Jessamine Chan’s debut novel, The School for Good Mothers, had the kind of release writers dream about. The day the book—a dystopian fiction following a “bad” mother who has come to the attention of Child Protective Services (CPS)—was published in January 2022, the former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager chose it for her Today show book club, saying, “This book is every mother’s worst nightmare written in exquisitely beautiful prose.” It received rave reviews in The New Yorker (“a bleak and scalding satire of the cult of selfless caregiving”) and Vogue (“picks up the mantle of writers like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, with their skin-crawling themes of surveillance, control, and technology”) and hit The New York Times’s best-seller list. Barack Obama named it one of his favorite books of 2022.

It helped that Chan was telling the kind of “bad” mother story that even wealthy white women like Hager could see themselves in. The School for Good Mothers follows a thirty-nine-year-old Chinese American woman named Frida as she faces the consequences of a “very bad day” on which she left her eighteen-month-old daughter, Harriet, home alone. Stressed about missing a work deadline, her nerves frayed from Harriet’s “relentless” crying—the toddler had an ear infection—Frida walked out of her Philadelphia row house in an insomnia-induced haze, intending to grab an iced latte. More than two hours later, the police called: “We have your daughter.”

Frida’s very bad day came after two very bad years. She hadn’t wanted to move to Philadelphia, but her white husband, Gust, took a job that uprooted them from New York. Then, soon after their daughter’s birth, Gust left her for a much younger woman—a Pilates instructor named Susanna. His paltry child support payments have rendered infeasible Frida’s plans to stay home for the first two years of Harriet’s life.

We’re told that Frida holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature from Ivy League schools and had some sort of fulfilling career in New York, but Chan doesn’t elaborate on her ambitions or interests before her pregnancy—an odd choice in a novel that dramatizes the ways we tend to see mothers only as mothers. Frida’s parents—retired economics professors who live in tony Evanston, Illinois—are willing to extend financial support, “but she can’t ask, would hate herself if she did.”

Instead, with their help she has landed a grunt job at Wharton summarizing faculty research for a digest. Her boss lets her work from home three days a week, when she has custody. She spends the rest of the week seething over Susanna’s maternal ease and her opinions about cloth diapers and plant-based diaper creams—the Instagrammable stuff of momfluencing.

Chan carefully calibrates Frida’s lapse in judgment to be minimally harmful for Harriet—she’s physically unscathed, aside from a leaking diaper and a voice hoarse from crying—and maximally understandable, the sort of thing any mother might be tempted to do under the circumstances. Frida reviews her crime:

What she can’t explain, what she doesn’t want to admit, what she’s not sure she remembers correctly: how she felt a sudden pleasure when she shut the door and got in the car that took her away from her mind and body and house and child.

Arianna Rebolini opened her review in Oprah Daily with a rundown of Frida-like moments of her own, including “the morning I took the garbage out and didn’t rush back inside, instead enjoying a beat of quiet solitude while my 2-year-old son sat alone in the living room.” Of course, there is a difference between “a beat of quiet solitude” and two-plus hours away.

In the novel, CPS has been “getting more aggressive” in its surveillance of and punishments for child maltreatment. While the agency prepares its case against Frida for neglect and abandonment, Harriet is sent to live with Gust and Susanna full-time, mercifully avoiding foster care. After removing the toddler, the agency installs cameras in Frida’s house, gathering evidence of her “feelings of resentment and anger, a stunning lack of remorse, a tendency toward self-pity.”

Then comes the turn: a family court judge sentences Frida to a year at a “rehabilitation” facility, the titular school, where she must “demonstrate her capacity for genuine maternal feeling and attachment, hone her maternal instincts, show she can be trusted.” If she fails, her parental rights will be terminated, and she will not be allowed to see Harriet again.

The mothers must prove themselves by parenting robotic replicas of their removed children—AI-trained dolls whose cries they are taught to soothe with measured hugs, whose ears they must fill with a constant chatter of “motherese.” The women are evaluated on how wholly they devote themselves to a specific vision of parenting, in which a mother shows she is attuned to her child to the exclusion of all other thoughts. A woman like Susanna might pass these tests, which seem designed to measure how well women adhere to an upper-middle-class “maternal hard line” of communally sanctioned child-rearing choices. So could the “playground mothers” who once judged Frida for reading The New Yorker instead of playing with Harriet, and whom she had tried to channel when meeting with a psychologist and a social worker before her day in family court.


