The Los Angeles Times and columnist Steve Lopez launched a critically important series on child poverty Sunday. Replete with both haunting and inspiring photos taken by the talented Francine Orr, readers are introduced to Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima, which has the inauspicious designation of “having more homeless students than any other in the district.”
In that district, Los Angeles Unified, Lopez explains that eight out of 10 students get “free or reduced lunch,” a key measure of poverty.
Lopez opens with the story of 29-year-old Brenda Salgado, a single mom, who has grown accustomed to moving her four children – ages 1-to-9 – from one bargain motel to the next. As you watch Salgado’s frantic efforts to get her school-aged children to school (two at Telfair), it is impossible not to ask what’s gone wrong.
And for me, a journalist who has studied child protective services for more than a decade, the story makes me especially nervous. I know that America’s social safety net is so frayed that the public agency of first resort for far too many poor families is child protection, bringing with it the awesome and frightening power to remove children.
You have to go to 1971 – more than a decade before Salgado was born – to get a fuller picture of why child protective services agencies like Los Angeles County’s $2.4-billion Department of Children and Family Services have stepped in as the de facto welfare system for families on the brink. That year, President Richard Nixon vetoed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have opened child care centers across the country. These centers would have provided daycare, medical and nutritional services for any American family based on a sliding scale tied to income.
One can just imagine what such centers would have meant for Salgado when she was a young child, before winding up in the juvenile justice system. One can imagine what these centers could have done in the years before her three older children started school, and what such a center could do for her baby daughter today.
But that isn’t the America we live in. Nixon’s veto, penned by then-aide Pat Buchanan, marked the end of the Great Society programs aimed at leveling the playing field for poor Americans. Marty Guggenheim, a New York Law School expert on child welfare and a fierce advocate for the rights of biological families entangled with the child protection system, recently introduced me to this incredible history. As Guggenheim describes it, this moment tragically shifted the federal government away from the idea of helping children in poverty through services to the pathologizing of poor parents as child abusers.
Senator Walter Mondale was the Democratic co-sponsor of The Comprehensive Child Development Act. In the wake of Nixon’s veto, Mondale – still wanting to direct services and supports toward child development – changed tactics. As Barbara Nelson describes in her 1984 book “Making an Issue of Child Abuse,” Mondale focused his attention on child abuse.
“The strategic value of his choice,” Nelson writes, “is captured in the phrase most remembered of him during the legislative process: ‘Not even Nixon is in favor of child abuse!’”
That legislative process would culminate in the passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, which set up a national child removal machine, aimed at saving children from neglect and abuse. Since then, additional federal child welfare laws have placed a premium on the use of foster care and adoption, not the prevention of maltreatment in the first place.
The problem is that this dragnet catches up far too many families that should have just been given child care centers – not investigators.
A 2017 study estimated that by age 18, one in three American children, and more than half of black children, will be investigated for child maltreatment – either abuse, neglect or both. According to the latest federal data, “neglect” was associated with a child’s removal 62 percent of the time. While neglect can have serious negative impacts on a child’s development and emotional well-being, it is easily confounded with the kind of poverty that Salgado and so many of the families at Telfair whose lives Lopez is chronicling.
My hope is that the Times’ series will put a continued spotlight on a prevalent problem that needs a comprehensive solution. When one of the only remaining tools we have to help families in economic crisis is a system meant to stop child abuse, we are in trouble.
We are in trouble.
If we want to help families stay together and prosper, we need to dust off some of the comprehensive, national approaches meant to wage war on poverty, and create a great society.
Thank you to the Times, Lopez and Orr for painting the contours of the problem. It’s now on us to get to work lifting up the solution.
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