Sociology and Social Policy, Harvard University
Cohort Six Fellow

Academic Mentor
Devah Pager
Professor, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard University Department of Sociology

Policy Mentor
Julie Wilson
Senior Lecturer in Social Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Research Interests
poverty and inequality; family life; child welfare; education; social networks; social services

Areas of Expertise

Child Welfare and Foster Care Systems, Economic Supports for Families, Families and Family Systems, K-12 Education and School Systems, Maternal Health, Longitudinal Data Analysis, Hierarchical Linear Modeling, Regression Modeling, Case Study Research, Ethnography, Grounded Theory, Mixed Methods, Formerly Incarcerated Individuals, Homeless Families and Young People, Low-Income Families and Individuals, Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups


Kelley Fong is a doctoral student in sociology and social policy, studying how low-income families interact with social policies, systems, and supports. Current projects focus on child welfare, school choice, and residential decision-making. She received her BA in history and American studies from Stanford University. Before beginning her doctoral studies, Kelley contributed to research on community college reforms at MDRC and worked on child welfare system reform efforts.


Protection from Child Protection: How Poor Urban Mothers Understand and Strategize Around the Child Welfare System

Involvement with the child welfare system is not uncommon for American children. In particular, poor families and communities are disproportionately vulnerable to this involvement, yet we know little about what the child welfare system’s substantial presence means for them. For poor mothers, the reach of child welfare may extend beyond direct system interactions, informing how they evaluate and access support for their families. Utilizing longitudinal qualitative interviews and ethnographic observations, this research explores the meaning and import of child welfare for poor urban mothers, both those with and without previous system interactions. Specifically, the study examines how poor mothers understand their risk of involvement, how they navigate relationships with social networks and social service providers to mitigate this risk, and the implications for their families’ well-being. Understanding mothers’ perceptions of child welfare risks is critical for social service and healthcare providers seeking to build trust and foster engagement to serve children and families more effectively.