Monday, August 13, 2012

Child welfare in DC: Ask for housing help, lose your kids?

            One of the many false claims from America’s latter-day “child savers” – to use the term their 19th Century counterparts proudly gave themselves – is the claim that “we never take away children because of poverty.” 

            Point out the fact that most state laws define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter – a perfect definition of poverty – and they’ll reply that in some of those states the law specifically makes an exception if the lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter is caused by poverty.

            But, of course, the child savers have all sorts of ways around petty annoyances such as what a law actually says.

            Recall the case from Texas in which a family was torn apart for lack of housing and the flack for the child welfare agency blithely explained that the children weren’t being torn from their loving parents because they were poor, but because they were in an unsafe living environment.  “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment,” she explained.

            And now we have the spectacle of Washington, D.C., enacting what looks for all the word like a cruel, calculated plan to stop families in desperate need of housing from seeking help from the D.C. government.

            As the D.C. blog Policy and Poverty first reported in May, the plan is simplicity itself.  When someone calls the center that is supposed to help homeless families, the center promptly turns around and turns them in to the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) – the agency that investigates child abuse and takes away children in the District.

            The Policy and Poverty blog notes that this is done despite the fact that

As the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless notesDistrict law specifically states that “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.”

            CFSA claims it hasn’t actually taken any children as a result of these referrals.  But as the Blog also notes, CFSA has admitted that of all the children it tore from their families in 2010, 35 were placed primarily because of “inadequate housing.”

            And what CFSA will admit is only the tip of the iceberg.  As I’ve noted previously on this Blog, an independent evaluation by CFSA’s own Citizen Review Panel found a serious and widespread problem of needless removal of children from their homes.

            In a Washington Post story in June, Ruth White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare – and a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors – cut to the heart of the matter:

What’s unusual about D.C., White believes, is that the overburdened city is using its new warning to reduce the number of families in its system by scaring away parents …  who might be able to scrape by sleeping on couches, with friends and family or in their cars.

“These people are simply walking in the door for assistance and people don’t have shelter and they’re saying, ‘We’re calling CPS on you? ‘ It’s ridiculous,” White said. “It is scandalous. I’ve never seen it done this blatantly.”

Lawyers for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said they first began hearing from families who had been threatened with investigation this winter and now many of their clients avoid seeking help.

One woman who recently testified at a[D.C. city] council hearing wept as she described her fear that she would lose custody of her younger son, a 16-year-old honor student, after the family was evicted from their apartment in April and ended up sleeping in Anacostia Park.

“I’m just so afraid,” she said. “They tell me they’re going to come and have my son taken away. I can’t deal with that. My boys is all I know.”

            Most disappointing is who it is who turns out to be behind this cruel policy.  In the District helping homeless families is the responsibility of the Department of Human Services.  That agency is run by David Berns, who earned a national reputation as a reformer for transforming child welfare, and significantly reducing foster care, in El Paso County, Colorado.

            If anyone ought to know better, it’s Dave Berns.