Homeless DC Parents Fear Loss of Children … And They’re Right

I met a father at the Virginia Williams Family Resources Center, the District of Columbia’s central intake for homeless families. He was there with his wife and their baby and toddler because they were running out of money to pay for the motel room they’d been staying in.

He said he was afraid the children would be taken away from them. I asked him if anyone had told him that. Not exactly, but he was worried.

“We’re not bad parents,” he said. “We’re just down on our luck.” Said it twice during our conversation. And I could see it was true from the way he was cuddling the baby.

I think of him now because the Family Resources Center has started reporting all homeless families with no place to stay to the Child and Family Services Agency, the District’s child welfare program.

This means that the parents can be charged with child neglect — and their children put into foster care — just because the District won’t provide them with shelter or other housing.

As the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless notes, they shouldn’t be. District law specifically states that “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.”

But that doesn’t mean homeless children won’t be taken from their parents.

As Professor Matthew Fraidin has written, we simply don’t know what goes on in the courtroom when parents are charged with neglect.

Judges are free to ignore the legal exemption for lack of financial means. And they may when they understand that the children have no safe place to stay — or decide that’s due to parental irresponsibility.

What we do know, from a recent report by the Citizens Review Panel, is that CFSA has taken many children from their parents without getting a court order first. And, in more than half the cases, the precipitous removals were not justified.

Also know, from CFSA’s own report, that “inadequate housing” was the primary reason it placed 35 children in foster care in 2010.

Are we to understand that parents with sufficient financial means deliberately chose unsafe housing — or no housing at all?

Rhetorical question. What the placements tell us is that homeless parents have good reason to fear that the powers-that-be will take their children away.

They certainly don’t have adequate housing, and CFSA has no resources of its own to provide it.

At the very least, families the Center reports are likely to be subject to intimidating investigations. Children may be interrogated. Imagine how frightening — even if nothing comes of it.

More likely, however, parents won’t ask for shelter when they’ve no place to stay if they’re told, as they are, that the Center will report their situation to the child welfare authorities.

This is already happening. Many Legal Clinic clients with nowhere to stay have left the Center for fear they’d lose their children, according to testimony by staff attorney Amber Harding.

Another client tells us that she stopped asking for shelter after Center staff repeatedly warned her that they’d have her kids removed if she couldn’t provide them with a safe place to sleep. “I won’t be calling again,” she says.

What the [expletive deleted] is the Department of Human Services doing?

Director David Berns, I’m told, claims that the department is just trying to do a better job of ensuring compliance with mandatory reporting requirements.

I don’t altogether buy this. Under District law, poverty and its immediate consequences, e.g., homelessness, don’t constitute abuse or neglect. So what’s to report?

“Safety risks,” Berns says. But there’s no mandate for reporting these unless they’re risks posed by abuse or neglect.

So we’ve got either an excess of zeal or a covert strategy for controlling the waiting list of homeless families the department can’t help — 308 of them, at last count.

I’d like to believe the former. But what I believe doesn’t matter.

What matters is that DHS doesn’t have the funds to protect all the families who’ve got no safe place to stay and instead is exposing children to all the risks that foster care entails.

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4 Responses to Homeless DC Parents Fear Loss of Children … And They’re Right

  1. “By any means necessary,” should be the motto of CPS for removing children. Rather than fix the problem by providing adequate housing or financial assistance for parents who are desperately trying to care for their children, CPS would rather remove the children to foster care which may place them in more vulnerable circumstances. There is no guarantee that children are safer in foster care, only that foster parents are paid much more than the money given to parents to care for the same children. At least with the parents, there is generally love and concern for the children. Poverty has always been a contributing factor in removing children from their homes, so now that many do not have even this basic need, the Catch 22 can be fully implemented.

  2. Sammie Jones says:

    Oh no, they aren’t just trying to comply with standards of reporting. Someone important in the child welfare business probably gave them a nice chunk of money to ensure the steady influx of cases.

  3. [...] place to stay to the Child and Family Services Agency, the District’s child welfare program,” wrote Baer in May 2012. [5] “This means that the parents can be charged with child neglect — and their children put [...]

  4. [...] place to stay to the Child and Family Services Agency, the District’s child welfare program,” wrote Baer in May 2012. [5] “This means that the parents can be charged with child neglect — and their children put [...]

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