The Confusion of Poverty With Neglect

Several studies have identified the inextricable link between income and involvement with child welfare agencies (Fanshel & Shinn, 1978; Jenkins & Norman, 1975; Pelton, 1990; Testa & Goerge, 1988). Indeed, Lindsey (1991, 1994) identifies the income source variable as among the highest predictors for out-of-home placement. Only when there is no adequate source of income are the children more likely to be removed, and at a very high rate.

Two Massachusetts studies demonstrate the inextricable link between poverty, class, and the risk of child removal. Katz et al. (1986) examined the records of 185 children admitted to Children's Hospital, Boston, in an attempt to identify how demographic characteristics, family history, family stress, the nature of an injury, and aspects of the medical encounter may influence the outcome of a case. Only those cases in which a child had sustained a physical injury or in which there was a suspicion of neglect, failure to thrive, or poisoning were included in the analysis. Contrary to what one might expect, the researchers found that the severity of a physical injury decreased the likelihood of a child being placed outside of the home. Specifically, families that were Medicaid-eligible were more likely to have their child removed than were more affluent families in cases of physical injury. While social class was not found to have an independent effect on discharge disposition in the sample as a whole, low-income families were determined to be more likely to lose their children in cases of physical injury. The researchers explain:

Our findings suggest that physical injuries may more frequently be diagnosed as "abuse" in poor families and more frequently characterized as "accidents" in more affluent families. The fact that more affluent families are more likely to lose their children in cases of non-physical injury suggests that a negative evaluation is made of families who appear to neglect their children despite adequate financial resources.

In a related study of 805 children, Hampton and Newberger (1985) found that the degree of physical injury to a child only became statistically significant in the reporting of child abuse when the family's income was excluded from the analysis. In a national sample of suspected abuse and neglect cases, they found that hospitals tend to under-report white families to child protection agencies. While 91% of Hispanic and 74% of black families were reported to child protection agencies, only 61% of white families were. Hampton and Newberger conclude:

If the reporting of child abuse is as biased by class and race as the data suggest, there is a need for a critical review of the system as well as the process of reporting. To the extent that we selectively invoke agents of the state to police the lives of the poor and nonwhite families, we may be inappropriately and unfairly condemning these families as evil.

The biases described by Hampton and Newberger permeate the child welfare system, affecting decision making at all levels of administration to the detriment of poor and minority children. A RAND corporation survey of mandated reporters, which included public and private officials, physicians and others, used an array of fictional vignettes to determine the circumstance under which a mandated reporter would place a call to child protective services. Researchers found that "in every case" the respondents were more likely to file an abuse or neglect report against a poor or minority family (Zellman, 1992). As Meezen (1983) points out, the decision to remove a child is often made on a nonsystematic basis, and the biases, values, and assumptions of the decision maker are often the primary rationale for the separation. Placement decisions may reflect the bias of a worker, a worker's misunderstanding of the culture from which the client comes, or the amount of information that the worker has about the client.

Once in the system, African-American children have the least support from caseworkers when trying to make contact with their biological families and are less likely to have specific service recommendations (Olsen, 1982). Children of color in foster care have fewer visits with their parents and siblings, fewer services provided overall, and less contact with their caseworkers than white children (Close, 1983). A study of New York State children eligible for adoption determined that "children of color waited longer for placement and were less likely to experience placement than Caucasian children, who were adopted at about twice the rate of children of color" (Courtney et al., 1996). A Contra Costa County, California, Grand Jury found these same dynamics at work. The Jury found that case records and court reports for white children were "consistently more detailed, better prepared and oriented toward family reunification, adoption or guardianship" than cases involving minority children. While the case files of white children had "well-documented" plans for permanent placement, such as adoption or guardianship, case files of minority children did not contain any evidence of a permanent placement plan. "Records reviewed did not exhibit reasonable and consistent efforts on the part of social workers to research and document, in detail, the background of the minority child. This causes considerable delay in 'processing' minority children through the system. This was in obvious contrast to the consistent and detailed efforts exercised on behalf of nonminority children," notes the Jury. The report marked the second time over a two-year period that the grand jury criticized the county's foster care system. In a previous report issued in February, 1994, the jury accused the system of mismanagement and charged social workers with refusing to allow whites to adopt minority children even though no minority adoptive parents could be found (Hallissy, 1995).

No minority group has been more deeply impacted by child welfare policies than has the Native American Indian. B. J. Jones (1996), litigation director for Dakota Plains Legal Services and author of the American Bar Association legal manual The Indian Child Welfare Act Handbook explains:

A look at history reveals why Congress determined a special law was needed to protect the rights of Indian children and their parents. Before 1978, as many as 25 to 35% of the Indian children in certain states were removed from their homes and placed in non-Indian homes by state courts, welfare agencies, and private adoption agencies. Non-Indian judges and social workers-failing to appreciate traditional Indian child-rearing practices-perceived day-to-day life in the children's Indian homes as contrary to the children's best interests.

