Surely the vast majority of poor parents do the best they can for their children. Still, a disproportionate number of them wind up losing their children to child welfare agencies.
One reason seems to be that more child abuse and neglect actually occur in poor families. According to the latest U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, children in families with incomes below $15,000 a year were 14 times more likely to be harmed by some form of abuse and 44 times more likely to be endangered by physical neglect than children in families with annual incomes of at least $30,000.
Data like these have led the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform to call the view that child mistreatment cuts across class lines a myth. After all, it says, child abuse is linked to stress, and poor families tend to be under more stress than rich families.
But, as NCCPR goes on to argue, many child protection laws virtually define poverty as neglect. In Illinois, for example, it’s failure to provide “care necessary for [a child's] well-being.” Here in the District of Columbia, negligent treatment is “failure to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”
The D.C. law goes on to make an exemption for deprivation due to lack of financial means. But there are reasons to believe this is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Consider, for example, that 34 children were put into foster care last year because of “inadequate housing.”
Perhaps other reasons were linked to poverty as well. More than half the 2008 foster care placements the Child and Family Services Agency reports were because of “neglect (reported/alleged).” There’s a lot of room here for judgments based on how well children fare when their families are poor.
Now we all know what happens when child welfare agencies leave children in homes where they shouldn’t be. But there’s also a lot of evidence that children are taken away from their parents when other options would be better for them.
What if the parents who lost their children due to “inadequate housing” had received housing vouchers or other assistance to improve their living conditions? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that a number of studies indicate that children are seriously damaged by foster care placements. For example, a large study of young adults who’d been in foster care found that they had twice the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder as Iraq war veterans. A third of them reported some form of maltreatment by an adult in the foster care home. Only 20% of them could be said to be “doing well.”
And then there are the horrible cases of children who died from abuse or neglect in foster care homes.
So when we see an exponential increase in foster care placements, as we have in D.C., we shouldn’t conclude that the child welfare system is working. We should try to find out more about the cases. Were the children being abused or willfully neglected? Or was the “neglect (reported/alleged)” something that could have been readily addressed by safety net programs or other services?
Or do a fair number of the placements reflect misjudgments on the part of the caseworkers? Professor Matthew Fraidin at the University of the District of Columbia Law School recently testified that 60% of the cases handled by his students resulted in the children’s being returned to their homes because, when confronted, CFSA agreed they weren’t being abused or neglected.
Was any racial prejudice involved? According to the latest CFSA assessment by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, as of January 2009, 98% of the children in out-of-home placements whose race was known were black. That’s about a third more than the percent of D.C. children who are black. Seems like an awfully big point spread to me. And here again we’ve got studies that make the question worth asking.
Unfortunately, neither we nor interested experts can get a good fix on whether children are being taken away from their parents because of their poverty and/or race. Here in D.C., as in most states, child welfare proceedings and records are closed to everyone not directly involved in the case.
What would happen if we let some sunshine in?
NOTE: I’m deeply indebted to Professor Fraidin for calling my attention to this issue and taking the time to educate me. The sources reflected here came largely from him. The analysis and errors, if any, are my own.