Dee Wilson: Transforming Child Welfare Through Poverty-related Services

Dee Wilson: Transforming Child Welfare Through Poverty-related Services

(Originally published at,  August 2023)

The August 2, 2023, issue of The Imprint includes a story by Michael Fitzgerald regarding a bill proposed by U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, (D-Wisconsin)  the “Family Poverty is Not Child Neglect Act” that ”would require child welfare agencies to provide support services to households in need of food, shelter and other basic assistance in order to prevent unnecessary family separation.” The story cites research from 2015 (Berger & Font) that found more than three quarters of families investigated by CPS in Wisconsin were on food stamps and that 40% of the families reported no earnings during at least one quarter of the year. In Washington state, a survey of several hundred parents with open child welfare cases in 2008-09 found that almost half (48%) had an annual income of $10,000 or less and one-fifth had no income from welfare or work and were not living with someone whose annual income exceeded $20,000 per year.

Almost 60% of parents with a child in foster care had an annual income that did not exceed $10,000 (Marcenko, et al, 2011). In other words, almost half of families with open child welfare cases in Washington were severely poor, and one-fifth had no identifiable source of income.

Given the huge body of research which shows the strong association of poverty and child maltreatment, especially neglect, and given that 75-80% of child victims in NCANDS data have been neglected, why would state and county run child welfare systems have to be mandated by law to provide poverty-related services to low-income families with CPS reports? One might expect that showing a humane concern for the poverty-related needs of families would be a routine part of CPS interventions, and that families might often welcome CPS involvement that brought them concrete help to mitigate hunger, inadequate housing (or no housing), unmet medical and dental needs, assistance with transportation and childcare, and other concrete needs as well.

Unfortunately, it is not the case that CPS caseworkers can be counted on to assess the concrete needs of families and offer poverty related services as needed, though some do to the extent possible within the constraints of agency resources. In the 1980s, I worked in a unit that was extraordinarily committed to providing concrete services to low-income families, even when the agency we worked for had no funds for these services. We regularly raised money from service clubs, churches, and philanthropists to assist families, usually on a one time basis. We also frequently funded several months or more of childcare to reduce the childcare burden on single parents and to involve young children with early education services.

For at least two decades, Washington state’s child welfare budget included $2-3 million dollars annually for poverty-related services, every penny of which was spent while funds for other services were sometimes not used, much to the chagrin of advocates and legislators. Some states, including Washington, have at times provided $1,000 or more for families assigned to alternative response tracks, while offering no such assistance to families investigated in the usual way. In addition, family preservation services (FPS) has usually included funds for concrete services, one of the reasons caseworkers have sometimes fudged

FPS rules to obtain much needed assistance for families.

However, I have done training in another part of the country in which the state had zero funding for poverty-related services and where some child welfare staff were incredulous that a concrete service, e.g., building a fence in a front yard, could ever be viewed as a feasible response to child neglect. It has been common practice in many jurisdictions for CPS caseworkers to encourage, or pressure, low-income parents to participate in parenting education programs  while ignoring a family’s food insecurity, dangerous housing, unmet medical or dental needs, or lack of childcare. This is hard hearted (to put it mildly) and has contributed to the widespread view among parent and child advocates that a screened in CPS report is a misfortune for low-income families, a punitive form of surveillance without benefits. At least one state (Texas) has already mandated in law a Miranda type warning at the start of CPS investigations and several other states and large counties are considering such legislation.

The lack of adequate poverty-related services affects every phase of child welfare practice. It is not sensible or humane to fund evidence based parenting education programs while ignoring food insecurity, housing, and transportation needs or the dental pain of parents and children. The lack of adequate housing or reliable income often delays reunification, while unmet poverty related needs increase the likelihood of re-entry into care. Jill Berrick’s classic, Take Me Home (2009) contains eloquent stories of mothers reunited with their children struggling with material hardship, but with limited help from the public agency. It is also federal policy to provide adoption support payments regardless of family income, but no income support for reunified families, regardless of income. This is public policy that uses income support to increase adoptions and reduce reunification. This part of the Adoptions and Safe Families Act (ASFA) – not timelines per se – deserves the label of structural racism.

