Need Evidence That Child Welfare Sees Poverty as Neglect? Step One: Look

When Sean Hughes and I debated whether it would be a good idea to massively increase spending on foster care, Hughes wrote:

If you look at the data, it’s hard to see any evidence of there being a pattern of foster care entry due solely to material deprivations of poverty.

 Presumably he means the data other than —

  • The three separate studies since 1996 that found 30 percent of America’s foster children could be safely in their own homes right now if their birth parents had safe, affordable housing.
  • A fourth study which found: “In terms of reunification, even substance abuse is not as important a factor as income or housing in determining whether children will remain with their families.”
  • The two studies from New York which found that families struggling to keep their children out of foster care are stymied by two major problems: homelessness and low public assistance grants.

Those New York studies are old. But …

  • When the foster care population in Genesee County, Michigan, (which includes Flint) doubled in 2000 to 2003, even the head of the county child welfare office said one of the main reasons was they were removing children from women who were forced to leave their children with unsuitable caretakers while they went to jobs they had to take under the state’s welfare laws.
  • And now, The Atlantic reports that a forthcoming study finds that making it harder to get help under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program leads to an increase in foster care placements.

The data are “hard to see” only if you refuse to look. And that also turns out to be part of the problem.

One of the studies concerning children kept in foster care due to lack of housing also found caseworkers actually may be – to use that favorite phrase of the child welfare industry – “in denial” about housing issues.  The study found that caseworkers “may tend to ignore housing as a problem rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that they cannot help their clients with this important need.”

Anatole France Would Have Understood

A classic example of such denial can be seen in this case from Houston:

After Prince Leonard was injured at work, he and his wife and their six children could no longer afford to live in their apartment complex. They lived in a shelter for a while, but it wasn’t safe enough for the children. So the family moved into the only “gated community” they could afford: a 12 x 25 foot storage unit.

Leonard built a loft area and shelves. The unit had electricity, heat and air conditioning. The family lived there, and the children did well, for three years. Then someone called Child Protective Services, which removed the children on the spot without lifting a finger to help find the family housing.

A CPS spokeswoman insisted the children were not torn from their parents because of poverty. Rather, she said, they were taken because they were living in an “unsafe living environment.” And, in a comment Anatole France surely would have cherished, the spokeswoman added: “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.”

And this new case from Houston makes clear that CPS still is too often confusing poverty with neglect.

A major reason for all that denial is, of course, because there are always funds for foster care, and not for services to keep children out of foster care – exactly the problem Hughes proposes to worsen.

Fortunately, not everyone is in denial. A few of the people who “get it” even run child welfare systems – people like Molly McGrath Tierney, director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services. In a brilliant, 11-minute Ted-x talk she says:

The reason that child welfare isn’t working is because there are children in foster care. It’s not that the government is doing it badly, it’s that foster care is a bad idea. The error is the intervention.

Then she describes the reasons it happens, and not just the financial reasons:

[I]t feels good to save kids. We get a great injection of adrenaline when we rush in and our brain responds to that stimuli just like we do anything else that feels good – we want more of it. And when we figure out how to keep returning to that good feeling, we start thinking that, in and of itself, is success. We start mistaking something that feels good to us for something that’s actually helping other people – ‘cause it feels so good, we must be doing the right thing.

Here’s her entire talk:

What do you know? I thought I was the only one who used the term “foster care-industrial complex.”

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 50 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).


  1. So whattya think Molly McGrath is doing today?? Back to Running that child welfare agency she criticized! Guess the ‘adrenaline rush’ just wasn’t something she could stay away from?!!

  2. now that is an educated commentary . What also is overlooked is the amount of corruption ,pure fraud by the caseworker to retain the custody until it’s time for termination and adoption .
    I speak truth .

    • Ummm…the real truth is that judges make the decisions. And what does ‘the amount of corruption, pure fraud by the caseworker to retain custody until it’s time for termination and adoption’ actually mean?!

      What do you think caseworkers actually get besides a lousy salary?

  3. Poverty is not a crime. Crimes against children are police matters…not for untrained social workers with liberal arts degrees to investigate and prosecute in their reporting to Superior Court Judges. What is the number one reason children die under the scrutiny of CPS according to the Children’s Investigative Unit’s Report to the Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles? “FRONT END INVESTIGATIVE FAILURES,” i.e., lying case workers.
    No child should be seized from his home unless he is in imminent danger of bodily harm or death. Period!

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