DC Child Welfare Agency Will Treat “Traumas” of Child Poverty

November 19, 2012

Policy consultant and blogger Susie Cambria calls our attention to a grant the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency recently received.

The grant, says CFSA, will help it “make trauma-informed treatment the foundation of serving children and youth in the District [sic] child welfare system.”

The approach sounds like a good thing, but it’s far beyond my capacity to assess.

The reason I write about it is rather what Mindy Good, CFSA’s public information officer, told Cambria about the traumatic events children have experienced by the time they become part of the agency’s caseload.

Some are cases we could confidently classify as abuse, e.g., severe physical punishment, molesting.

Others bespeak neglect that could call for at least a temporary rescue, e.g., having to rely on a parent or other caretaker whose behavior is “erratic” due to substance abuse or untreated mental illness.

But many are simply consequences of living in a family that’s desperately poor, e.g., “not knowing where the next meal is coming from,” “being homeless or moving a great deal.”

Good alludes to getting the child to safety as a first step. This seems to mean, in most cases, removing children from their parents or other caretakers — itself a traumatic experience, as she notes.

Perhaps even the first traumatic experience they have. It’s by no means clear, for example, that the mere fact of living doubled up with first one family and then another induces emotional and/or behavioral problems.

Last year, CFSA confirmed about 873 cases of child neglect — 58% of all the incidents it substantiated. In 2010, neglect (unspecified) was the primary reason it put 395 children into foster care.

One can’t help wondering how many of them weren’t really neglected at all — children in food insecure families, for example, or in homeless families the District wouldn’t shelter.

Or children being cared for by strangers or tasked with caring for younger sibs — two other “traumatic events” Good cites.

There’s a ready remedy for these “traumas.” And it’s not being put into foster care.

If children justifiably fear hunger, their parents or guardians obviously need food stamps — or if they’re not eligible, assurance that their children often are.

Perhaps they also need cash assistance, since we know that food stamps often don’t cover the costs of even the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest meal plan.

If children are homeless, their families need affordable housing. Same if the family moves frequently because it has to rely on the hospitality of friends and relatives.

If children get parked with strangers or have to shoulder inappropriate child care responsibilities, perhaps the family needs a voucher to pay for daycare — and access to a provider who’ll care for kids early, late and on unpredicable schedules.

CFSA can advise families how to seek these kinds of help. And it may now be doing so, since it reports a new response model, which, in some cases, “leads to service options the family can choose to accept.”

But, of course, seeking isn’t receiving.

As recently as 2010, CFSA cited “inadequate housing” as the primary reason it put some children into foster care. Telling their parents they could apply for housing assistance would be futile, since they’d merely join the many thousands of households on the waiting list.

Though parents might enroll in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s program, the cash benefits would leave them in dire poverty — perhaps still unable to stretch their food budgets till the end of the month.

They’d be eligible for child care assistance, but they might not be able to find it because the District’s provider reimbursement rates have led to a severe shortage of available slots, especially for very young children and those with disabilities.

CFSA’s new treatment approach may help children overcome whatever traumas they’ve experienced because their parents can’t afford to provide them with safe, stable housing, regular meals and the like. But it’s a second-best solution.

Perhaps the best CFSA can do, however, because our system defines “child welfare” as protection from abuse and neglect.

It’s up to other agencies — and ultimately to our elected officials — to ensure that the poor children in our community have what they need to fare well.

Or rather, it’s ultimately up to us since we’re the ones who elected them. Don’t think as many of us as could are doing as much as we might, though some are giving their all and more.


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

May 21, 2012

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.


Are Poor Parents Bad Parents?

November 15, 2009

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.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 176 other followers