Pathology Logics

S. Lisa Washington | April 16, 2023

Every year, thousands of marginalized parents become ensnared in the family regulation system, an apparatus more commonly referred to as the child welfare system. In prior work, I examined how the coercion of domestic violence survivors in the family regulation system perpetuates harmful knowledge production and serves to legitimize family regulation intervention. This Article focuses on another logic deeply embedded in the family regulation system: the pathologizing of impoverished and racialized groups. Scholars have discussed the pathologizing of marginalized groups to describe a host of different phenomena. In this Article, “pathology logic” refers to a logic that produces notions of individual responsibility, renders the structural conditions of poverty and racism invisible, and obscures resistance. Three key elements contribute to this logic. One, the policing of emotions by family regulation actors through ostensibly neutral behavioral descriptors. Two, the coercion of mental health evaluations and treatment that produce a formal clinical label. Three, the exacerbation and exploitation of emotional distress linked to family regulation intervention. The pathology label legitimizes intrusive state intervention into marginalized families’ lives and reifies their subjugation.

This piece makes three significant contributions to the ongoing debate over the family regulation system’s role in the carceral state. First, it provides a definition of pathology logics in “child welfare.” Next, it examines the procedural and institutional drivers of pathology logics. Finally, this Article traces the language of pathology logics by showing how ostensibly neutral behavioral descriptors are used to police emotions and label marginalized families “deficient.” Pathology logics distract from the structures that render families in marginalized communities hyper-visible to the state, conceal the interconnectedness of carceral systems, obscure the destabilizing effects of poverty and racism, and erase the expertise of directly impacted families by equating resistance with pathology. Pathology constructs who is and is not “capable” of parenting without state intervention. Instead of centering incremental reform, this Article concludes by highlighting ways to shift power.