A Social Services office building in Arizona where babies are housed when taken away from their families and before a foster home is found. Arizona has one of the highest rates of children being taken away from their families. Story.
Thousands of children are trapped in foster care because their parents don’t have adequate housing. That is The REAL Foster Care Housing Crisis
● Yes, there is a disconnect between the number of foster parents and the number of foster children. But that’s not because we have too few foster parents. It’s because we have too many foster children.
● The REAL foster care housing crisis is the fact that study after study has found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents simply had decent housing. Fix that foster care housing crisis and the so-called shortage of foster parents disappears.
● The REAL foster care housing crisis is part of the biggest problem in American child welfare – the confusion of poverty with “neglect” and the racial bias that goes with it.
● The so-called Chronicle of Social Change uses moderate rhetoric to hide an extremist agenda. Part of that agenda is trying to undermine efforts to curb the use of the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions. Obviously, if you want to stop a reform movement aiming to curb the use of group homes and institutions, you have to hype an artificial “shortage” of family foster homes.
THE REAL FOSTER CARE HOUSING CRISIS
An online site called the Chronicle of Social Change has released a “report” about what it calls “The Foster Care Housing Crisis.” The report contains nothing new. It’s just another attempt to scare Americans into embracing the Chronicle’s extremist hidden agenda.
Story after story in the Chronicle sends the same message:
Take more children from their families.
Warehouse more of them in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions.
Deny the role of racial bias in needless removal of children from their homes – even to the point of promoting pernicious racial stereotypes.
It is because of this extremist agenda, and its suppression of meaningful dissent, that we refer to the Chronicle as the Fox News of child welfare.
And it is point #2, opposing efforts to curb the use of group homes and institutions, that is behind the Chronicle’s new “report.”
Indeed, the real purpose of the report is summed up in this paragraph, discussing proposed legislation to very slightly curb federal funding for group homes:
in the short term, limitations on congregate care placements might require some states to rely more heavily on their available foster homes. And as this research shows, many states are challenged as it is when it comes to foster home capacity. In fact, as is discussed below, the “challenge” is of these states’ own making, and is easily fixable.
Indeed, promoting the use of group homes and institutions is the only reason to issue a “report” that is nothing but a rehash of what everybody already knows: There are more foster children than there are family foster homes for them. But the Chronicle almost completely ignores the real reason for this: It’s not because there are too few foster parents. It’s because there are too many foster children.
WHAT THE CHRONICLE WON’T TELL YOU …
To understand the Chronicle’s phony version of the foster care housing crisis, it’s important to understand the real foster care housing crisis.
The real crisis is the one that ensnared Prince Leonard and his family.
After Leonard was injured at work,[*] he and his wife and their six children no longer could afford to live in their apartment complex. They lived in a shelter for awhile, but it wasn’t safe enough for the children.
So the family moved into the only “gated community” they could afford – a 12 x 25 foot storage unit. Leonard built a loft area and shelves. The unit had electricity, heat and air conditioning. The family lived there, and the children did well, for three years. Then someone called Child Protective Services. CPS removed the children on the spot – without lifting a finger to help the family find housing.
A CPS spokeswoman insisted the children were not torn from their parents because of poverty. Rather, she said, they were taken because they were living in an “unsafe living environment.” And, in a comment Anatole France surely would have cherished, the spokeswoman added: “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.”
Publicity – not CPS – ultimately led to this family being reunited.
The only thing that separates this case from tens of thousands of others is that publicity. The biggest single problem in American child welfare is the confusion of poverty with neglect – a problem compounded by the racial bias that permeates child welfare systems.
And one of the biggest components of the confusion of poverty with neglect is the penchant of American child welfare to take away children because parents lack decent housing.
The problem goes back decades …
Families struggling to keep their children out of foster care were stymied by two major problems: homelessness and low public assistance grants, according to two New York City studies. Courts in New York City and Illinois found that families are repeatedly kept apart solely because they lack decent housing. In California, homeless children were given emergency shelter only on condition that they be separated from their parents, until a successful lawsuit put an end to the practice. In Washington D.C., where the foster care system was run for several years by the federal courts, the first receiver named by the court to run the agency found that between one-third and one-half of D.C.’s foster children could be returned to their parents immediately — if they just had a decent place to live. …and it hasn’t stopped
Three separate studies since 1996 have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be safely in their own homes right now, if their birth parents had safe, affordable housing. A fourth study found that “in terms of reunification, even substance abuse is not as important a factor as income or housing in determining whether children will remain with their families.” Compounding the problem: Child welfare workers sometimes are in denial about the importance of providing concrete help to families.
A study of cases in Milwaukee County, Wis. found that housing problems were a key cause of removal and a key barrier to reunification. But the researchers write that while birth parents “see housing as a major source of concern …child welfare workers are less attentive to this concern.”
“Perhaps child welfare workers in Milwaukee are more focused on parental functioning and less attentive to concrete needs such as housing because of the principles guiding agency practice and the workers’ education and training. Alternatively workers … may tend to ignore housing as a problem rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that they cannot help their clients with this important need.” Child welfare agencies even admit it (when it will get them money)
Many people are familiar with federal “Section 8” vouchers, federal funds provided to impoverished families by local governments to help those families find housing they can afford.
There is a small, special program within Section 8 called the “Family Unification Program.” As the name implies, these vouchers are reserved for cases in which, as the Department of Housing and Urban Development explains
lack of adequate housing is a primary factor in:
a. The imminent placement of the family’s child or children in out-of-home care, or
b. The delay in the discharge of the child or children to the family from out-of-home care.
