Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

 


Hopes for a Better TANF Program Undercut by Lack of Funding

August 24, 2015

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families just had its 19th birthday. It’s long overdue for an overhaul. And we just may see one before the end of the year.

Congress last reauthorized TANF 10 years ago. By and large, it made a flawed program worse — assuming, as I think we should, that it’s supposed to provide a safety net for poor families, while helping parents prepare for and find jobs that enable them to support themselves and their children.

Now the House subcommittee responsible for TANF seems poised to finish a reauthorization bill. And surprisingly, the discussion draft responds to concerns that progressive advocates, as well as some state administrators have raised for a long time.

I say “surprisingly” not only because Republicans control the subcommittee, but because Congressman Paul Ryan, who now chairs the full Ways and Means Committee, has often cited TANF as the model safety net program.

The bill, which is still a work in progress, is far from problem-free. Most importantly, it fails to do one big thing. And that will mean either no new law or some harmful consequences.

The one big thing is to boost the block grant — the federal government’s share of money for the benefits and services states’ programs provide. It’s been stuck at the same level as when TANF began. So it’s lost about a third of its real dollar value.

The draft would provide not a penny more. At the same time, it would require states to do two things they don’t have to do now — develop genuinely individualized plans for TANF families and track employment-related outcomes for those that leave the program.

The new mandates are surely promising, though the latter warrants revisions, as CLASP’s detailed comments show. They would also, however, require investments of administrative resources.

Other changes would tend to offset the administrative burden, but states would still come up short on funds to make those outcomes as good as they might otherwise be.

At the same time, the draft would eliminate the TANF Contingency Fund — a pot of money that states can tap (until it runs dry) when a recession or other hit to their economy indicates they’ll have more families to serve.

States would have as much flexibility as ever to cope with funding crunches by dropping their already-low income eligibility ceilings, reducing the lifetime time limits for participation, as some states have eagerly done, and/or by other measures to shrink their caseloads, e.g., pre-enrollment job search requirements, costly, ineffective, but still humiliating drug tests.

The draft would eliminate a major incentive states have to do reduce their caseloads by any or all of these, as well as by doling out so-called full family sanctions, i.e., total benefits cut-offs, which also reduce the caseload count.

But the fixed block grant funding level, plus the loss of extra funds in extra-bad times would leave states with another incentive to serve as few families as they can — and to forgo their new opportunities to improve employment prospects for those they do.

I’ll return to the promising features I’ve referred to — and a couple I haven’t — in a separate post. I’ve begun with the big problem because they’ll all be for naught if the federal government fails to do its share for our country’s poorest families, as it has — and increasingly so — for most of the last 19 years.

 


New Plan to Reduce Child Poverty in America

August 20, 2015

Children have the highest poverty rate of any age group in our country. Nearly 14.7 million of them — 19.9% — are officially poor, according to the latest Census report.

The percent is even higher for infants and toddlers, a new brief from the Center for American Progress tells us — nearly 23% or well over one in five. CAP has a four-part proposal to reduce the child poverty rate — and the depth of poverty for children who’d still be poor.

Unlike a plan I earlier blogged on, its parts all have to do with the Child Tax Credit. The first part, tucked into the brief as a starting point, is a permanent extension of the improvement the Recovery Act made. It’s now among the refundable tax credit improvements due to expire in 2017.

CAP’s plan would then do what some progressives advocated for the Recovery Act — drop the threshold for claiming the CTC to the first dollar of earned income, rather than the first dollar over $3,000.

At the same time, the plan would make the CTC fully refundable. In other words, a family would get a refund from the Internal Revenue Service for the entire amount its income tax liability fell short of the deductions and credits it claimed.

The credit now phases in to a maximum of $1,000 per child, leaving low-income parents with only a partial credit — or in some cases, no credit at all for a second or third child.

A third change would index the per child credit to inflation so that it didn’t lose value over time. Like the other two parts I’ve cited, linking the credit to the Consumer Price Index the IRS uses for tax provisions would make the CTC more like the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Now comes a part that CAP refers to as “enhancing” the CTC, but would actually be more like the child allowances many European countries (and a few others) provide. Families with children less than three years old would get $125 a month, regardless of income or how they net out at tax time.

They’d get this supplement monthly as a direct deposit to their bank account or on a debit card. So they’d have more to spend as they needed it to pay for the costs of caring for their babies and toddlers.

These costs can be very high. I’ve already said my bit about diapers. Full-time day care in a center for an infant cost, on average, more than $10,000 a year in half the states in 2013. And far from all poor and near-poor families can have their children’s daycare costs subsidized by either of the two main federal funding sources.

