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The incoming Biden administration may already be inundated with learned policy papers and dense reports about how to fix the child welfare system. Within the piles of proposals, however, one guiding principle could get nearly universal buy-in: Help state and local systems to stop confusing poverty with “neglect.”

There is already a vehicle — a bill proposed by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus — that would be a very good start, since the bill says exactly that, “Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect.”

Over 60% of cases that are substantiated involve neglect allegations alone, according to the most recent federal data, though a number of states with significant child welfare caseloads have “neglect only” substantiating rates of over 75%. Under most state laws and codes, a neglected child is typically a child who lacks proper or necessary care, or whose environment is inadequate. Studies have repeatedly found that a large percentage of children in foster care remain there because their families lack housing.

Poverty isn’t good for kids. But the way to fix that is to help their parents meet their basic needs. Help them with food, shelter, medical care and the cost of transportation. Help them pay for childcare so they can find and keep jobs. But most of these basics are far from routinely available when authorities launch child protection investigations.

Instead, it is typical to threaten parents with separation from their kids because of struggles the investigators have no tools to help them address. So instead, they take the kids and then demand that parents get some “parenting skills” training in order to get the kids back.

At the same time, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that providing families with basic needs saves money.

We seem to have a pathological need to pathologize families, instead of helping them with their obvious needs.

We’ve known it for decades. Take, for instance, Norman v. Johnson, a federal class action I worked on from 1989 until 1996. The suit challenged the Illinois’ removal of children from parents for reasons of poverty (homelessness, lack of food) and its simultaneous demand that, in order to get the children returned, the parents needed to get two- or three-bedroom apartments and prove they could “adequately support” their kids. In other words, the courts were ordering parents to stop being poor. And providing them no help to get out of poverty.

The lawsuit’s settlement requires families be provided with help to meet concrete needs, including cash and housing supports to prevent family separations and to facilitate reunification.

At Legal Services of New Jersey, advocacy for families with multi-faceted poverty-based needs has been shown to be extraordinarily effective in preventing family separation and the long-term foster care placements that are increasingly difficult and costly to resolve after a traumatic removal has occurred. 

Why is there so much resistance to embracing common sense? One study found that caseworkers, were so attuned to picking up psychological deficits that they failed to recognize that housing was at the root of so many family problems. I saw something similar during the Norman case.

When confronted at her deposition with the question of how to meet the presenting needs of James Norman, an unemployed former steelworker and a widower whose two school-aged girls had been removed from him because of an allegation of “inadequate food,” the Cook County child protective services agency director’s answer was a classic:

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“Well, at first, you just want to go buy him some food so he had something there in his refrigerator to feed the kids. But then you realize that there is a ‘etiology’ that explains why he doesn’t have food. So you need to do a psychological assessment so you are not just fixing the problem of the lack of food that day.”

Seriously? Yes, seriously. Good old “etiology.”

The same dynamic played out on a national scale in negotiations over the language of the landmark Family First Preventive Services Act. Early drafts of the bill included a year’s worth of help for families struggling to maintain housing. But that never made it into the final bill. Family First became less and less about helping parents cope with their urgent needs and more about helping mental health professionals keep their appointment schedules full, with federal taxpayer support.

So child protective workers typically come to homes armed with psychological assessment questionnaires, when what they should bring are housing vouchers and groceries.

We seem to have a pathological need to pathologize families, instead of helping them with their obvious needs. We have to get over this serious disorder, starting with a better diagnosis of our own problem.

Indeed, the current state of affairs actually deters parents who do need help from getting it. As Professor Kelly Fong has recently shown, the punitive hotline calling approach deters parents from seeking help for their cold or hungry or ailing kids.

Instead of built-in hurdles to helping families, we need a system built around an infusion of flexible dollars to be used for families’ concrete needs. Such dollars should be provided by community-based agencies, and not a child protection social worker sitting in judgment of a parent’s skills.

This is a tall order in a system that is set up to demonize parents at the expense of their children, and which has its roots in slavery, Jim Crow (the new Jane Crow and segregated, unequal systems of care and support, as Dorothy Roberts and others have eloquently explained).

The bill sponsored by Rep. Moore has the express purpose of preventing systems from separating children from their parents for reasons of poverty. It would require states and local systems to provide “services and benefits” instead of family separation in response to hotline calls based on poverty and requires states and local systems to amend any tools, policies and protocols that authorize poverty-based removals. 

Passage of this measure — together with rules, policies and guidance that help systems recognize poverty and address it with services and benefits — would provide a historically significant redirection of child welfare system energies away from using state powers to punish families for being poor. But child welfare can’t be divorced from children’s welfare. Children’s welfare can’t be separated from family welfare. 

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A Biden administration that gets back to basics — food, housing, childcare and some cash for necessities — could go a long way toward ending the tragedy of removing kids from loving homes simply because their moms or dads don’t have the means to provide for their kids’ basic needs. And that is the best way to truly protect America’s children.

Diane Redleaf
The Imprint News

This story originally appeared in The Imprint, a daily news publication dedicated to rigorous, in-depth journalism focused on families and the systems that impact their lives.