But to apply for these vouchers state or local child welfare agencies have to admit that such cases exist – notwithstanding their pious pronouncements to press and public that they would never even think of tearing apart a family because of housing problems.
HOW IT HURTS CHILDREN
The consequences have been devastating for children.
When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates. He is cut loose from everyone loving and familiar. For a young enough child it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping. Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished. The emotional trauma can last a lifetime. So it’s no wonder that two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.
That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one. The majority are. But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population. Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse. But even that isn’t the worst of it. The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger. So they make even more mistakes in all directions. Overloading the system with children who don’t need to be there also creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes. None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents. But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses. For decades America has prescribed mega-doses of foster care.
MODERATE RHETORIC HIDES AN EXTREMIST AGENDA
Part of the problem with the entire child welfare debate is that everybody says the same things – but we all mean different things by those same words.
No one ever says “Foster care should be the first resort of the child welfare system” – everyone proclaims it should be the last resort. Yet Alaska tears apart families at more than quadruple the rate of Alabama, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. (And it’s Alabama where independent court monitors found that reforms emphasizing family preservation improved child safety)[†]
Similarly, nobody ever says “I’m so against prevention. If there’s one thing I hate it’s prevention.” But what constitutes prevention can vary enormously – as can the amount people want to invest in it and the priority it should receive.
So it’s easy to hide extremist positions behind moderate rhetoric. Similarly, it’s easy to hide the racial bias that permeates child welfare – indeed, many in the system hide it from themselves.
That’s what Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel does.
To understand the Chronicle you need to understand Heimpel. And to understand Heimpel you need to understand someone else: Elizabeth Bartholet.
Bartholet’s ideas are so extreme that they include requiring every family with a young child to open itself to mandatory government surveillance. (That’s not an exaggeration. There’s a summary of her views in the section of this post to the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog called “Harvard’s resident extremist” and the details are in her own book, Nobody’s Children, pp. 170, 171).
Other Bartholet proposals, if implemented, would lead to the removal of at least two million children every year. (Again, see this post for how that figure is calculated.)
Where Bartholet leads, Heimpel follows. When Bartholet and her allies gathered for a conference attacking efforts to keep families together (with no dissenters invited), it was Heimpel who wrote up the proceedings, in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”
Heimpel also provided extensive help to Bartholet for a paper she wrote attacking differential response, a safe, proven alternative to child abuse investigations in many cases – the approach that is succeeding in Montgomery County, Ohio. Then he promoted Bartholet’s findings in the Chronicle. (He did disclose his role.)
He and Bartholet co-authored an op-ed column attacking differential response in Massachusetts – exploiting a horror story that never involved differential response at all.
Bartholet also is a leader of the movement that insists that child welfare is magically exempt from the racial bias that permeates all other aspects of American life. (For the record, study after study shows it is not.)
Once again, where Bartholet leads, Heimpel follows. He not only published but personally promoted a vicious column that dredged up a pernicious racial stereotype. The columnist in question, who has a history of denying the existence of racial bias in child welfare and promoting institutionalization of children, was named the Chronicle’s “blogger of the year.”
And just as Heimpel makes sure Chronicle coverage is slanted against differential response, he biases it in favor of “predictive analytics” a form of computerized racial profiling embraced by Bartholet and other extremists.
YES, FOSTER CARE IS BROKEN
In his most recent annual report, Heimpel declares that part of his mission is to change the fact that in the wake of a high-profile tragedy “people start to believe that foster care is broken …”
It’s certainly true that people often draw false conclusions from high-profile tragedies – and, as noted earlier, Heimpel and Bartholet have encouraged that in their own writing.
But while most people who work in the child welfare system, including Heimpel, mean well, the fact is the foster care system is broken. We’ve already noted the studies showing that foster care is worse than leaving children in their own homes in typical child welfare cases, and even in many cases involving children born with cocaine in their systems. Another major study found that the system churns out walking wounded four times out of five.
In spite of all that, sometimes conditions in a home are so bad that foster care really is the least detrimental alternative. But it takes an act of astonishing willful blindness to look at the American foster care system and suggest that it is not broken.
Foster care is broken. And we can’t fix it by funneling more children into it.
Eline’s children feared going to sleep in the closet of their studio apartment, but it was the only place they would be safe from the rats. Covered in blankets from neck to toe, Eline would keep an eye on the kitchen entrance and followed the sounds of the rodents rummaging in the cupboards.
I represented Eline (I can’t disclose her real name), a mother of two, in Bronx Family Court when she was charged with neglect. Her younger son had been deemed undernourished because of faltering weight. Eline had struggled to keep up the feeding regimen prescribed by the kids’ pediatrician. Doctors are required by law to report suspected neglect, so the pediatrician reported her to the Administration for Children’s Services. The agency filed a case in family court, and the children went into foster care for three years.
When I met Eline, she described how the rats made it impossible to store fresh food in the apartment. She was a single mother with no family members who could help her. She struggled with depression and a chronic health condition that often required her to go to the hospital. She needed assistance. Instead, the city tore her children away from her and provided more than $1,000 each month to a foster family. After this, she turned to alcohol.
For more than a decade, my colleagues at the Bronx Defenders and I have represented thousands of parents like Eline in child-protection proceedings. A majority of them have never abused a child. Yet child services charges them with “parental neglect,” something of a catchall term that seems to cover poverty, substance abuse and untreated mental illness.
There is a misconception that the child-protection system is broken because child services fails to protect children from dangerous homes. That’s because the media exhaustively covers child deaths, but not the everyday tragedy of unnecessary child removals.
The problem is not that child services fails to remove enough children. It’s that the agency has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.
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