larger questions regarding the underlying moral justifications that uphold the carceral state which deems it acceptable to lock Other people (i.e. not innocent) in cages. Social work must reject the dichotomy between innocence and guilt that justifies punitive treatment under the guise of protectionism. We suggest that social work engage an epistemology of abolition which centers a critique of history and the social conditions that construct certain bodies as dangerous and disposable.