Sunday, March 5, 2017

Child Abuse Prevention (Part II): Removal because of poverty?

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.


dnlauber said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective on suspected neglect, Mollie. Professor of Social Work Kathleen Belanger wrote a piece on Finding Homes for Rural Foster Children ( She poses a hypothetical story of two siblings to illustrate the differences between how the foster system affects children in urban an rural areas. She concludes: "In rural America, all too often Sarah and Ben would leave their home in their small community. They would be gone one day, perhaps without saying goodbye to their friends, their teachers in the school they love, the small streets where they knew everyone. They would be driven far away from their own home to a city, and may even have to be in separate homes, all alone, which could add to their trauma, no matter how thoughtful and loving their new foster family."

Your blog post touches on how traumatic preemptively being separated from their family can be dramatic for children--I agree. I also agree with you that there is a distinction between active and passive neglect. But, in the eyes of the law, how are judges supposed to handle this distinction?

I worked for a judge in probate this past summer. Your blog post reminded me of a particular case. A grandmother was petitioning for guardianship of her 7 grandchildren who lived with her. She offered them a loving home, but the Probate Investigators and CPS concluded that she did not have the means to provide for the children, and that any assistance she received from the state simply was not enough. My judge ultimately decided the children needed to go into foster care, despite the fact that he believed the grandmother was not actively neglecting the children.

You sated that "it does not seem ethical to remove a child from a caring home because his or her family is poor." In the situation that I described, that is essentially what happened. Do you feel that my judge's decision was unethical? Or, was he following the constraints of the law and his duty to find in the best interest of the children?

Courtney said...

I really enjoyed learning more about the varying removal guidelines you mentioned in this post. Some of the issues that are sticking with me, especially with rural children, are (a) who is reporting these families, (b) what is the service area of a rural CPS worker, and (c) how is rural poverty evaluated as opposed to urban poverty? For example, is there more leeway with a rural family leaving a child at home during the day? Perhaps there is less "trouble" for them to get into? Or can a rural property be in worse disrepair than a home in a city? Also, I imagine that very poor families in cities may be involved in more support services that could lead to more instances of reporting. For example, they may live in federal housing with many close neighbors that may be quick to report a family to CPS for whatever reason, or the children may be involved in meal programs in their community or school where there is more organizational oversight of them. It's frustrating to see the lines of neglect and poverty run so close together, but I do see the interest of the child to not be living in such extreme poverty. I do think that supporting the whole family to avoid removal is the most appropriate action in these situations. If the state is going to funnel money into foster programs, perhaps more of those funds could go towards the impoverished families loosing their children to avoid having as many children in foster care.

Mollie M said...

Re: dnlauber

I do not mean to advocate for such a black and white handling of these situations; I merely think that it is dangerous to equate poverty and neglect without further investigation. 'Family maintenance' services, where the child remains in the home, might solve an issue for a family who is struggling to pay the bills, is committed to caring for the child, and could do so with a little more support. Of course, these issues are extremely complex and I believe each case is different. In a situation like I described, it might be in the best interest of the child - which is the legal standard in dependency court - to avoid the trauma of removal and support the family with the child at home. In your example, it isn't quite so simple, and I hear you. A relative caregiver who is elderly may not be able to support a child as a factual matter. Staying with the grandmother, in that scenario, may not be in the best interest of the child. I do think that it is in the interest of the child to always consider poverty, and try not to shame this relative caregiver and treat her as if she were intentionally neglecting her children. I merely think it is important to ask what the root cause of the issue is, to make sure that CPS and Caseworkers are not removing children in cases where other support could solve the problem. Your example may not be part of that category.

Also, Probate Court may look slightly different from dependency. There, the issue would have come up as part of handling a decedent's matters, which means of course that decisions must be made to coordinate and decide what is best for the children, which certainly makes sense. Dependency involvement originates from a report of alleged abuse or neglect of children, and thus can place large responsibilities on parents to address what issue caused the abuse or neglect. If the issue is fundamentally poverty alone, it may be hard for a parent to remedy the issue within the timeframe provided by the court due to factors outside of the parent's control (such the economy, local job markets, transportation issues, etc). Dependency and Probate may have a slightly different atmospheres, even when some of the functions can be very similar.

RGL said...

Your suggestion is very compelling. At first glance, I was suspect of an argument that children should not be considered neglected on the basis of poverty. My thought was that if a parent or a family does not have the means to provide for their child, then there's not really an option; the cause of the neglect shouldn't really matter because the child's health and safety comes first.

However, you point out that "parents' income better predicts whether a child will be removed for maltreatment than the severity of the abuse allegation does" and that "children who are poor are at least twenty times more likely to be identified as abused or neglected." These facts show that the practice of removing children from homes based on neglect is discriminatory on the basis of wealth, not necessary for the wellbeing of the child. Our government has failed poor communities all over the country.

I bet looking at a combination of income and race would show that black and other racial minority families have it even worse when it comes to CPS' practices of removing children from the home. The health and safety of the child should come first and you're right that removing a child from their family is not the best option just because a family is poor (or not white).