Reflections on child welfare history

The current U.S. child welfare system was developed in the 1960s and 70s in response to cases of battered child syndrome, i.e., severe physical abuse of infants and other young children.  States were required in federal CAPTA legislation to include definitions of neglect in state statutes. Legislative champions of CAPTA strongly denied that child maltreatment was associated with poverty (Nelson, 1984).  During the first few decades of mandatory reporting laws, cases of battered child syndrome never exceeded 1-2% of screened in CPS reports, while public agencies were inundated with reports of child neglect. I began working in child welfare in the early 1970s, and for the next two decades there was stubborn denial from child advocates (and many scholars) that child maltreatment was related to family income, even in the face of yearly reports published by the American Humane Association indicating that families with CPS reports were overwhelmingly poor, often severely poor. Many advocates and some scholars insisted that low-income families were reported to CPS more often than affluent families because they were more exposed to mandated reporters. The myth of classlessness died slowly and only after stubborn resistance. (Pelton, 1978)

CPS systems in the U.S. were developed in response to severe physical abuse, which turned out to be a small fraction of cases, while ignoring and/ or minimizing neglect, by far the largest percentage of cases. The causal theory that prevailed from 1965-85 was that abusive parents had themselves been abused and were continuing the intergenerational transmission of abuse. This picture began to change in the mid-1980s and 90s due in part to combative scholars (such as Leroy Pelton) and also due to a huge increase in foster care due to substance abuse (initially cocaine, later methamphetamine, on the West Coast). Child welfare agencies spent a decade or two learning how to collaborate with substance abuse treatment agencies and in developing other innovative practices such as Family Treatment Drug Courts and Safe Baby Courts. Substance abuse treatment, and to a lesser extent domestic violence (DV) interventions, became front and center in court ordered case plans, most of which ignored the poverty-related needs of families.

In summary: US child welfare systems were developed to respond to severe physical abuse, not neglect, and then evolved to cope with the severe neglect of young children, the proximate cause of which was substance abuse, with the poverty of families viewed as an intractable state of affairs. Economic services have never been given the importance of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment in child welfare. It is common among scholars to refer to the “Big Three” of child maltreatment cases: substance abuse, mental health challenges and DV, but this is a misunderstanding. The Big Four of child welfare includes poverty which contributes to the hopeless/helpless responses of many chronically maltreating families to difficult circumstances and to offers of help.

Child welfare scholars have been slow to describe the causal relationships between and among substance abuse, mental illness, DV and poverty. Nevertheless, some of these causal relationships are well understood:

  1. poverty is associated with higher rates of depression;

  2. the most common mental health problem resulting from trauma is depression.

  3. parents with co-occurring substance abuse and mental health conditions have usually had long histories of trauma, including physical abuse and sexual abuse in childhood and violence in interpersonal relationships, and are chronically poor. (Newmann & Sallmann, 2004)

Child welfare case plans are far more likely to endorse or mandate substance abuse or mental health treatment and DV services than to include or mandate economic interventions. There is a theory implicit in most voluntary and mandated child welfare case plans that minimizes the influence of material hardship on child maltreatment.  However, the theory is inadequate and so are  child welfare services for the most part. Bad thinking leads to poor practice, which leads to recurrent maltreatment. But why stick with practices that are clearly not working to protect children or strengthen families?

