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.


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