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Spatializing Child Welfare: Edelman Children's Court and the Geography of Juvenile Dependency


This dissertation combines a spatial analysis with the traditional ethnography by examining the design of the Edmund Edelman Children's Court with the practice of juvenile dependency law in Los Angeles. In each chapter, I connect the design plans of the courthouse with my ethnographic and archival research on dependency law to understand the various expressions of power that deconstruct protection from black and nonwhite families. Chapter 2, "The Prison Within Dependency Law," tracks the discursive bifurcation between innocence/whiteness and culpability/blackness enacted by the network of carceral spaces in the courthouse and the history of the court's construction. In this chapter, I argue that in so graciously expanding the scope of law and the spaces of law to accommodate the minor as a legal subject, the very discursive logic that eventually ensnares minors and parents in the criminal justice system is mobilized. Chapter 3, "Protection through Punishment," examines the normative domesticity conjured in the design of the monitored visitation rooms and administration of social services through juvenile dependency law for its raced implications. This chapter explores the masking of punishment in dependency law as "protection" and "guidance", both in the set-up of monitored visitation spaces in the court and in the well-intentioned way courtrooms dole out access to social services. I argue that there is a classed and raced domesticity being materialized in these spaces that, first, is not the norm in lower-than-middle-class homes, and second, is experienced by black and nonwhite families as a jail for the sheer fact that it is so heavily surveiled. Chapter 4, "The Best Interests of the Child," looks at the expansive children's play space in the court alongside the court's unflinching focus on the best interests of the child. In this chapter, I draw connections between the children's playspaces in the courthouse to the best interests of the child paradigm at play in the court that is determined by the stringent regulations of Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1996 and the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act in 1994. I argue that the sentimentality around children and childhood obscures the "post-racial" discourses of privilege and universalism through which dependency and criminal law work in collusion. In sum, this project finds that the cheery dressings of Edelman Children's Court are not just the creative contexts, but the cog and continuation, of an American prison society directed toward black and nonwhite communities.

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