On August 27, 2020, we published “‘Hansel and Gretel’ in LA County” by Melissa Chadburn. The title we came up with, I realized only later, was an unconscious homage to Iphigenia in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm’s great book about a murder trial involving a child custody battle that took place in Queens. There is a genuine thematic link, in fact, with Chadburn’s story—which, though based on her empirical research into welfare services investigations of child deaths, also draws on the mythic roots of the violence and horror that occur inside families.
Chadburn’s particular focus, sharpened by her own experience of foster care, is on the children who become victims under supposed government supervision. As she memorably puts it in her essay: “If privatized foster care is the new interpretation of [the ancient legal doctrine of] parens patriae, the state, in place of the king, has turned out to be a very negligent parent.”
Raised mostly in Los Angeles, Chadburn entered foster care when she was fifteen. In an earlier essay for us, “The Food of My Youth”—which went on to be chosen for The Best American Food Writing 2019—Chadburn related a part of that story: “There was abuse and there was resistance and there was a single parent trying her best, but her best wasn’t the same as Department of Children and Family Services’ best.” This week, via email, she told me another piece of it: “My ninth-grade journalism instructor was the mandated reporter who filed the child abuse report that ultimately got me into the foster care system. It’s likely thanks to her that I went on to teach and practice journalism myself.”
Although Chadburn writes fiction, she has been most prolific in her nonfiction output—contributing to, among others, the LA Times, Lit Hub, Tin House online, Buzzfeed, Jezebel, and The Paris Review. She has also taught creative writing at the University of California San Diego and journalism at Loyola Marymount University, and is now herself a doctoral student in writing at the University of Southern California, where David Treuer, another recent contributor to the Daily, is one of her professors; her adviser is Maggie Nelson.
“I’ve spent the last five years reporting on child fatalities within LA County’s foster care system,” she explained. “My creative dissertation will likely be something to do with this archive of redacted child fatality cases.”
She also has to submit a critical dissertation, and her archival research has made her something of an authority in this grim field. “Recently, I appeared in the Netflix docuseries, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, where I reported multiple failures in DCFS intervention in this particularly horrific case,” she said. “In March, when the documentary was released, it seemed all of a sudden everyone was talking about this thing that is the most important thing to me. I was surprised at how many people were able to engage with such difficult material.”
When the pandemic lockdown came, Chadburn’s concern shifted—first to the ways it had increased the dangers for children already at risk in the system, then to the threat that the government would use the economic crisis to outsource even more social services via privatization.
Political concerns are never far from Chadburn’s work. Back in the early 2000s, I learned while looking her up, she’d been a delegate at a Young Communist League conference and a member of the editorial collective of its magazine, Dynamic.
“Ha! Yes, I got involved with the YCL as a teenager, freshly emancipated from foster care and angry,” she said. “Luckily, I met a woman who was working on a public works jobs bill, so I found a place to put all this energy and excitement: lobbying and getting signatures on petitions.
“In my twenties, I got a job working for CPUSA,” she went on. “One of the actors who appeared in Salt of the Earth [a 1954 film about a miners’ strike in New Mexico, made by a writer, a producer, and a director who had all been blacklisted from Hollywood] had died and willed his vehicle to the CPUSA. So I drove it from Los Angeles to the headquarters on 23rd Street in Manhattan.”
She went on to work as a labor organizer, including for the SEIU (an experience she related in a previous piece for the Daily, “Counting to a Hundred”). But writing has proved to be her métier—“I’ve written ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil,” she said. Since she’s been both teacher and student, I wondered how far Chadburn felt writing can be taught.
“I’m wondering what people are really asking when they ask that question—or put more simply: Can good writing be taught,” she replied. “Whether or not someone finds a piece of writing good or not is entirely subjective—or influenced by people with privilege and power.
“I will say what can be taught is to look at what a particular text is doing,” she went on. “How are the words and sentences functioning, and in what ways can we elicit certain reactions or emotions from a reader. Yes, studying the way others have achieved those things, that can be taught.”