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.
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.