Is it just me, or does there seem to be a large number of families separated due to what courts determine to be child neglect? How many children are mistakenly removed from their homes??? They are not neglected but rather they are just poor….how many?
State legislatures, courts and state agencies differ in their opinions and approaches regarding the issues of poverty in child neglect cases.
The same differences apply with individuals working with youth and families; many of them have to determine whether a child is being neglected or if their situation is due to poverty. Evidence shows that there is a correlation between child neglect and poverty; although poverty is often a factor, it should not be mistaken for neglect. If neglect is suspected, the common solution to ensure a child’s safety is the child’s removal. It is the responsibility of those working in the field of social services to ensure the safety of all children; however, taking them from their families due to poverty and lack of resources and assistance is not the answer. There are many consequences of mistaking poverty and neglect; it is important to recognize the difference and act accordingly.
The Family Preservation and Support Act of 1993
For those of you who are not aware of the policies regarding the well-being of children, in 1993, there was concern that states were not paying enough attention to needed efforts in preventing the removal of children from their homes; thus, the reason why Congress introduced the Family Preservation and Support Services Act.
As crazy as it sounds, the number of children being placed in foster care between 1986 and 1995 had increased 76% making the Act necessary. The idea was for those with the authority to remove children from their homes to put more effort into preventing foster care placement. It was believed that doing so would help in eliminating the possible consequences the child would later face. Some of you may not be aware of this but a child being removed from their family, regardless as to how abusive or neglectful the caregivers may be, is a very stressful and painful experience.
Mistaking Poverty for Child Neglect: Removing Children from their Homes
Over the years, the idea of how to preserve family has taken on many changes as Congress tries to ‘simplify’ the definitions used to assist service providers in determining all that constitute the right for government to terminate a parent’s right to raise and care for their children. One very important concern is for children who are being maltreated and removed from their homes as the best solution to ensure their well-being, versus those who are not being maltreated but placed in foster care due to lack of money, resources and assistance. Making such a determination is critical in the ultimate well-being of children in either situation.
Before we continue, here are some important facts which you may have read in a few of my previous posts:
Now in continuing to sharee my point, a brief overview of definitions for child neglect is in order. Let me first point out that the courts have a very difficult job on their hands when needing to decide on which parents are able to care for their children and which are not. I must admit, I would not want to have that job!
Although many of us may not agree with the decisions that are made, for the most part the one and only concern for the courts is what is in the ‘best interest of the child.’ There are many factors that must be considered, including safety and permanency, and the proceedings of terminating the parent’s rights. Of the many terms used when considering what is best for the future of a child, one that does not have a definition is “best interest of the child”, and is taken under consideration when courts are in the midst of deciding the types of services, actions and orders will be best suited for the child’s situation.
Child neglect definitions may vary a bit depending on the state; however, they often all suggest that the primary caretaker of the child knowingly or negligently allow the child to be deprived of the basic necessities such as food, clothing, shelter or care. In comparison, poverty is defined as having inadequate food, clothing and shelter; thus, making it easy to mistake poverty for neglect. The National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System have included in their definition of neglect “the failure by the caregiver to provide needed age-appropriate care although financially able to do so or offered financial or other means to do so.” This, I believe should be considered throughout each and every family court system in the country.
Regardless of the definition, all family court systems consider the child’s basic needs with regard to these categories, a) physical – provide food or shelter and appropriate supervision; b) medical – ensure the child receives appropriate medical and mental health treatment; c) educational – ensure the child receives an education and ensure they attend to special education needs; and d) emotional – pay adequate attention to the child’s emotional needs, ensure they receive psychological care if needed, and prevent the use of alcohol and drugs. It is important to add, along with the previous categories there are subcategories with lengthy explanations which cause confusion to many practitioners; as if those making such major decisions need more confusion.
Poverty as a Factor in Child Neglect
Based on the information provided by the US Census Bureau (2013) in 2012, there were 46.5 million people living in poverty in the United States; 2.5% higher than in 2007. The American Humane Organization reported that poverty is the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect. When compared to families with an annual income of $30,000, families who bring in an annual income of less than $15,000 are 22 times more likely to maltreat their children. Twenty two times more likely, that is a pretty high number!
Researchers from both the United Kingdom and the United States have found that poverty is associated with an increase in a parent’s inability to cope and provide the basic needs for their children. Some of the more commonly added factors include anxiety, depression, fear and a feeling of being overwhelmed; thus, causing a parent to have a ‘disabling’ effect on their ability to parent, or to provide discipline, or tend to their child’s emotional needs and keep them safe.
