My dissertation, “Care by Conviction: Surreal Life in California’s Mental Health Courts,” examines how people positioned across stark power divides — such as professionals in the criminal justice system and incarcerated people, public mental health clinicians and their patients, and state-sponsored social workers and their indigent clients — come to care for one another in contexts where state law hangs the provision of social services on social control. I ethnographically explore these dynamics within mental health courts, criminal courts that aim to remove incarcerated people who have been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders from jail and, instead, provide them mental health care through the courtroom. Most of these people are homeless and lack alternatives to the social and medical services provided by the court. Here, mental health care is backed by criminal law: clinicians are court staff, “defendants” are called “court clients,” judges aim to engage clients therapeutically in court, and clients’ deviations from court-developed treatment plans can result in legal sanction, such as reincarceration. In other words, these are institutions that collapse social roles, such that agents of the carceral state are also social service and mental health care providers, tasked with both caring for and punishing people who have been incarcerated, carry psychiatric diagnoses, and lack homes. Based on two years of fieldwork in two mental health courts, their attached mental health clinics, and homeless encampments in the San Francisco Bay Area, “Care by Conviction” investigates how relationships between court professionals and clients are forged, fostered, and, sometimes forgotten. In suggesting that these relationships are crucial sites of statecraft, I interrogate a form of state power that operates affectively and whose indeterminacies cannot be accounted for by reasoned strategy alone.
My research focuses on the encounter between young women, mental health care, and the state in Kentucky. Through archival work and ethnographic fieldwork at a Louisville-based child welfare agency, I examine the roles of religion, Medicaid, and staff in delivering “trauma-informed care” to young women removed from their homes. The first part of this project concerns the stories the agency tells about itself to its staff during new employee orientation and professional development trainings, including day-long retreats, monthly crisis management reviews, and staff meetings. I am interested in how staff and organizational leadership understand the roles of families and the state in their day-to-day work with adolescent women, and how they conceptualize their own roles in the child welfare system. In particular, I am interested in understanding how staff embody hope and belief in their daily tasks, as well as how the agency plans to handle the changes in healthcare laws and growing foster care rolls while maintaining a focus on hope and mission.