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.


Narratives Prop Up Flawed Social Service Programs

February 21, 2012

“The nuclear secret of child welfare,” writes Professor Matthew Fraidin, “is that most children in foster care shouldn’t be there.” And being there harms most of them more than they’re helped by being taken away from their families.

Fraidin has argued in the past that we need to let some sunshine into the now-secretive proceedings that deliver children into the care of many child welfare agencies — the District’s Child and Family Services Administration included.

He still advocates for this, but he’s turned his attention to the narrative that gives rise to the inordinate number of foster care placements.

Or perhaps it’s actually two related narratives.

One is of “brutal, deviant, monstrous parents” whose children have to be rescued from imminent injury or even death. This narrative is “drummed into our heads” by the press, which likes the sensational cases.

Also, I see, by bloggers. Daniel Hiempel, for example, accuses us of allowing “certain children to be abused, even murdered” by ignoring the “empirically true” fact that “cases of abuse and neglect soar in poor neighborhoods.”

Note the class bias here.

The other narrative extends beyond parents who get ensnared in the child welfare system. It’s the propensity of legal service providers, among others, to view low-income clients as “the sum of their needs” — to focus on weaknesses and ignore strengths.

Start instead, Fraidin says, from the premise that clients are “bundles of assets.” Look at what they as individuals can do because then they’ll bust through the narrative and emerge as “complicated, three-dimensional, real” people.

Once we change the story in our heads, we can “change the conversation.” And, I gather, represent clients differently, since Fraidin links the internal narrative change to limiting foster care entries and speeding exits.

The “we” he exhorts are lawyers — and perhaps judges. The article I’m linking to began as a speech delivered at the University of Michigan’s law school.

He refers in passing, however, to anti-poverty programs in general. And surely his message has clear implications for caseworkers and the agencies they work for — nonprofits as well as government entities like CFSA.

David Henderson, who consults for nonprofit service providers, observes that they “too often base their interventions on a presumption of irrationality among the poor” — or he adds in a comment, “assumptions of general incompetence.”

Look, he says, at programs that force parenting classes on homeless people. We’ve got many other examples of this sort.

I’m reminded of a classic — if perhaps mythical — exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

“The rich,” said Fitzgerald, echoing a theme from his Great Gatsby, “are different from you and me.” “Yes,” said Hemingway. “They have more money.”

Seems to me that we as a community could purge the narratives in our heads if we started from the premise that the poor are no different from us, except for having less money.

That would change how we advocate and what we advocate for.

UPDATE: Professor Fraidin has written a very thoughtful response to this post. As he explains, his opposition to secret child welfare proceedings and the prevalent narratives are two sides of the same coin. He also tells us some shocking things we’d learn if proceedings were open.