Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

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.

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6 Responses to Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

  1. LK says:

    Interesting concept >> What would happen if we let some sunshine in?

    If we opened these cases for public scrutiny you would find a good many failures of the system. Confidentiality laws helps them to cover their tracks.

  2. newlawmom says:

    The damage that is done to children when they are removed from their families is substantial, and as a result, they should only be removed if the relative harm they would suffer at home is substantial. Poverty is not a good reason to take children from their parents, their neighborhood, their home,their school, etc. One thing that people fail to consider is that foster parents are often given resources that could just as easily be provided to biological parents. This list includes financial subsidies, visits from social workers, access to physical and mental health treatment, behavior support in the home, training, education, and support from other caregivers. Perhaps these resources should be directed towards biological parents first. Save the drastic measure of separation for the drastic cases of outright abuse.

  3. kathrynbaer says:

    “newlawmom” is making a great point. Services that would keep poor children together with their parents wouldn’t necessarily cost more.

    But here’s the hitch. The federal government will match states’ maintenance payments for foster care for low-income children, using the same formula it uses for Medicaid matches. Maintenance here includes food, clothing, shelter, daily supervision and more. While the federal government also funds programs to preserve families where child abuse or neglect has occurred, these tend to focus on counseling, training in parenting skills and linkages to other services.

    So it would seem that, from a budget perspective, there’s a perverse incentive to favor foster care over financial and in-kind assistance to poor parents.

  4. Robert Smith says:

    My wife and I was victims of this back in the 94. We was living in a small city in Nebraska and we was poor. I am happy my dad and step mom stepped in and took our son (they was 4 states away so we had almost nil contact as we struggled in Nebraska). 4 years after the first son in Lincoln my wife was pregnant with a second son. I lost my ride to work (they moved) and there was no public transportation to the factory I worked at. We eventually ended up living in hotels forever playing the Social Services Dancing Game. We was trapped in the hotel couldnt get out (it is a trap I will tell you and anyone that believes otherwise should go try to live like that before they speak)I was working 2 shifts at labor ready to just pay for the hotel and feed my wife. We was always being denied Food Stamps from the crooked system. We placed the second son for adoption got to spend 2 and a half days with him before the adoptive parents arrived to take him did it through a agency that I loving refer to Baby Farms. We have no clue about him as I cant get no information. We was just poor parents being speared through our heart by our basic need to live.

    Today in this country being poor is criminal. Look at Homeless prevention laws. Illegal to push a shopping cart in some city’s. Illegal to sleep outdoors in some city’s. In some city’s they require the people who have heart enough to do something to help the homeless to dance through hoops to get the paper that says they can help the homeless.

  5. Joann Taylor says:

    I am poor and I am treated like a criminal. The commonwealth of PA allowed my now ex-husband to leave our almost 2 decade marriage without accountability and forced myself a stay at home mom to be thrown into an unfamiliar life of poverty. It took over two years to get any help with child support. I lost my job an collect little over 100 dollars from unemployment a week. With little skills it’s hard to get hired anywhere. To top it off the court is threatening to put me in jail because I can’t pay fees they imposed on me for a guardian ad litem. My home is in foreclosure since my divorce and I fear losing my children because of it. I have family in NJ but I’m told I can’t take the children an hour and half away where we would be more economically stable with help of family due to their father. Whom by the way has paid his way through the legal system while I struggle to provide for our kids. The homeless prevention laws are a joke i’ve found no help or am told i don’t qualify…? section 8 is closed and i’ve been on a waiting list for housing. I’m told where I have to live to keep my kids, what I have to pay the court appointed attorneys to keep my kids! I have no money yet I can go to jail for it! I’m not paying for fines so how can they say they represent the best interest of my children when they are willing to take their primary caregiver away to jail for being to poor to pay? Do I not have the right to keep my children because I’m divorced and was dependent and therefore now i’m poor? It’s not a free country! It feels like undercover communism.

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    Sounds as if you’re in a world of trouble, Joann. In the District of Columbia, where I live, we have a nonprofit legal aid society that provides professional advice and representation for people who can’t afford a private attorney. Their lawyers do a great job in helping individuals work through complex issues. Maybe there’s a similar organization where you live.

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