Friday, March 4, 2011

Improving the Foster Care System - Part XVI

Several studies have shown an undeniable link between poverty and child welfare investigations. It seems that the lower your income is, the higher the chances that your children could end up in foster care. If you happen to be poor and of color, your chances are even worse.

So for this week's installment of Improving the Foster Care System, I advocate that we eliminate neglect as a reason to remove children from their parents.

Neglect can be defined as, "the negligent failure of a person having the care or custody of a child to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision where no physical injury to the child has occurred."1

That definition seems awfully subjective, doesn't it?

Now there's clearly a big difference between parents who are deliberately depriving their children, and parents who simply are too poor to afford decent (or sufficient) food, clothing, shelter, etc. The former is clearly abuse; the latter is not.

In 2008, 14.6% of U.S. households were found to be food insecure. This means that though these families are not starving, they sometimes go hungry. Often, they run out of food and money before the end of the month. Even when these families aren't going hungry, they are often skimping on groceries and end up buying the cheapest (and often the least nutritious) items.

If a social worker shows up on the 25th of the month, would there be adequate food in this family's refrigerator?

Probably not.

If you are a low, or even a moderate-income family without health insurance, have you found yourself in the position of having a sick child and being reluctant to take him to the doctor or Emergency Room, knowing you can't afford the expensive medical bill?

If a social worker showed up because your child missed too many days from school and you hadn't been able to take him to the doctor because you couldn't pay for it, would she find you as being medically neglectful?


If you are living in substandard housing, have a landlord who won't make necessary and routine repairs, and are unable to move because you can't afford it, what happens when a social worker shows up and sees your home has holes in the floor, leaks in the roof, and is infested with cockroaches? Will she call up your landlord and demand that he fix the house?

No, she'll come and take your children away.

If you are poor, then you run the real risk of losing your children, not because you have done anything wrong, but simply because you aren't able to afford the lifestyle that your social worker thinks you should be living. If you have lost your job and end up homeless, a social worker will take your kids away because you have failed to give them adequate shelter.

Again there's a big difference between a parent who deliberately withholds needed food, clothing, shelter and medical care from a child, and one who simply cannot afford to provide it. If a parent is living in the same conditions as the child, then that shouldn't be considered neglect.

Of course the biggest problem with neglect is that the definition is completely subjective on the part of the social worker. There is no legal, measurable, objective definition. In fact, our country uses something called "community standards" to measure these things. If your house, your standard of living, and the food in your refrigerator is substantially less in quality than the invisible "community standard," then you run the risk of losing your children.

And again, it's subjective. One social worker might not have a problem with ten people living in a one-bedroom apartment. Another might.

Since poverty is a huge predictor of whether or not one will be investigated for neglect, it makes me wonder if the system is simply acting as a Robin Hood for children. Instead of stealing money from the rich and giving it to the poor, I wonder if neglect cases are simply a way for the child welfare system to steal children from the poor and give them to the more affluent.

Is that fair? Is it right? Is it just?

Of course not.

We need to eliminate neglect as a reason for taking children into foster care. There's very little difference between what a social worker would call neglect, and a sensible person would recognize as intractable poverty.

1. Keane Law Firm


  1. Here is the grey area though...are the parent's poor and not able to afford food and housing because 'Dad' refuses to put any effort into finding a job and the Mom has a job which covers barely the basic and everytime they come into a large amount they buy TV's, Xboxs, and fun things for themselves. These parent's are generally good people but they cannot or will not make the sacrafices needed to really provide for their kids.

  2. Maybe as a reason for removal, but definitely neglect needs to continue to be addressed. I still remember taking care of my 2 year old nephew. His dad didn't know he still needed to be supervised in the tub. My nephew was used to getting his own food (mostly cereal) rather than having others prepare food for him. He didn't seem to care about the change in caregivers (he's not RAD - just very easygoing). That Summer we discovered he was allergic to bandaids, peanut butter and corn. No one knew - even though he had fairly severe reactions (poor thing was trying to potty train and spent most of his time trapped on the potty with diarrhea).

    One time his family were investigated and found the baby, who had obiously been in the crib for a long time, had curdled milk in a bottle with filthy unchanged diapers. The 3 year old was taking care of the baby, there was dog poop all over, and the trailer was infested with fleas.