Organizational structure and political imagination

I occasionally encounter the perspective that “child welfare is not a housing agency” or a welfare department, and is therefore unable to play a key role in mitigating poverty. It is also true that child welfare systems are not substance abuse, mental health or DV treatment agencies, ditto for early childhood education programs, developmental disabilities agencies, medical and dental services. Nevertheless, child welfare agencies must develop collaborative relationships with these multiple systems; and the same should be true for  housing authorities and economic services agencies. There  was a time prior to welfare reform when most low-income unemployed single parents were on AFDC. This is no longer true. Many low-income families eligible for TANF have not been able to cope with the bureaucratic obstacle course that makes it difficult for parents to establish eligibility or sustain eligibility. Currently, it is possible for  poor unemployed single parents to lack any source of public benefits, with the possible exception of food stamps, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Every medium to large size child welfare office should employ a financial specialist who assists families in obtaining public benefits for which they are  financially eligible. In addition, every child welfare office should have funding for emergency financial services that can be accessed immediately to pay for food, clothing, rent deposits and first and last month rent, medical and dental care, car repairs or bus passes, as well as childcare, as needed for all families with open cases.  This is a minimal requirement for creating a humane child welfare system and should not depend on a placement prevention rationale.

However, to transform child welfare something more dramatic is required.

All states’ neglect statutes should be amended as follows:

“It is the responsibility of parents and caregivers, and of the public agency as well, to ensure that the basic needs of children are met. To this end, CPS caseworkers are mandated to assist parents and caregivers in accessing public and private resources in the community to meet children’s basic needs, and when adequate resources are not available in the community to fund essential resources on open cases.” 

This one change in law, if implemented in good faith and with adequate funding, would transform child welfare in several ways:

  1. For low-income families, especially severely poor families, CPS involvement would bring concrete benefits and reduce the economic desperation of poor parents. The reputation of child welfare agencies among parents, advocates and young people considering careers in human services would greatly improve within a few years.

  2. The effectiveness of behavioral health services and parenting education programs would improve. It is both foolish and insensitive to facilitate the use of antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy while leaving a family food insecure or without adequate housing.

  3. It may be possible to prevent situational or intermittent neglect from becoming chronic, and eventually evolving into chronic multitype maltreatment.  Situational neglect is sometimes solely due to poverty; chronic neglect and chronic multitype maltreatment are never “just poverty.” If poverty-related services are utilized to prevent foster placement, these services must be  delivered before neglect has become enmeshed with substance abuse, mental  health conditions and DV.  Poverty-related services are not a silver bullet and should not be used to prevent placement when children are at risk of imminent harm due (in part) to chronically relapsing conditions. However, a wide range of poverty-related services is an essential part of any potentially effective public agency response to child neglect.

Experiments with income support  

One recent study has found that a modest increase of 10% in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) led to a decline in CPS reports of child neglect (Kovski, et al, 2022). A steadily increasing body of evidence indicates that even small to modest increases in annual income or public benefits leads to a decline in reports of neglect. These research findings should not come as a surprise to scholars given the relationship between family income (including levels of poverty) and child maltreatment prevalence rates found by the first three National Incidence Studies decades ago.

For the first time in recent decades, there is a growing interest in discovering the potential of income support payments to prevent or reduce child maltreatment. Both New York State and Washington D.C.’s child welfare systems have announced plans to provide $500 per month to a group of low-income families with open CPS cases for three years in D.C. and one year in New York state (Diab, July 21, 2023; Roeder, June 21, 2023) to test the benefits of income support on child welfare involvement. The decision to give families $500 per month, rather than $300 or $750, appears to be arbitrary. One possible guideline would be to use monthly income support payments to bring low-income families above the level of severe poverty, i.e., more than 50% of the federal poverty standard that depends on family size, and/or to reduce the percentage of income spent on rent to less than 30% of family income. An even better idea is to eliminate severe poverty through a guaranteed annual income, a policy that would likely reduce homelessness as well as child welfare involvement of severely poor families.

Perhaps it goes without saying that poverty-related services should be provided disproportionately to families based on need. In child welfare systems strongly committed to helping families meet their concrete needs, giving the lowest income families the most benefits would be viewed as social justice, rather than the opposite. Black and Native American families would benefit the most from large increases in poverty-related services.

The next Sounding Board will continue the discussion of possible ways of utilizing poverty related services, including viewing food as medicine.


©Dee Wilson     

[email protected]

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