Protecting Children, Preserving Families: Moral Conflict and Actuarial Science in a Problem of Contemporary Governance



The United States Child Protective Services system is shaped by the unresolved tension between the aims of child protection and family preservation. Since the 1980s, child welfare experts have recommended the use of risk assessment tools in the hopes of standardizing the decisions made by social workers and judges. In this article, I show that despite their bureaucratic appearance, the tools implemented lacked a clear directive, allowing unresolved value conflicts to be papered over by the appearance of technocratic regularity. I argue that this case not only exemplifies Max Weber's classic distinction between problems of social science and moral value in the creation of social policy, but also raises questions about the effects and uses of audit technologies in situations of ongoing moral conflict.