Rolling all the costs together, a CNN Money calculator tells us that a low-income family will have to pay, on average, an estimated $176,550 to raise a child born two years ago — $35,880 more if they live in an urban area in the northeast part of the country.

Now, CAP’s proposals would hardly supply parents with the wherewithal to pay for anything approaching this. Nor are they intended to. They wouldn’t eliminate child poverty either. They would, however, reduce it.

The overall poverty rate for children under seventeen would fall by 13.2%, CAP says. About 18% of children under three would be lifted out of poverty altogether — this, I assume, because of the extra income boost parents of children this young would get.

CAP also looks at the combined effects of its proposals on families with infants and toddlers who’d still have incomes (less any EITC refund and/or cash benefits) below the federal poverty line.

For them, it estimates how far its proposal would go toward closing the “poverty gap,” i.e., the difference between their average income and the FPL.

The gap would shrink by an estimated 26.1% nationwide, it reports. But, of course, the proposals would shrink the gap for all now-poor families with children — perhaps, in fact, lifting some of them above the FPL and, for sure, reducing the poverty gap for all.

The gap-closing effects of the proposals would vary considerably from state to state, a map supplement to the brief shows. They range from 25.4% in Hawaii to 12% in Wyoming. We who live in the District of Columbia could see a gap roughly 16.4% smaller.

CAP’s proposals would cost an estimated $29.2 billion if they were all in place this year. Somewhat more in the future, since the child tax credit would increase to keep pace with consumer price inflation.

This is hardly a big investment, even for spending through the tax code. So-called tax expenditures will cost the federal government about $1.22 trillion this year, the National Priorities Project reports.

Unlike many of the tax breaks, however, investments to reduce child poverty would pay for themselves many times over. An oft-cited study conducted in 2007 concluded that child poverty cost our country about half a trillion a year. Adjusting for inflation, CAP puts the total at more than $672 billion.

But this is a low-end estimate because the study included only the largest and mostly easily quantifiable costs, as the authors dutifully noted.

One doesn’t, I think, want our policies to hinge on dollars saved by alleviating the hardships and lifelong consequences of growing up in a family that’s so short on money as to be officially poor — or the hardships parents suffer to do the best they can for their children.

But if the return on investment would help CAP’s proposals gain support in a Congress that seems reluctant to even sustain the anti-poverty programs we’ve got, a strong talking point is ready to hand.

 


Better Chapter Opens for Homeless Family

August 17, 2015

My post on the homeless family that fled to keep their child out of foster care seems to have interested followers and others in the social media sphere. So I thought you’d like a brief update.

Shortly after I published the post, I got a note from “Carey,” the storyteller, who then posted it as a comment. More details in a second note, also then posted.

Carey reports that the family now has a home and employment — a full-time job for her fiance. Proof, though she doesn’t say so, that she was right about just needing more time than the Child Protective Services caseworker would allow.

The family is also receiving some form of assistance from the state they’re now living in. This, I suppose, because Carey is still staying home to care for their child. “The smartest two year old I know!”

And they haven’t been dogged by the caseworker (or higher-ups), though she thinks the agency could find them now.

“It’s a slow process regaining all that was lost,” she writes. “But we lost nothing as long as we have each other…. With love and understanding … and the hard work put in, I’m sure our family will succeed.”

So we have indeed the better next chapter I hoped for and a heart-warming reminder of why I — and those who responded to the post — did.

Better chapter notwithstanding, Carey still feels that what happened to the family was “unjustifiable.” After all, people live outdoors in Alaska. “What’s camping for a month in the summer?”

“People don’t understand the unjust power those people [at CPS] have until it’s happened with their family,” she concludes. I’d like to think that’s not altogether true.

But we do need stories to grasp how injustices in our publicly-funded programs play out in the lives of real people — and to get us riled up enough to do something about them.


What We Can Hope for (and Not) in the New Child Nutrition Act

August 13, 2015

Lots for Congress to do when members return to the capital. The must-do list includes some measure to keep funds flowing to programs covered by the Child Nutrition Act, since it’s due to expire at the end of September.

Work is already underway to renew the CNA for the usual five years. House members and Senators have introduced more than a dozen bills they hope will shape the final product.

A somewhat selective preview then of what we can hope to see — and what we might see that shouldn’t be hoped for.

More Free Summer Meals

The Food Research and Action Center has, for some years now, tracked low-income school-age children’s participation in summer meal programs.

The latest rate is somewhat better than recent past rates, but still indicates that only about one in six children who received free or reduced-price school lunches in 2013-14 also got free mid-day meals during the peak month for summer meal programs.

