When a child's needs are not met: poverty vs. neglect
In the first part of this series, I explored the history of child welfare agencies and their relationships to poor and rural areas, noting that CPS has an unfortunate history of treating poor, minority, and rural communities inequitably.
Rural areas often struggle with poverty. Many states have distinguished between poverty as a potential cause (or correlation) for child maltreatment and the poverty as child maltreatment. Only about half of the states have affirmatively taken the position that the mere fact that a family is poor does not equate child neglect.
It is true that children who live in poor areas are more likely to experience maltreatment than those whose families' have more resources (poverty here refers to families who make $1500 per year or less). It is clear that Child Welfare Agencies all over the country are struggling with the relationship between the two. Currently, parents' income better predicts whether a child will be removed for maltreatment than the severity of the abuse allegation does.
When CPS investigates a report of child abuse, if the social worker deems a safety threat severe enough (based on the local guidelines and state law), the worker will remove the child from the home and place him or her in foster care, while the family attempts to address the problem that put the child at risk. Theoretically, poverty alone is not usually a reason for removing a child from his or her parents. Often, however, poverty can be confused with child neglect.
Definition of Neglect
The definition of neglect varies among different agencies, but generally signs of child neglect include: inadequate clothing, food, hygiene, and supervision. Child welfare workers look at whether the child is in a safe environment or whether he or she has been abandoned in an unsafe place. This analysis can be very difficult, and circumstances change on a case-by-case basis. 'Active' neglect is when a caregiver purposefully withholds care from a child or expressly puts his or her needs above the basic needs of the child. 'Passive neglect' occurs when a caregiver unintentionally does not provide for a child's basic needs, usually because the caregiver does not have the means to do so. Some researchers want to include passive neglect as abuse, arguing that child welfare workers should look at the objective harm to the child, and not the caregiver's intent when investigating an allegation. Others disagree.
Different problems call for different solutions
Children who are poor are at least twenty times more likely to be identified as abused or neglected. However, most studies also show that poor families do not typically abuse or neglect their children. How can we reconcile these statements? S.J. Zuravin, who has written extensively about child neglect, puts it this way:
"[f]or people living in poverty, the probability of child abuse and neglect is largely dependent on the extent of one’s ability to cope with poverty and its stressors…impoverished parents have little leeway for lapses in responsibility, whereas middle-class families, there is some leeway for irresponsibility, a luxury that poverty does not afford."
While poverty and neglect have similar negative effects on children, it seems clear to me is that passive (particularly passive neglect that is a result of extreme poverty) and active neglect are two very different problems, with different solutions. Child Welfare organizations and dependency courts have been struggling with how to address these issues for quite some time.
Child welfare workers face a difficult predicament when determining whether to remove a child on the basis of neglect. Removal from the home is extremely traumatic to children, and those who are prematurely removed from the home face similar trauma and developmental effects as children experiencing actual neglect. The caseworker faces the conundrum of deciding, as an outsider, whether the situation calls for removal. I argue that in a case of suspected neglect, it is important to investigate the cause of the problem. For example, a mother who cannot pay for child care may feel that she has no choice but to leave her children unsupervised while she is at work. Caregivers who cannot afford to fix problems in the home or who are afraid to confront the landlord for fear of getting evicted may live in a home that is not safe for a child. In these situations, it is likely that in-home financial help or other support services and resources would be much more effective and less traumatic than removal to foster care. Removal from loving parents can be devastating for a child.
By equating poverty with neglect, we run the risk of causing more trauma to children instead of supporting families and preventing child abuse. This is particularly true in rural areas, where a removal could mean that a child has to leave their home community in order to find foster care placement. The burden of this confusion must fall largely on poor rural communities, as the poverty rate in rural areas is higher than the national average. To me, it does not seem ethical to remove a child from a caring home because his or her family is poor. It reflects too much of the times when Child Welfare Agencies removed children based on subjective parenting standards, which usually fell most harshly on poor, minority, and otherwise misunderstood families.