The novel succeeds as a chilling thought experiment, imagining a world where technology has enabled the state to remold women to fit an upper-crust standard of motherhood. As Rebolini writes, The School for Good Mothers “forces the reader to contend with an uncomfortable question: If the state were to quantify what it means to be a good mother, would I pass the test?”

The thing is, the state already quantifies this, deciding who gets to parent their children. In focusing on the pressures privileged mothers inflict on one another instead of the societal forces that actually make families vulnerable to CPS intervention, Chan turns a real state system into a metaphor that encourages us to misconstrue whose parental rights are precarious. The novel may cause more affluent readers to reflect on how they might be judged for their parenting choices, but it doesn’t help us understand or feel compassion toward marginalized women for whom motherhood is already dystopian.

Kelley Fong’s new book, Investigating Families: Motherhood in the Shadow of Child Protective Services, crucially illuminates the perspectives of women tangled in the system’s web. Fong is a sociologist, and Investigating Families is based on rare firsthand access to CPS investigations and in-depth interviews with dozens of impacted mothers—the kind of mothers upper-middle-class readers don’t typically find relatable. Americans who live in well-off, majority-white neighborhoods might think about CPS only when fictions like The School for Good Mothers lead them to imagine themselves caught up in the system, or when they come across news stories about horrific child abuse cases. Fong writes:

We see these headlines, we hear about children who die from abuse or neglect—nearly two thousand each year, according to federal data—and it’s human nature to want to do everything we can to rescue children from that fate.

States and counties across the country began using CPS agencies to investigate allegations of maltreatment in the 1960s with the aim of protecting children from extreme abuse. Today CPS agencies investigate the families of more than three million children each year. Via hotline calls, mostly from professionals like physicians and teachers who are mandated by law to report suspected abuse and neglect, these agencies receive allegations concerning more than twice that number. (About half of all allegations are screened out, immediately failing to meet legal definitions of maltreatment.) Recent research estimates that one in three American children will experience a CPS investigation before turning eighteen, and that half of all Black children will. The real subjects of these investigations, Fong notes, are mothers—the primary caregivers in 80 percent of cases.

Under 20 percent of children subject to CPS investigations are found to have been abused or neglected. In other words, Fong writes, “the state is investigating a large and growing share of parents who—according to the investigating agency itself—do not pose a clear and present danger to their children.” We might imagine that danger to be physical abuse, but intentionally inflicted injuries made up only 16 percent of all substantiated victimizations in 2021. Instead, neglect constituted the vast majority—76 percent.

The United States Children’s Bureau explains that definitions of neglect—which vary by state—generally include

the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.

Poverty makes it harder to keep children fed, clothed, housed, and cared for, and poverty is often seen as neglectful by mandated reporters and CPS investigators. Of course, children can suffer real harm due to such circumstances. But rather than address systemic failures like our country’s inadequate safety net, the government has designed CPS to deal only with the harm inflicted by caregivers themselves.

The most extreme decision that CPS can make is to forcibly remove children from their families. Only about 6 percent of investigations result in a child being transferred into foster care, typically because of neglect. To regain custody, parents must follow a CPS-determined plan that may include parenting classes, substance-use rehabilitation, and therapy. Even in cases that don’t result in child removal, a knock on the door by CPS heralds the beginning of a nightmare.


In most child welfare scholarship, such cases represent “little more than data points added to a mounting total.” Investigating Families humanizes this data by focusing on the everyday horror of CPS involvement, reconstructing and analyzing several women’s experiences of having their parenting scrutinized and threatened by a state agency that has the power to take their children away. CPS may see these investigations as routine, but for mothers, Fong writes, “the experience can’t be pushed aside so easily, precisely because CPS represents the agency poised to brand them bad mothers, to take away what they treasure most.”

Fong’s research reveals that the fear of being reported to CPS causes many mothers to hesitate to seek assistance, isolating themselves from social services providers. When mothers are investigated, they often withdraw further, seeing systems that might help them—medical clinics, their children’s schools, welfare offices—as untrustworthy and the government writ large as out to get them.

