Why should child welfare agencies that are anxious to take advantage of the primary prevention opportunities within the Family First Prevention Services Act be interested in what the Federal Reserve has to say?
Because the Fed’s reliable data can inform our approach to working with families facing severe economic pressure. And quite frankly, the child welfare community could benefit from fresh sources of information.
The New York Times reported on June 10:
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday said it would leave interest rates near zero for the foreseeable future as the central bank projected high unemployment for several years and a long slog back from the pandemic-induced recession. … In their first economic projections this year, Fed officials indicated that they expect the unemployment rate to end 2020 at 9.3% and remain elevated for some time, coming in at 5.5% in 2022 …
The relevance of this projection has to do with the chatter within the child welfare arena regarding how to support families in a way that provides safety and stability for children and their families. This is based on the well-researched belief that poverty, the resulting food insufficiency, lack of affordable housing and inability to access health care and other basic needs will lead to the additional stress that in turn contributes to the likelihood of increased referrals for neglect and maltreatment. That does not imply that all families living in poverty mistreat their children and we should avoid stigmatizing families because of their incomes. Poverty does not equate to child abuse or neglect.
Nonetheless, poverty does have an impact on family functioning, parental capacity and health care outcomes for children. Any number of researchers have demonstrated that many founded and indicated cases are really situations where poverty was left unchecked until caregivers were unable to deliver a good enough level of parenting and avoid contact with the child welfare system. My colleague Peter Pecora, from Casey Family Programs, has written extensively about this. We also know that chronic poverty leads to depression and other mental health issues.
If and when we know that large segments of families are living in poverty and that our most reliable economic forecasting body tells us to expect even higher levels in the near term, we should turn our attention to family support efforts. The data is clear that the success of many neighborhood and community-based family support programs is rooted in hard services – food, clothing, shelter, health care and employment assistance. Most child welfare agencies have a mixed track record of providing those types of services and generally refer families out to other agencies when their clients require those other supportive services.
But this approach is still based on child rescue. We make the referrals to other non-related partners, hope that the parent will take advantage of what is offered to them, and then make an assessment about child safety and risk on that gamble we call “compliance.” So we place the most overwhelmed families at the beginning of a complex human service maze that even most of us don’t understand, and expect that parents will come out on the other end in better shape.
If they don’t, we can remove their children. That is not prevention or family support and it does little to contribute to the healing process for adults and children.
Though Family First is not an anti-poverty program, it has opened up conversations about the more relevant role of child welfare agencies in the lives of highly stressed families. Partnerships with other agencies should be focused on the challenges related to poverty. This means strategic, intentional collaborations with other agencies that are concerned about family and child well-being, not just the metrics of child maltreatment reports and entries into foster care. More important, child welfare agencies can seize the opportunity to learn how to engage families at the point of entry in a community-based program.
A parent who asks for free food or a subsidy to pay the rent or a utility bill, or help in finding a job, is at a point of desperation. They are demonstrating a good faith effort to care for and protect their children at a time of enormous stress.
This can be the ideal point of engagement where hope and healing begin to take hold. That entry point is a moment when we prevent the further deterioration of a family’s situation and where parents can find a friendly non-judgmental helper. If the engagement is a positive one, they now have a point of connection to someone who is willing and able to have them keep coming back in both good and bad times. They can also become part of a positive social network.
If child welfare agencies want to be successful when the promise of Family First and the wave of poverty and economic displacement are intersecting, they need to absorb information outside the world of child welfare. They would do well to understand the diversity of information available to them and how it applies to families in distress.
Paul DiLorenzo is the interim executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance.