In child protection, if the solution is money, the problem is poverty

At first, the builders of what was to become a system of massive intrusion into familiesand, ultimately, the separation of millions of children from their parents, all in the name of “child protection”, insisted that poverty had nothing to do with what they called it “child abuse” and “child neglect.”

“Child abuse crosses class lines” was the mantra in the 1970s and 1980s. As part of the passage of the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), the discussion on poverty has been eradicated. Unless parents — not economic inequality — could be blamed, there was no way CAPTA passed. Without surprise, the result was a law that has led us in the wrong direction for decades.

spoiler alert

Courtesy of Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform.

But then, when people noticed that non-white families were being monitored and their children being removed at vastly disproportionate rates, the child welfare facility had a problem. It was out of the question for them to admit their racial prejudices, so they said: It’s because these families are poor! (Spoiler alert: it’s in fact both.)

It made people look again at poverty. And while it’s taken far too long, we’re finally talking about the fact that not only does poverty contribute to abuse cases – which are only a tiny proportion of what child protection agencies (or, as they should be called family policing agencies) investigate – but that poverty itself is regularly confused with neglect.

This means that we return to the problems of economic inequality. This means that most of those we accuse of neglect are not evil or sick – they are poor. And that’s a problem for a multi-billion dollar industry of forcing people into often meaningless ‘counseling’ and ‘parenting’ courses, placing them under constant surveillance and managing foster homes, group homes and institutions. It’s also a problem for all those “helpers” who have used the system for decades to fulfill their own middle-class rescue fantasies about poor children, especially poor children of color.

The fallback position

So now the child welfare facility has revealed its fallback position: Well yes, it may be poverty, but it’s not poverty alone.

Of course, “these families” are poor, it is said, but they are also mentally ill. Or they abuse substances. Or there is domestic violence.

“Leave us free to focus on what makes us caregivers feel good and forget about poverty!” After all, helping to fight poverty can be such a chore,” is usually how establishment thinking goes.

Imagine a social worker thinking, “I didn’t get MSW to help a poor mother clean your kitchen!”

Why the Child Welfare Facility is Wrong

There are three problems with the “poverty is not alone” argument.

1. Often poverty is indeed alone. If, for example, you can halve the number of homeless families whose children are taken away simply by providing housing vouchers, (you can) and if, in fact, that works better than providing housing vouchers and also inflict social work on these families, (it does) then there is a good chance that the problem is only poverty.

In other cases, even if poverty was not alone at the time the child was taken, that is all that stands in the way of reunification. Often the cookie-cutter “reunification plans” demanded of families require the parent to secure “stable housing and employment”. So even after a parent has jumped through all the other hoops of the plan, poverty – alone – can prevent reunification.

2. The argument that poverty is not alone can confuse cause and effect. When homelessness soared after the Reagan administration shredded America’s social safety net in the 1980s, advocates of the cuts insisted the rise was due to mental illness. In reality, a great study at the time showed that only 15% of homeless people showed signs of mental illness. And it’s quite remarkable since, as Ann Braden Johnson wrote at the time in her book Out of Bedlam, being homeless can cause mental illness. Yeah, I know, you’d think it would be obvious.

It also means that if the poor are lifted out of poverty, it may well cure the “mental illness” that supposedly led to the “neglect” that served as the pretext for the Family Police intervention. And if not, providing cash will allow the poor to buy treatment, just like middle-class people do.

The same goes for substance use. Poverty can drive people to self-medicate. Reduce the need for drugs, eliminating poverty, and then it is much easier for the treatment to work. And again, if that’s not enough, the money can allow families to buy drug treatment.

After all, when Betty Ford abused alcohol and pills, no one took her children away. I doubt DC Child and Family Services investigators ever showed up at the White House to check on her then 17-year-old daughter. On the contrary, Betty Ford was hailed for her bravery and founded a celebrity drug rehabilitation center.

As for domestic violence, often means abducting a child because the mother “allowed” the child to “witness domestic violence”—in other words, she didn’t run away from the man who beat her fast enough. When children are taken away under these circumstances, it actually compounds the emotional trauma of that child. As to why the mother does not “just leave”, there are often two reasons: first, her well-founded fear that if she seeks help, the helper, usually a “appointed journalist” will “report” her and the family police will take her children away. But also: The aggressor is often the breadwinner. The mother cannot afford to leave. I wonder what could fix this?

3. We saw again and again This money – alone – reduces what family policing calls neglect. The family policing establishment also has a ready-made answer to this question: “Of course, we want the government to eliminate poverty, but that’s not going to happen.”

But it is not necessary to eliminate poverty – although that would be a great idea – but to limit its worst effects. For example, increase minimum wage by $1 an hour, reduce neglect by 10%. Increases as small as $100 can reduce “negligence”. And, of course, we would have a better chance of getting stronger efforts to reduce poverty if the family police stopped demonizing the poor as, at worst, sick at best! Sick! Sick!

Even “prevention” advocates reinforce this stereotype when they refer to child abuse and neglect as a “public health” issue. It’s not. It’s a social justice issue.

If the solution is money and the family police take the child or harass the family instead, it confuses poverty with neglect. If the solution is money, then the problem is poverty, whether poverty is “alone” or not.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Welfare Reform.