Fong is an assistant professor at the University of California at Irvine. She began her study of CPS while completing her Ph.D. in sociology and social policy at Harvard, and her fieldwork was conducted in Rhode Island and Connecticut. These are, she writes, “small, politically liberal states that have expanded Medicaid, offer relatively robust social services, and provide higher welfare benefits than most others.” Still, nearly all the mothers Fong describes in Investigating Families are struggling financially. In Rhode Island, where she spoke with women who had not (yet) been investigated by CPS and those who had, “the vast majority reported incomes below (usually well below) the federal poverty line.” In Connecticut, where she gained hard-won access to CPS offices in New Haven and the rural Northeast Corner, the mothers Fong met with as investigations unfolded had a median monthly household income of $1,790, or $21,480 annually. (For a family of four in 2018, the year Fong conducted her research, the federal poverty line was $25,100.) In both states, the mothers were more or less evenly split among white, Black, and Latina.

Fong found that even those who had never been investigated by CPS felt they had to be vigilant against its looming threats. The Rhode Island mothers Fong interviewed lived in communities saturated by CPS involvement, such as the south side of Providence. Their own childhood experiences with the system, as well as what they had seen and heard from family and friends and neighbors, made them feel vulnerable to CPS investigation—even if they weren’t facing unstable housing, domestic violence, or mental health or substance-use issues that would open them up to further scrutiny. “As anyone at all could call CPS, even exemplary motherhood couldn’t fully safeguard against reports,” Fong explains. “Others could misjudge things—how mothers interacted with their children, for instance—in ways that might lead to a report.”

Indeed, these mothers “find their parenting scrutinized from all directions.” Fong’s examples highlight the power differentials involved and the attendant increased threat:

Judgmental comments—a visiting nurse’s admonishment about a baby’s too-tight T-shirt or health care providers lecturing about the perils of juice—sting, conveying mothers’ diminished parental autonomy.

Most of the investigations that Fong studied in Connecticut ended with CPS deciding that the children were safe at home. In many cases, investigators suspected even before knocking on mothers’ doors that the allegations would be unfounded. But for the mothers themselves, a first encounter with CPS was terrifying, flooding them with fears that their children would be removed.

Take Jazmine, a twenty-three-year-old Black and Puerto Rican mother in New Haven who was reported for disciplining her two-year-old son by smacking him on the hand (Fong uses pseudonyms for all of the research participants). Her immediate response to learning that she would be reported to CPS by her housing case manager—a mandated reporter who was helping Jazmine find an affordable apartment because her housing subsidy was expiring—was, “They’re gonna take my child.” She told Fong, “I’m scared because nobody listens to me, because nobody takes my word for anything.”

Jazmine’s CPS investigator, Fred, didn’t think that she was physically abusing her son and felt confident that the allegations would be shown to be unfounded. And yet he would need to visit Jazmine at home three more times over the course of six weeks to complete his investigation, which also involved invasive mining of information about Jazmine’s “employment, income, criminal legal system involvement, domestic violence, mental health, substance use.” CPS might not have installed cameras in her apartment, but Jazmine was indeed being heavily surveilled. Throughout, she felt that her right to mother her son was on the line.

Parents technically have the right to turn CPS investigators away from their homes and to decline to participate in questioning. But exercising these rights can have serious consequences—investigators may immediately petition family court to order that children be removed. Indeed, Fong found that “with CPS’s power to remove children, mothers typically opted for the path of least resistance.”

One mother in New Haven, a Black woman named Tatiana, was reported to CPS by the father of her four-month-old son shortly after they broke up, in an act of retribution. Tatiana’s ex alleged that she had left the baby with an “unknown babysitter.” When Tatiana admitted to the CPS investigator, Chanell, that she hadn’t yet built her baby’s crib, Chanell sternly warned her against co-sleeping—a potentially dangerous practice that more privileged mothers regularly engage in, write about, and promote—and said she would return the next morning. Tatiana found the experience “nerve-racking” and stayed up until 2 AM building the crib. “I know how to be cooperative, because, I mean, she does have the power to take your kids,” she told Fong. She wasn’t aware that CPS couldn’t actually remove her baby just because of co-sleeping.

In both Tatiana’s and Jazmine’s cases, investigators found that the initial maltreatment allegations were unsubstantiated. But Jazmine was subjected to continuing CPS surveillance and made to participate in substance-use counseling and parenting classes because Fred construed Jazmine’s needs—for stable income and housing, for childcare support as a single mother, for assistance managing stress and the ramifications of the trauma she had faced as a child herself—as putting her at risk for future child maltreatment, and decided to keep her case open.