    Another time, the 4 and 5 yr old kids were seen wandering the trailer park at 10pm pushing their infant sister in a stroller (actually they almost weren't seen - they were almost hit by a car). They were found wandering in the park talking to strange men...

    These kids were rarely physically abused, but I think years of neglect took more of a major toll on them then the abuse. Mom lost custody of them often, took a parenting class, and got them back.

    Maybe the definition of neglect needs to be changed/ standardized (for the community), but I don't think it should be dumped completely. I don't know why my ex-SIL neglected her children (although drugs and alcohol definitely played a role), but I do know it wasn't what was best for the kids to stay with her. The physical neglect was the only overt symptom of the emotional abuse that was so damaging.

    Mary in TX

  3. I still maintain that if my foster children's parents had been given even half of the stipend we were given to care for them, they wouldn't have been taken into care in the first place.

  4. One problem with these "Improving the Foster Care System" posts of yours is that you don't really know the system. Yes, you've had some experiences with it, and certainly you have some legitimate comments to make about that experience. But when you write these posts, you make assumptions about the way the system works that just aren't true, at least in my state.
    The biggest mistake you make in these posts is that social workers make the decision to remove children. I know this isn’t the case in my state, and I can’t imagine that it is the case in any state—the individual liability would just be way too high. Instead, the decision is made by a group of people at different levels within the agency. And, although you must know this, you forget to mention in your posts that the legal system is also involved in all removals. Now, I’m not by any means suggesting that having the legal system involved makes everything right, but what I am telling you—reminding you, since there is no way you could not know this—is that there is a system of checks and balances in place that prevents removals from occurring simply at the whim of individual social workers.
    In this particular post, you make the mistake of not knowing that the law prohibits the removal of children from their parents solely for reasons of poverty. So, if we show up on the 25th of the month and the family doesn’t have enough food, we use our agency’s and the community’s resources to help them. For example, our agency has a number of grocery store gift cards we can give to clients. When these run out, we can direct clients to other agencies that have them. If they don’t have any left either, we give clients lists of food pantries and schedules of free meals offered in the community. If the family isn’t able to access the food pantries (did you know that those who are undocumented can’t?), we happen to have a food pantry in our area that social workers can access on behalf of their clients (I do realize that not all areas have something like this.) And if all else fails, guess what those terrible, horrible, no good very bad social workers do? They bring their families food. Yes, those unethical workers who don’t really care about the people they serve go to the grocery store and buy food for their clients out of their own pocket, even when they know they won’t be reimbursed. Hard to believe, isn’t it? And yes, I know that not every social worker in the country does that (there have been times when I myself couldn’t afford to.) And certainly, not every social worker can do it for every family on her caseload every month. But, we don’t remove the kids because there’s not enough food in the home, either.

  5. What would bring a case to the point of removal is when a family is living in poverty and is not willing to access the resources available to them: They refuse to go to the food pantry. They refuse to apply for food stamps or cash assistance. They refuse to apply for the state’s subsidized health insurance programs. They refuse to access the transportation services that that insurance provides to get to and from medical appointments. When they do that, that is neglect.
    What do we do when we show up and find the home has holes in the floor, leaks in the roof, and is infested with cockroaches? Yes, we call the landlord. We also call the Board of Health. And we call the local agency that intervenes in tenant-landlord issues. And, guess what? The agency pays for the home to be sprayed to get rid of the cockroaches. We also pay for clients to move to new homes. There’s been a recent epidemic of bed bugs where I work, and not only have we paid for families to relocate, but because bed bug infested furniture has to be thrown out, we’ve helped those families access local organizations that provide them with all new things! Workers even on occasion help families move—on their own time, using their own vehicles.
    You write, “If you have lost your job and end up homeless, a social worker will take your kids away because you have failed to give them adequate shelter.” This is ridiculous. You do not know what you are talking about. We can’t do this. We are not allowed to do this. The law prohibits us from doing this. We cannot remove a child solely because a family is homeless. If we tried to do this, the court would not only immediately rectify the situation by refusing to grant us custody, but they would be infuriated with us and we would lose all credibility with them.
    I could go on and on but this is already long enough.
    I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t criticize the system, or that there’s nothing to criticize. I myself criticize it multiple times a day. But please, try to remember that your experiences with the system are limited, and that your view is from the outside, from your not-very-long tenure as a foster parent, and that there’s much you don’t know or understand about how the system works.


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