A Fact: Our Child Welfare System Punishes Poverty, Hurts Children, and Destroys Families

The system looks at a Black poor woman and sees someone who is going to fail at parenting. The reality is that what has failed is the system itself.

Iesha Hammons, Parent Ally, Legal Services of New Jersey

MYTH: Most kids wind up in the foster system because they are abused by their parents.

FACT: The majority of children are removed by child welfare agencies because of circumstances related to poverty, not physical harm or abuse.

Iesha Hammons is one of many advocates working to explode that myth by sharing their stories of oppression, trauma, and unwarranted interference in their lives by child welfare agencies, and calling for the resources families need to stay together and thrive.

In the twisted logic of the US child welfare system, increasingly called the family policing system, conditions stemming from poverty, like a child not having enough food, a warm coat, or stable housing constitutes “neglect.” This often results in a child welfare investigation that can follow a family for years, regardless of its outcome, and lead to a child being separated from their family. Investigations are traumatizing for parents, caregivers, and children. Their privacy is invaded, their homes and possessions are searched, and children are physically examined by strangers. This horrific experience happens disproportionately to Black and Native families.

More than half of all Black children will be subjected to an investigation during their childhood. Black children are greatly overrepresented among the population of children taken into custody by child welfare agencies. Although only 14% of the general population is Black, Black children make up 22% of children in the foster system.

In 2021, President Biden acknowledged that “too many children are removed from loving homes because poverty is often conflated with neglect” and that “the enduring effects of systemic racism and economic barriers mean that families of color are disproportionately affected.”

In documents focused on the formation of the US child welfare system in 1912, white policymakers stated “children are not safe and happy if their parents are miserable and parents must be miserable if they cannot protect a home against poverty.”

Trauma Upon Trauma

There is no logic in equating poverty with neglect or suggesting poor parents are inherently bad parents. Yet our laws and policies, rooted in racism and classism, have built a system that unjustly targets Black people and, through unnecessary forced separation, destroys families and profoundly harms children.

In the last several years, the images of immigrant children alone and detained at the southern border of the US have justly created a public uproar. 13,000 mental health professionals responded with a petition describing the lifelong consequences of family separation on children:

[t]o pretend that separated children do not grow up with the shrapnel of this traumatic experience embedded in their minds is to disregard everything we know about child development, the brain, and trauma.

This trauma has been inflicted upon Black children for generations. Beyond the catastrophe of separation, once removed, Black children remain in the foster system longer, experience more frequent placement moves, are less likely to be adopted, and are 2.4 times more likely to experience termination of parental rights. They also face worse outcomes when transitioning out of the child welfare system. 23% of Black youth who age out of the system experience homelessness, and 29% experience incarceration, far higher rates than for non-Black youth.

Our Laws Perpetuate the Harm

These unequal outcomes are not coincidental. They are the product of federal and state laws and regulations that have been on the books for decades. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974, for example, requires states to include the broad and vague definitions of neglect that lead to removal to this day and to maintain a federally funded “mandated reporting” system that sanctions the disproportionate surveillance and policing of Black families.

Other federal laws, like the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), make it easier for children to be taken from their families and permit accelerated timelines for state agencies to permanently terminate their parents’ rights. ASFA has contributed to the destruction and devaluation of hundreds of thousands of families, disproportionately Black and Indigenous families.

A toxic mix of racial biases and federal subsidies that incentivize stranger adoption ahead of family preservation similarly harms kids and tears families apart. Texas, for example, begins the process to terminate parental rights at the very same time that it removes a child from their home. The result of such policies played out tragically several years ago when the rushed adoption of six Black Texan children led to their murders at the hands of their adoptive white mothers.

Call to Action

Children’s Rights is part of a national movement working to end this injustice. In 2021 we published a Call to Action that made recommendations addressing the concepts of abuse and neglect. The report outlines strategies to narrow the definitions of neglect, provide parents at risk of losing their children with quality legal counsel from the beginning of their system involvement, and require states and urge courts to recognize the fundamental right to family integrity and association. 

We are calling on the federal government to take concrete action to provide families with resources and supports to strengthen and keep them together, and repeal laws like ASFA and CAPTA that perpetuate family separation and racial discrimination.

In addition to advocacy at the federal level, we are urging the passage of state bills like one just passed by the New York State legislature that, if signed by the Governor, would give children the opportunity to see their parents after the legal termination of parental rights when this is in the child’s best interest.

In 2022 we took our conviction that injustice in the child welfare system is a human rights issue to the United Nations, calling on the body to hold the US accountable for its failure to take meaningful action to address racial discrimination within the system. As a result, the UN publicly stated its concern and recommended that the US take all measures necessary to eliminate racial discrimination, including amending or repealing child welfare laws, policies, and practices that have a disparate impact on families of racial and ethnic minorities.

Children’s Rights is dedicated to advocating for state, federal, and international policies that recognize and meaningfully address the trauma that children in the foster system carry, including separation from their families, culture, and communities.

Join the human rights movement for kids and stand up for children’s rights.

It’s time we join together against human rights violations and fight for kids’ safety and well-being.

Fight Poverty, Not Parents

The majority of the time what a parent needs is help paying the bills, finding affordable housing, fixing a broken washing machine. It would be much cheaper for systems to just do what I do in my work.

Iesha Hammons, Parent Ally, Legal Services of New Jersey

We stand with Iesha and the legions of other advocates with lived expertise who believe that the best alternative to a federally-funded system that punishes poverty is to put money directly into the pockets of families. As she has written, “The majority of the time what a parent needs is help paying the bills, finding affordable housing, fixing a broken washing machine. It would be much cheaper for systems to just do what I do in my work.”

There is strong evidence that this commonsense alternative works. The 2021 expansion of the Child Tax Credit, one of the biggest anti-poverty measures in recent history, lifted 3 million children above the poverty line. This federal program has expired, but in the last year, ten states adopted or expanded some form of Child Tax Credits.

Diverting our national investment away from a harmful and unjust system that isn’t working would give us ample resources to invest in community nonprofits that do not have ties to mandated reporters or the child welfare system – making it far more likely that families will trust that the resources come without the threat of over-policing and the fear that their children will be taken from them. 

It Takes a Community

By investing directly in neighborhoods, local governments could reduce health disparities, improve educational outcomes, and address the twin crises of parental drug abuse and insufficient community child mental health services, both of which lead to child removals because of safety concerns. In most cases, families would be better served by having access to a more robust and affordable mental health infrastructure for both adults and children.

It is time for all Americans to stop believing the myth that our child welfare system is keeping kids safe – it isn’t. We must take bold steps to narrow the reach of a discriminatory, punitive system and redirect government dollars to fund community-led support services that provide parents with the respect and the resources they need to care for their children and themselves.

help reimagine better futures for children for generations to come