Monday, November 20, 2017

When parents must pay child welfare ransom, children pay the price

Last August I wrote about the latest in a long line of studies that document how the best “preventive service” in child welfare is not counseling or parent education or assorted other “public health” initiatives that mostly make the helpers feel good.  The best preventive service is cash. Period.

That study documented how simply increasing the minimum wage by $1 an hour reduces what child protective services agencies call “neglect” by ten percent. Many other studies produce similar results.

So, if providing poor families with more money reduces so-called “neglect,” anyone care to guess what happens when you take money away from families already enmeshed in the system?

To what should be the surprise of absolutely no one, another new study finds that if you try to take $100 a month away from poor parents who have children in foster care, it prolongs the foster care by an average of more than six months.

At least that is the case with a particularly awful way of making poor people poorer: trying to force them to help pay the costs of foster care.

Officially this is termed “child support.” But the payments don’t go to support the parent’s own child – they go to support the child welfare system.  When someone takes away a child and makes the parents pay money to get that child back, the proper term for those payments is not “child support” – it’s ransom.

Ransom may prolong foster care in a number of ways. The money paid in ransom is not available for rent, so the parents can’t obtain adequate housing – often a requirement imposed by child welfare agencies before children are returned. Multiple studies estimate that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing.

Or the impact may be more direct.

As I discussed in this column for Youth Today, failure to pay ransom can be, in and of itself, an excuse to prolong foster.  Child welfare agencies have persuaded courts to refuse to return a child home until the ransom is paid.  Failure to pay the ransom even has been used as grounds to terminate parental rights.

It doesn’t even help taxpayers

The harm to children should be obvious. But this even hurts states and taxpayers.  There is no way the payments demanded of parents can equal the cost to the state of extending foster care by months or even years.

So why do we have state-sanctioned ransom? Because it sounds so good in a press release from a politician ready to take advantage of how we stigmatize and stereotype anyone who loses a child to foster care.  What could be more popular than making “child abusers” pay?

Of course, often the people who lose children to foster care are not child abusers at all. Often they are people whose poverty is confused with “neglect.” (That’s why raising the minimum wage reduces “neglect.”)

And in any case, it isn’t really the parents who paying.  When foster care is prolonged and when children needlessly lose their parents forever it is the children who pay, in ways that can’t be counted in dollars and cents.

So here’s the bottom line from the latest research:

● Make poor people less poor: Child “neglect” goes down.
● Make poor people more poor: Foster care is prolonged.