It’s the biggest single problem in American child welfare – and one that child welfare agencies almost always deny even exists: the widespread needless removal of children when family poverty is confused with child “neglect.”
But this week, two of the largest systems in the country effectively admitted it.
|"Preventive Service" #1|
Florida: Candor from the Attorney General's office
In Florida, the admission was explicit. WFLA-TV, the same television station that broke this outstanding story about a child taken because of poverty only to die in foster care has followed up. In this story, they found state officials who admit that children are held in foster care solely because the children lack decent housing:
Or, as the version of the story on the WFLA-TV website puts it:
At a recent meeting of the Hillsborough Children’s Board, Stephanie Bergen from the Florida Attorney General’s Office counted 40 foster kids in Hillsborough County who are separated from their parents due to poverty and nothing else.
“What Stephanie is talking about is kids who’ve been in foster care for more than 15 months and the only thing that’s keeping them from going home is the lack of housing for their parents,” [child advocate Robin] Rosenberg said. “It’s a community-wide crisis. It’s a statewide crisis.”
Rosenberg says there are 125 foster kids statewide in the same situation.
This admission is just the small tip of a very large iceberg. It covers only children still in foster care after 15 months and only cases in which a child welfare agency apparently admits that the children are still trapped in foster care solely due to poverty.
I don’t know how the Attorney General’s office came up with the number but the 15-month timeframe offers a clue. Under the so-called Adoption and Safe Families Act, agencies are supposed to ask a court to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months.
But there are lots of exceptions, including cases in which the agency itself admits to failing to provide adequate help for a family as documented in its own case plan. Needless to say, such confessions are rare. So these probably are those rare cases in which the agency was willing to admit that poverty was the only problem preventing reunification - and even say it out loud in court.
In contrast, multiple studies have found that, nationwide, 30 percent of foster children could be home right now if the parents just had decent housing.
New York City: A food pantry that tells a story
In New York City the admission came in the form of a food pantry.
At a child welfare agency that’s been moving backwards in recent months it’s good to see one step in the right direction: The New York City Administration for Children’s Services is opening a food pantry in one of its field offices. A story in the New York Daily News suggests the food will be available for families already under ACS supervision or who already have a child in foster care. But an ACS press release implies it may be available to prevent removal as well.
Either way, The Daily News story includes an acknowledgement of what agencies usually deny. According to the story:
Families are more likely to get cited for neglect or lose custody of their kids if they don’t provide the food kids need, especially if they’re already being investigated for other offenses.
And here’s what the Food Bank For New York City, which is running the food pantry at the ACS office says.
“For families who are struggling to provide meals for their children, it can become very difficult,” said Food Bank Vice President Camesha Grant.
“Their children are at risk of being taken out of the home and potentially placed into a foster home,” she said. “It may not be the only thing, but it certainly becomes a factor, and an important one if it is deemed you’re unable to provide the basic necessity of food.”
As for that caveat about “especially if they’re already being investigated” that doesn’t really narrow things down much.
A recent study found that the families of more than half of all African-American children will be investigated before those children turn 18. The study didn’t break that down by income – but, obviously, the percentage of poor African American families who will be investigated is even higher.
And the ACS food pantry is in only one office in one of the city's five boroughs. According to the Daily News, one more is planned for next summer. ACS “hopes” to “eventually” open others. In the meantime, how many more children will be taken from everyone they know and love because their families can’t afford to provide the children with enough food?
Even with the foster-care panic now underway in New York City, New York actually takes away children at one of the lowest rates in the country. So if New York City needs food pantries in order to stop taking away children needlessly, one can only imagine how many children are torn apart because of poverty in states and cities such as these, that take children at rates vastly above the rate in New York City.