Many reasons for this. One is built into the law — a limit on where community-based organizations may serve summer meals without paying the full cost. They’re eligible for reimbursements only if they’re in an area where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

This is especially problematic in rural communities — and probably a growing number of suburbs — where there are pockets of poverty in the midst of better-off areas.

The Summer Meals Act would lower the so-called area eligibility standard to 40%. This is the standard already used to target Title I education funds for low-income and other disadvantaged children, as well as the newer standard that enables schools to serve free meals to all students.

There’d be some grant funds to get more children in rural communities to summer meal sites — or summer meals to them directly via specially-outfitted trucks.

The bill would also eliminate duplicative paperwork, which may deter some nonprofits and public agencies from participating. And it would allow all summer meal sites, instead of only some camps and sites serving primarily migrant children to serve three subsidized meals a day, rather than only two.

Cash-Like Benefits to Fill the Summer Meal Gap

Another bill takes a different, complementary approach to the risk of hunger that increases when summer rolls round.

The Stop Summer Hunger Act would partly compensate low-income parents for the extra they often have to spend on food during the summer months, when they may have to feed their children three meals a day — and like as not do, though perhaps only by skimping on food for themselves.

Families with children eligible for free or reduced-price school meals would get electronic benefits cards, like the cards now used in SNAP (the food stamp program).

The cards would pay for $150 in foods and beverages next summer — more in later years to reflect increases in the reimbursement rates that partially offset the costs of the meals schools serve.

Better Meals for More Kids in Day Care

The Child and Adult Care Food Program, as its name suggests, subsidizes meals and/or snacks that childcare providers, adult day care centers and certain other programs, e.g., Head Start, serve.

By far and away the largest number fed are children — about 3.5 million a day in Fiscal Year 2013, FRAC reports.

The Access to Healthy Food for Young Children Act would make several changes similar to those proposed in the Summer Meals Act.

It would lower the area eligibility standard for providers who care for children in their homes. It would also enable providers to serve three subsidized meals to children they care for eight hours a day.

And very importantly, it would increase reimbursement rates, which are now so low as to deter participation in the program and/or serving optimally healthful meals and snacks.

Not much of a boost proposed — just 10 cents per meal. But the bill would also provide some additional funding to offset the costs of complying with the updated nutrition standards the U.S. Department of Agriculture will soon issue.

Let Them Eat Cake

On the downside, we find dubious concessions to the School Nutrition Association, which purports to represent many millions of the school personnel responsible for planning and supervising the preparation of school meals.

The Association contends, as it has for some time, that the current nutrition standards for subsidized meals are unworkable.

USDA issued them, as the current CNA required, to reflect the latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and recommendations from several other expert sources.

Basically, they call for more fruits and veggies, “whole grain rich” bread, pizza crust and the like, low-fat or nonfat milk, less sodium and saturated fats, virtually no added trans fats and age-based limits on calories per week.

Meals that comply cost too much, the School Nutrition Association says. And schools lose more money because kids who can buy their meals elsewhere do — or bring them from home.

Those who do go to the cafeteria won’t eat what’s served. So food — and the federal money that subsidizes it — are wasted.

USDA and others have rebutted most of these arguments, as a FRAC summary indicates. But the Association has tapped favorite themes in the Republicans’ playbook — waste in federal programs and “one-size-fits-all” regulations that cramp needed flexibility.

So we see bills that would prohibit USDA from administering or enforcing major components of the meal standards. The Healthy Meals Flexibility Act would roll back the “whole grain rich” requirement to what it was before the update and free schools from any effort to reduce sodium.

A companion bill would go further toward reducing federal mandates, as its title indicates. It would also effectively eliminate both the maximum calorie limits and the minimum-maximum ranges for grains of any sort, meat and meat alternatives.

I don’t know enough to assess every jot and tittle of the school meal standards. And I don’t doubt that some schools have found compliance challenging.

But the real issue the attacks on the standards raise is whether meals our taxpayer dollars subsidize should reflect the best current scientific judgments on the makeup of a well-balanced diet for children — and thus the foods they’re introduced to and the eating habits they develop.

This is especially critical, I think, for low-income children, whose parents may have neither the financial resources nor the time to serve healthful meals at home or fix them to put into backpacks.

In any event, we’ll soon have new Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So it would seem sensible for Congress to again require USDA to update the standards, so far as necessary.

Far better than to preempt any enforcement of requirements adapted from recommendation of top-flight, disinterested experts.

 

 

 


What About Diapers?

August 10, 2015

Friend and fierce homeless family advocate Diane Nilan responded to my recent post on child nutrition programs with a question. Did the low-income mothers it focused on say anything about diapers?

