Diagnosis: Poverty, Prognosis: Poor

I have heard it said many times that we – “we” being the child welfare system – do not remove children because their parents are poor. I have heard it at conferences, at stakeholder meetings and in conversations with colleagues. But I think it’s time we get one thing straight: we do most definitely remove children because their parents are poor.

            Both as a society and as a system, we dislike poor people and we especially dislike poor parents. We blame them for not only living in poverty but for choosing to parent under these conditions. We are skeptical of their motives, of their parenting choices and of the people they choose to have in their lives (think “paramour”). And we are scared they will invite violence and disorder not only into the lives of their children but also into the lives of foster parents, case managers and service providers. These biases are pervasive in child welfare and are exemplified in its systems, approaches and attitudes. In my experience, there are three ways in which the child welfare system (and its players) manage an intolerance of poor parents in practice: isolation, regulation and denigration.

Isolation is an obvious tool of the child welfare system. Most basically we physically isolate children from their parents. While foster care is intended to be an option of last resort, the use of stranger foster care in the case of poor parents is particularly distressing because it signals both that children must be protected against the poverty of their parents, and that the state and judicial system is unwilling to assist these parents so that children can remain with their parents. I recently had a case with “Ms. X” in which the only allegation that prompted removal of the child from his mother’s custody was her lack of housing. The State was (not surprisingly) unwilling to briefly assist the mother with housing so the two-year-old child could remain with her, but was willing to pay to house the child in stranger foster care (the most traumatic option). The court sanctioned this action by placing the child in foster care.

            But the physical act of isolating a child from his or her parents is not the only way in which the child welfare system isolates poor parents. Once a child is removed from his parent’s custody there is also a systemic process of isolating the parents from the experience of parenting. While it is at least possible to imagine the very rare case where increased isolation would be justified, this is also the norm for poverty cases. Poor parents are not empowered to be parents while their children are outside their custody: they are not encouraged to interact with foster parents about their children’s likes or dislikes, and they are routinely not informed about or invited to doctors’ appointments, educational meetings and the results of their child’s various mental health assessments. Parenting classes do not take place with the child present, and parental fitness assessments generally occur without any clinical observation of the parent with the child.

            While the child welfare system relies heavily on isolation to “protect” children from poor parents, it also relies on the state and court’s increased regulation of their lives. Thus, when a parent does have contact with a child, it is heavily supervised, prescribed and managed. In the case I mentioned above, where the only substantive allegation was housing, Ms. X was only given supervised visitation even though her only “fault” was being poor and without a home. Moreover, the system regulates where parents can live and with whom. I have, unfortunately, routinely suggested that parents move out of the homes of family members because a family member has a criminal background.  I have heard judges lecture parents on having other children and on their decision not to marry their boyfriends or girlfriends.

            The propensity to regulate poor peoples’ lives is most notably exemplified in the generation of a case plan. Typically these plans are highly burdensome, confusing and meaningless when it comes to addressing issues of poverty. Ms. X was ordered to complete a parental fitness evaluation and follow all its recommendations, but no meaningful housing assistance was identified or offered. 

            Lastly, we continue to use the child welfare system to minimize the voice, experiences and integrity of poor parents. Illustratively, Ms. X clearly testified that she could reside with her sister until she found stable housing. Despite no evidence to the contrary, the court found the mother’s testimony “not credible.”[1] The court routinely sends the message that not only should parents not be listened to but that poor parents would make parenting choices that could threaten the lives of their children even if all the evidence points to the contrary. This distrust and devaluation extends to every aspect of child welfare. As Vivek Sankaran pointed out in a recent blog post: “we make parents wait for hours for cases to be called, or meetings to begin. Yet we never apologize for the delay. Nor do we provide adequate spaces to wait, or places for children to play. Instead we expect them to be grateful for the privilege to meet with those of us who hold power in their lives.”

            So the reality is this: we do remove children due to issues of poverty and we make it incredibly difficult for those parents to reunify with their children because of our reliance on policies and practices that further stigmatize poor parents. We need to realize this fact, embrace it and work in meaningful ways to address it. That means we need to start advocating for services that directly address poverty, like increased access to affordable housing and job readiness programs. States should be authorized to use funds for foster care for short-term emergency housing to keep children with their parents. We need to create time and space for parents to have much more meaningful, frequent and independent contact with their children if and when they are removed. And lastly, we need to make sure that we respect, at all times, the humanity of parents parenting in poverty. We need to trust that they are in most cases the best and most reliable historians of their child’s lives and position that voice at the center of case planning. Otherwise the prognosis for poor parents in the child welfare system is in a word, poor.

[1] This case is currently pending on appeal of the dependency adjudication.


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