Isn't Housing Child Welfare?

Isn’t Housing Child Welfare?

Yesterday, I finally got an appellate opinion in a case in which I represented the child’s mother.  The Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the trial court’s finding of dependency, determining my client had been penalized for simply asking the Department of Family and Children Services (“DFCS”) for help to find housing for herself and her child. In the first paragraph of a blistering concurring opinion, Judge Dillard wrote,

As President Ronald Reagan once quipped, “ ‘[t]he nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’” V.G.’s mother learned this the hard way when she sought government assistance in securing suitable housing for her and her young son. Big mistake.

The opinion highlights the ways in which the State utterly fails the most needy families. DFCS removed V.G. because his family was homeless and no one could help the family obtain housing. That’s it. This choice cannot be the only one we have.  Sending children to foster care because their parents cannot find a house not only undermines families but, as the Court of Appeals reminded us in V.G., also runs afoul of the law.

Access to safe and stable housing remains one of the biggest challenges in child welfare. DFCS would not have removed V.G. “but for” his mother’s lack of shelter. But lack of housing should never be the reason child welfare agencies remove children from their parents. First, we know the significant trauma caused by the removal of the child for both the child and the parents. Second, child removal due to a lack of housing only forces state agencies to divert resources away from the actual cases that require state intervention. Finally, these cases are often the most challenging to “resolve” given the lack of housing options. Low-income parents face multiple barriers to housing ranging from poor credit, unhealthy housing conditions, and lack of affordable units. The foster care system is not designed to remedy these barriers.  How often do child protection agencies and courts actually resolve a housing issue?

The significance of safe, affordable housing has led some leading health service providers to work on increasing housing opportunities for marginalized populations. A recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly[1], reported that six New Jersey hospitals have partnered to improve health outcomes for vulnerable patients by providing financial incentives to expand their access to affordable housing. The American Hospital Association reports that 

housing instability, whether as a result of homelessness, poor living conditions, or substandard housing structures is directly related to health. According to research, individuals and families affected by these challenges generally have less access to preventive care and are more susceptible to chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular or pulmonary disease. These patients end up in the emergency room for their medical care.

These health providers determined that housing instability constrained patients’ ability to access meaningful preventive healthcare.   So the patient’s lack of housing had to be addressed if better health was to be achieved.  Importantly they decided that emergency rooms, like foster care, should not be the point of care for help.  We must do the same in child welfare.

The idea of preventive care is what many in the field highlight as the future of child welfare as we usher in the Family First Prevention Services Act (italics added).  However, the prevention services identified in the Act focus on addressing family safety through improved relationships and supports but do little to address the key family need for stable housing. Many of our families can benefit from at least some of the services spelled out in FFPSA, but without affordable housing, these services will have only limited preventive impact.

So, as we usher in this new child welfare era and deliberate about these new mandates, I challenge all of us to consider how to capitalize on this potential paradigm shift and create new housing opportunities for our families who need them. After all, Charles Richman, the head of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, justified creating housing incentives for hospitals because “housing is healthcare.”

Isn’t it also true that “housing is child welfare”?




[1]  “Six New Jersey Hospitals Receive Incentives to Create More Affordable Housing” by Meredith Betz.


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