I’d meant to write about diaper costs several years ago, when a widely-reported study of low-income mothers found that about 30% didn’t always have enough diapers to put a fresh one on as often as needed.

Just never got to the issue. But I have now.

All new mothers face a choice, at least in theory. Should they use cloth diapers or the disposable kind? Most poor and near-poor women don’t actually have this choice, however.

A service to keep them supplied with clean cloth diapers is out of the question, of course. They’re unlikely to live in a building with washers and dryers in the basement — let alone in their own apartment.

But taking dirty diapers to a laundromat is often out of the question too. Even if the owner allows them in the washers, as many don’t, the mother has to get them there.

A story that went viral tells of a mother who was ordered off a bus because her baby’s newly-soiled diaper smelled. What if she had a whole sackful that needed washing?

Logistics issues aside, most childcare centers require parents to supply disposable diapers for their infants and toddlers, the National Diaper Bank Network reports.

Seems to me likely that many home-based childcare providers do as well, since they’d otherwise have to send dirty diapers to a laundry or store them in some sanitary way for each parent to retrieve.

Parents who work need child care for their kids, including those not yet toilet trained. Even if the provider accepted cloth diapers, they could be hard-pressed for the time to wash, dry and fold them.

Disposable diapers also seem a necessity for parents — mostly mothers — enrolled in a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, since they generally must spend an average of 20-30 hours a week on whatever work activities they’ve been assigned.

TANF parents usually get childcare subsidies. But there’s no subsidy for the diapers. And SNAP (food stamp) and WIC benefits can be used only for foods and beverages.

So a bit of back-of-the-envelope math….

A mother with an infant and a two-year-old can get, at most, about $438 a month in cash assistance from the District of Columbia’s TANF program.

She’ll need roughly 14 disposable diapers a day — or about 426 a month. This is a conservative estimate, based on what I’ve found in various online forums.

The cheapest option is buying the diapers in bulk at a big box store. But here again, we may have logistics problems. A cash flow problem too, since the mother is highly unlikely to have the wherewithal for economies of scale.

So more likely, she’ll have to pick up a box or two at a time from a nearby corner store — or if she’s lucky, a full-service grocery store or one of the expanded chain drugstores.

The cheapest disposable diapers at the grocery store nearest me cost $13.74 a box. More diapers per box for the infant than the toddler, as seems generally the case. The nearby drugstore charges more.

So we’ll assume the mothers buys from the grocery store — and has a car at her disposal or a friend to drive her because she won’t be able to carry the bargain-sized boxes home or to the nearest bus stop.

Her total diaper bill then is roughly $65 a month — nearly 15% of her TANF benefit, which must also cover everything, except the family’s food, if she can stretch her SNAP and WIC benefits enough to last the whole month.

Unimaginable to me how her remaining $373 could pay for even the needs that pop immediately to mind, e.g., clothes, especially for the rapidly-growing kids, laundry, soap and other personal care items, transportation and at least some portion of the rent, plus utilities and cleaning supplies, assuming the family’s not homeless. A big assumption.

Four years ago, bills were introduced in the House and Senate that would have allowed states to use funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant to supply providers with diapers for children whose care the block grant subsidized.

The bills went nowhere. Nor should we expect them to, now that CCDBG has been reauthorized. We shouldn’t mourn them, I think, well-meaning as they were.

Fewer children received CCDBG-subsidized child care in 2013 than in any year since 1997. One can only suppose there would have been even fewer if states had used some of their funds for diapers.

So what’s a poor mother to do? Her best bet it seems is to get free diapers supplied by a local diaper bank. The national network includes nearly 250 of them, including one in the District, which also serves nearby communities in Maryland and Virginia.

The DC bank buys diapers, using donated funds. It also accepts diaper donations, purchased online or collected via diaper drives. Additional diapers come from the national network and from Huggies. The bank then distributes them to nonprofits that provide other services to poor and near-poor families.

So our TANF mother may not have to pay for diapers after all — or at least, not for all the diapers she needs to keep her children clean, dry and cared for by others while she tries to prepare and/or look for work that will pay enough to make diaper costs no worry.

Yet diaper needs far exceed supplies, even in communities with substantial banks. Fine as they are, the banks are no substitute for stronger safety net benefits. After all, it’s not only diapers that poor parents can’t afford.

 

 

 

 


Homeless Couple on the Lam to Keep Child Out of Foster Care

August 6, 2015

Sometimes foster care is the only way to keep children safe. All we know, however — and we can know a lot — tells us it should be a last resort.

Yet a mother — let’s call her Carey — had to flee her home state to avoid losing her two-year-old to the child protective services agency, though her child suffered neither abuse nor neglect, she told me. And I’ve every reason to believe her.

