Amber Armstrong


J.D./Ph.D. Candidate

My research speaks to the histories of law, childhood, family, and institutions in the United States. My dissertation focuses on children’s reformatories, or “houses of refuge,” in the mid-Atlantic region and argues that their creation (beginning in the 1820s) and the ensuing litigation about their authority over parents and children, put children at the center of states’ rapidly expanding criminal law systems under the guise of parens patriae and facilitated the rise of penitentiaries and their sister institutions.

My project is about people. For example, it is about the children who lived, worked, and played at (and sometimes wreaked havoc on) reformatories. It is also about the law—the doctrines, statutes, and new arguments that parents, superintendents, local officials, and state politicians wielded. Finally, it is about new administrative forms of government that emerged from partnerships between cities, states, and religious and philanthropic societies. Pulling these subjects of inquiry together, my work aims to enrich our understanding of the United States from the founding through the Civil War and also trace the impact of legal changes that reverberate in both criminal law and family law today. 

Committee Members: Kathleen Brown (Advisor), Sally Gordon, Sarah Gronningsater 


B.A., summa cum laude, University of Oklahoma (2015)

Courses Taught

University of Pennsylvania, Graduate Teaching Assistant: Deciphering America (Fall 2019)

Selected Publications

"It's time to get rid of reform schools," Washington Post, April 22, 2019.