The Accused Parent: Things to Consider
When a child is being maltreated, in any way they should be removed from the home immediately to ensure that they are safe. Knowing this to be the case, there are still many researchers who question the effectiveness of family preservation services; AND SO DO I! There is great concern in whether or not the correct decisions are being made when considering the removal of a child, particularly when the caretaker is loving, and the child would in fact be better off with their family.
The Supreme Court has recognized parent’s rights to care for and raise their own children; as suggested in the 14th Amendment. Although there are supposed to be…..or should be positive stages of proceedings that help in determining whether a child is a victim of neglect, such as a) an initial hearing; b) a case review; and c) termination of rights. Prior to getting to the last stage, termination of parental rights, it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that this parent is in fact neglectful and the child’s well-being would in fact be at stake if they remain the home with that parent. The problem with this is that there are not any clear, concise guidelines to follow; therefore, children are being removed even when there are other options.
Research suggests insight on the disparities in the removal of children from their homes; children removed from their homes for neglect remained in out of home care for an average of 92 days more than those who were removed for abuse. They further found that 56.9% of children removed from their homes for abuse who achieved permanency were reunified with their parents whereas children removed for neglect were reunified only 40.3%. Don’t get it??? Neither do I!
The goal of all involved is the preservation of family, right??? Which plays a major role in ensuring the well-being of the child, right??? Yes, I have always thought so too.
I say….and this is keeping the child’s best interest in mind that it is necessary for there to be careful consideration in not only defining the difference between poverty and neglect, but also in providing answers once neglect has been disproved and poverty has been established. Once poverty has been established, just as the children are, parents are owed due process of the law and protection against the state’s interference.
It takes a village....so here are some suggestions
With so many concerned about the need to create a balance between neglect and poverty, there are many ideologies that a practitioner can adopt that will assist in making the best possible decision regarding the well-being of a child. It is important to keep in mind that although they would like to have, social workers, attorneys and judges do not have all of the answers. This is why it is very important to remain open and conscious of the changes within their field. I, along with many researchers suggest that those working in the field research (regularly) the more common strategies being used in their field and states. Some of the more common practices that may help in determining between neglect and poverty are simple to do and can allow the decision maker some flexibility in their findings eliminating bias and other possible distractions in their decision making process.
VERY IMPORTANT…..from the inception of a neglect allegation, the parents should be treated as partners in identifying the underlying causes of risk to the child’s safety; regardless of the accusation, the parent should feel as though the focus is on ‘how we can work together with the realities you face and ensure the safety and well-being of your child’, not ‘you neglected your child’. Upon determining the issues within the family, it is very important to quickly follow through with action. Concluding that a parent’s neglect is in fact due to their financial situation is wonderful, but there needs to be a solution for that parent. Supporting them without solutions to their financial troubles (as well as other factors, such as psychological, etc.) will only continue to jeopardize the child’s well-being. Concrete services that include financial assistance for rent, food, clothing, and childcare can make a huge difference in that caretaker’s parenting abilities.
COMMUNITY LEADERS/ORGANIZATIONS…..this model may not be used in one’s community or state but has been reported as being successful. Some states have created what is called ‘Family Team Meetings’ which have been successfully used for over the past 10 years. This includes families, particularly those with low-income who are or have been involved with the child welfare system. Through family groups and conferencing, family decision making, permanency teaming and team decision making, and involving families as partners with the welfare agencies assists in addressing poverty related neglect. The team meeting model allows an opportunity to share resources that assist families facing poverty related issues that may put their children at risk.
In 2004, there was research on poverty and parenting that suggested that more predictive of child protective services neglect reports than any other report of maltreatment. It is imperative that parents are provided quality legal representation and case management. Just as importantly, parents should have access to a parent advocate and parent-led support groups. In all fairness, many parents are not guilty of neglect, but rather guilty of living in poverty. If they are not offered the opportunity to have legal counsel and the support of parent advocates they are at great risk of losing their children to the ‘system’.
In conclusion, it very important for ‘folks’ like us to begin making a big deal about the misconception of such an important topic….poverty and neglect; if we do not then who will?!?!
It is time for us to begin discussing alternatives to taking children out of their homes based on confusing facts which are not really facts at all. Social workers, attorneys, judges and those alike must begin using prevention strategies alongside intervention strategies to improve the lives of children living in poverty.
Removing children from their homes is not the only answer to all issues of neglect; there must be efforts put forth to address the financial needs of families. A few great writers said it best when they stated, “If poverty and economic strains lead to child neglect irrespective of parenting quality, interventions to prevent neglect are unlikely to be highly successful if the material needs are not simultaneously addressed.”
It is time to use new strategies to tackle the old and but growing issues within the homes of poverty ridden families.
Mrs. Tomaro M Pilgrim, MS