Her story is in some ways not unique, but in other ways it is — as, of course, is everybody’s story. I’m going to try to tease out what’s not unique from the fabric of particulars she shared.

Carey, her toddler and her fiance — let’s call him Mike — never had a home of their own. They’d been living with her mother, but had to leave because she was moving to a place where she couldn’t house them. This is a fine — and hardly unique — instance of how unstable doubled-up situations usually are.

Carey and Mike decided to live in a tent at a campground because that was so much cheaper than staying in a motel. They thought they could save enough to cover the upfront costs of renting. And perhaps they could have, since he was working.

The campground had running water, bathrooms with showers and electricity (for an extra fee). The family had enough food, thanks to a combination of food stamps and Mike’s wages. Carey was around to care for her child 24/7.

Well, someone reported them to CPS, which sent out a caseworker, as it should have. The caseworker told the couple they’d have to move to housing within two weeks. The agency — or some other source — would pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.

The couple couldn’t find an affordable place within such a tight deadline. So they decided that Carey and the child would move in with Mike’s dad, while Mike stayed at the campground. This, they thought, would placate the caseworker while giving them more time to find an apartment. It didn’t. The caseworker insisted they all had to stay together and move to housing PDQ.

Another avenue opened up long about this time. Carey had applied for a federal Housing Choice voucher and learned she’d been approved.

A new deadline then — 60 days to sign a lease. But the couple couldn’t find a landlord who’d rent to them. The problem, Carey says, is that Mike has a criminal record — not for a recent offense, however, nor one that would clearly flag him as likely to harm other tenants or property.

But private landlords can generally screen out applicants with criminal records so long as they don’t target those protected by civil rights laws. Such data as we have indicate that many do.

Carey asked for an extension of the lease-up deadline. The housing authority’s protocol apparently included this option. But CPS wouldn’t let the couple continue the search while still caring for the child.

So to keep her, the family left the state for a place far away, where they could stay with Carey’s sister. “I was pushed out of my hometown,” Carey says. And the family’s situation is more precarious now.

Mark’s out of a job — and without a car because the one he had broke down en route. He’s got a work history, of course, but also a criminal record. And we know that’s a common screen-out factor.

Meanwhile, the caseworker was bound and determined to find the family. S/he issued threats through relatives — an Amber alert, an arrest warrant.

Carey feels unjustly hounded. “We are a good family in a bad situation,” she says. “My daughter is my life.” She’d be “traumatized to be taken from her mom and dad.” Children often are, the research tells us.

I couldn’t get the CPS side of the story, of course, but what Carey says seems credible. Surely CPS would have taken custody of the child forthwith if there were even inklings of imminent harm.

I’d like to think this story is a one-of-a-kind thing. Some singularly single-minded caseworker more intent on getting his/her way than on the child’s welfare.

Perhaps, though the risk of losing a child to foster care because of inadequate housing isn’t. So I think it’s worth asking what should have happened. We can look at this from two angles — finding housing and family protection.

From the first, someone — perhaps at the housing authority or the agency that administers homeless services — could have helped the couple find a low-cost apartment a landlord would rent to them. This might include actually talking with landlords or engaging faith-based organizations and other nonprofits to do that.

As part of its push to rapidly re-house more homeless families, the D.C. government has hired “navigators” to, among other things, negotiate with landlords so they’ll rent to those with poor credit and rental histories. Seem to me that criminal histories could be subject to negotiations of this sort too.

On a broader and more affirmative front, the local or state government could have prohibited landlords from discriminating on the basis of criminal records unless they could justify exclusions in particular cases.

Eighteen states, the District of Columbia and many more local governments have already taken this approach to give people with criminal records a fairer chance of employment. So far as I can tell, only one city has done the same for housing.

If any such help or legal protection were available to Carey and Mike, they obviously didn’t know it. Which brings me to the other angle. The couple should have had a lawyer — or a supervised budding lawyer.

They would, of course, have needed free services like those provided by legal aid societies, other nonprofits, law school clinics and attorneys in private practice who volunteer through a pro bono program.

Carey believes that she and Mike could have found a landlord to rent to them if they’d just been given more time. Knowing a fair number of lawyers, I’m quite confident that one could, at the very least, have gotten the caseworker to back off — or the agency to pull him/her off.

Expert legal help might also have made the housing search less challenging because Mike could perhaps have gotten his criminal record expunged, i.e., sealed from disclosure to landlords, as well as others.

So the story Carey told me could have ended very differently. One can only hope that the sequel better rewards the love, determination and resourcefulness that led to her and Mike’s exile.

 

 


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