Jazmine could have used material help in the form of another apartment subsidy or more robust welfare benefits. (She received less than $500 a month.) That kind of assistance, in fact, would have done more to prevent a future scenario in which Jazmine might physically abuse her son. Poverty is strongly correlated not just with neglect but with physical abuse. The constant struggle to meet material needs increases stress and family tensions, making it more likely that parents will lash out at their children.

Often, mandated reporters like health care workers and teachers call CPS not because they feel that children are being willfully harmed but because they assume the agency can assist poor families with situations that are beyond their capacity. Sabrina, a divorced Black mother of three in New Haven, actually agreed to have the hospital where she was being treated for breast cancer call CPS to see if they could help her secure housing—her family was living in a relative’s windowless, rodent- and roach-infested attic. But CPS cannot provide material assistance, like rental vouchers, to families. Instead, Fong writes, it primarily prescribes therapeutic services like the ones pressed on Jazmine:

Investigators readily referred families to myriad programs aimed at fixing families’ mindsets and behaviors: substance use treatment, intensive in-home parenting support, family therapy, domestic violence counseling, services for children’s behavioral health needs, and more.

In Sabrina’s case, CPS’s focus on reforming parents’ faults colored how the investigator, Ria, came to see the family’s needs. A few months after Ria made her initial investigation and closed the case, Sabrina’s health deteriorated—her cancer had spread, and she underwent emergency surgery. She had a hard time climbing the stairs to the attic. The hospital again called CPS seeking help for the family; Sabrina’s own daughter also called. Ria didn’t threaten to remove Sabrina’s children or subject her to useless therapeutic services, but she became more “judgmental,” Fong writes, “saying that Sabrina could have saved money while living in the attic rent-free,” ignoring that Sabrina’s disability benefits scarcely covered necessities.

The myth that “bad” parenting is primarily due to personal decision-making undergirds the laws—and politics—that govern and fund child welfare, mandating that CPS focus on prescribing services to improve how individual parents raise their children. Fong touches on the history of the system only briefly, but she does comment on two important events that got us here. The first was the “rediscovery” of child abuse in the early 1960s, sparked by the pediatric radiologist C. Henry Kempe’s study of what he called “battered child syndrome,” based on X-rays of children that revealed physical injuries he deemed nonaccidental. “Battered child syndrome” led to widespread concerns over a supposed silent epidemic of physical child abuse, and by 1967 all fifty states had passed laws mandating that certain professionals report suspected abuse to state CPS authorities.

The second was the enactment in 1974 of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which allocated funding for state CPS agencies. Senator Walter Mondale, the bill’s primary sponsor, purposely downplayed the known links between poverty and child maltreatment in order to secure CAPTA’s passage at a time when antipoverty programs were politically unpopular. Instead, Mondale embraced the idea promulgated by Kempe and others that parents of all classes abused and neglected their children because of their own psychological problems. The pathologizing—and individualizing—of child maltreatment was cemented in CAPTA and continues to constrict CPS’s role and responses.

As Fong writes toward the end of Investigating Families, “When our tool is the CPS hammer, everything becomes a child maltreatment nail.” We would do better by children and families if we were to widen our understanding of what actually causes adversity for families. Fong argues that doing so

implicates a wide array of others, including but not limited to the police, schools, and juvenile justice facilities that criminalize children; the corporations that spew toxins and exploit parents’ labor; the landlords who neglect their properties; and the politicians who make all of this possible.

Defining child maltreatment in this way “leads us to ask what about society must change—rather than what about individual parents must change—to keep children safe and healthy.” For instance, the pandemic-era expansion of the Child Tax Credit not only alleviated childhood poverty*; research attests that these payments were associated with a reduction in reported child maltreatment. Reinstating the fully expanded Child Tax Credit and making it permanent could thus go a long way toward making children safer.

Buried in the methodology section of Investigating Families is a note about one of Fong’s study participants that encapsulates the importance of this kind of research:

Mothers repeatedly told me they liked the idea that their participation could help others…. Helen said that it was important to tell the “big-suited people” what things were like.

Investigating Families will likely never garner the kind of attention that The School for Good Mothers has enjoyed. But it should. We would do well to examine why we continue to ignore the horror that is unfolding for millions of families in America each year, why we are reluctant to listen when women like Helen, Jazmine, Tatiana, and Sabrina tell us what things are like.