Family Poverty is Not Neglect
Reforming State and Federal Laws to Clarify that Being Poor is Not A Good Reason for Child Protection Authorities to Intervene in Family Life
Children should not be removed from their homes, families, and communities because they are poor. Yet child protection authorities too often lack tools to address the root causes of poverty, and instead treat those causes with the label of "neglect" that deepens the families’ inability to escape from poverty, creating a harmful cycle of intergenerational child welfare involvement.
Over 75 percent of the families coming to the attention of state child welfare authorities concern claims of parental neglect, not abuse.
Families below the poverty line are 22 times more likely to be involved with the child protection system than families with incomes slightly above the line (See Prof. Martin Guggenheim and Prof. Vivek Sankaran (eds.), Representing Parents in Child Welfare Cases, American Bar Association (2015)).
Neglect allegations include concerns over inadequate food, clothing, shelter, child care or medical care – conditions related more to poverty and its stressors rather than parental fitness.
In 2017, 27,871 children in the United States were removed from their homes to foster care due to inadequate housing. It is estimated that 30 percent of children in foster care could be returned home if their families had adequate housing.
Broad definitions of neglect in state and federal law allow for children to be removed from their families based on conditions rooted in poverty that do not pose an imminent danger of harm.
Currently, federal law does not conform to the constitutional limits on when child protection authorities can take children from their parents, which results in inappropriate and harmful removals of children.
The confusion of poverty with neglect has led to a bloated child welfare system that cannot care for children in genuine need of protection and which actively traumatizes children and families who should not be separated.
States should tighten legal standards for removal of children to only those cases where the child is in immediate danger of harm. These standards must recognize that separating a child from his or her family is traumatic and should only occur when the risk of harm to the child remaining in the home outweighs the harm of removal.
Definitions of neglect at the state and federal levels should be amended to prohibit the separation of families due to conditions of poverty. Such definitions should provide clear guidance to focus courts and child welfare caseworkers on protecting children from immediate harm.
Limiting removals whenever possible –and ensuring that there is a child safety justification for every removal-- is best for children.
United Family Advocates Applauds H.R. 6233, "Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect Act"
In 2018, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) introduced the “Family Poverty Is Not Child Neglect Act” to end widespread child protection agency practices of separating families due to poverty, H.R. 6233. The filing coincided with National Family Reunification Month and aimed at ending separations of children from their parents by child welfare authorities. The bill amends the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) by instructing states that receive federal CAPTA funds to address concerns about a child’s welfare due to family poverty through services rather than removal of the child to foster care.
“Studies show, and child and family advocates agree, that foster care should be used only when less intrusive means to protect children fail. When poverty is the cause for child protection intervention, concrete services to help families are a much better approach than family separation.” -Diane Redleaf, founder of United Family Advocates