The special law Jones describes is the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. As the House Report (U.S. House of Representatives, 1978) which accompanied the Act explains, very few Indian children were removed from their families on the grounds of physical abuse. One study of a North Dakota reservation showed that these grounds were advanced in only 1% of cases. Another study of a tribe in the Northwest showed the same incidence. The remaining 99% of the cases were argued on such vague grounds as "neglect" or "social deprivation" and on allegations of the emotional damage the children were subjected to by living with their parents. Indian communities were often shocked to learn that parents they regarded as excellent caregivers had been judged unfit by non-Indian social workers. Cultural ignorance played a role as well, as the report explains: "In judging the fitness of a particular family, many social workers, ignorant of Indian cultural values and social norms, make decisions that are wholly inappropriate in the context of Indian family life and so they frequently discover neglect or abandonment where none exists." The report makes clear, however, that many of the removals of Native American children from their families were economically motivated:

In some instances, financial considerations contribute to the crisis. For example, agencies established to place children have an incentive to find children to place.

Indian community leaders charge that federally-subsidized foster care programs encourage some non-Indian families to start "baby farms" in order to supplement their meager farm income with foster care payments and to obtain extra hands for farmwork. The disparity between the ratio of Indian children in foster care versus the number of Indian children that are adopted seems to bear this out. For example, in Wyoming in 1969, Indians accounted for 70% of foster care placements but only 8% of adoptive placements. Foster care payments usually cease when a child is adopted.

Marc Mannes, formerly of the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, explained during the second annual Indian Child Welfare Conference held at the UCLA Faculty Center in January of 1992 that "it was the anguish and anger over the placement of American Indian children with families outside of their culture, acts that came to be understood as a form of cultural genocide, that secured the passage of the ICWA" (Johnson, 1993, p. 48). But not even an act of Congress could legislate away the destruction of Native American families by child welfare agencies. As Troy R. Johnson, Conference Coordinator for the event, explains:

Today ... the widespread separation of Indian children from their homes continues. In spite of the enaction of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, 20 to 30% of Indian children are still being placed outside of their natural tribal and family environments, primarily in non-Indian foster care and out-of-culture adoptions (Johnson, 1993, introduction).

Alaskan aboriginal children bear similar impacts. As of March 1, 1996, 46% of the children in the custody of the State Division of Family and Youth Services were Alaskan Native children. In Anchorage, Fairbanks and Sitka, roughly one-third of Child in Need of Aid cases involved Native children. In Bethel, this figure soared to an incredible 98% (Carns et al., 1996).

These trends are not unique to the United States. In virtually every nation in which the residual perspective of child protection is applied, similar trends are observed. In Australia, thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been affected by forcible removal of children from their homes. The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families recounts the history of forced assimilation into boarding schools, followed by the misguided child protection polices which today account for the continued separation of aboriginal children from their families and cultures. The forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their parents was "an act of genocide" for which the victims should be paid reparations, according to the report into what had come to be popularly known as the "Stolen Generations" of aboriginal children (Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, 1997). Canadian policies mirror those of the United States and Australia. As the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996) explains:

The source of social dysfunction we heard most about in public testimony was residential schooling, but inappropriate child welfare policies have also been a persistent and destructive force. The effect of these policies, as applied to Aboriginal children, was to tear more holes in the family web and detach more Aboriginal people from their roots.

In an opening word from the Commissioners, the findings are summarized for as follows:

We held 178 days of public hearings, visited 96 communities, consulted dozens of experts, commissioned scores of research studies, reviewed numerous past inquiries and reports. Our central conclusion can be summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.

Pelton (1997) notes that, when examined from an international perspective, placement rates similar to those of the United States are to be found in Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden, their advanced status as welfare states offering greater social supports and lower poverty rates notwithstanding. Although the administrative and organizational arrangements vary between these western European nations, Pelton explains that they have one fundamental structure in common with the United States:

Helpers have the role of investigating complaints against parents and placing children in foster care. These circumstances facilitate the expansionist tendencies of the rescue system. In police states, no such entanglements are necessary for the expansion of coercive systems. In democracies, however, coercive systems grow when special means are found for due process rights to be bypassed and justice-system procedures to be circumvented. In these and other ways, the cover of helping can insidiously enlarge the domain of coercion. The fact that, outside of this framework, other social supports exist to help families is immaterial. The crucial point is that the coercive apparatus is coated with a helping facade.

Returning to Hampton and Newberger's observations with respect to physical injuries, Besharov (1987) cites a national study conducted by the U.S. Children's Bureau which determined that cases of minor social deprivation are more likely to result in foster care than cases of physical abuse. The 1979 study found that social workers recommend foster care almost a third more often in cases of neglect than abuse. A 1985 study of case records of the Family Division of the D.C. Superior Court found that 74% of children alleged to have been neglected were placed in foster care, while only 41% of those alleged to have been abused were. "Poor children can spend years in foster care as their parents' psychological disorders are 'treated,' usually ineffectively," notes Besharov, and as a result: "Hundreds of thousands of poor children suffer more than if they were simply left at home."

"Neglect is most frequently cited as the primary reason children are removed from the custody of their parents and placed in foster care," according to the General Accounting Office (1997b). In a prepared statement to the Subcommittee on Human Resources, the GAO explained:

Sixty-eight percent of young children in foster care in California and New York in 1991 were removed from their parents as a result of neglect or caretaker absence or incapacity. No other reasons for removal accounted for a large portion of entries of young children into foster care. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse combined accounted for only about 7% of removals of these young children.

The Philadelphia Daily News reports on a recent study sponsored by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation which concluded that for every 1,000 children placed in the state's care, only 30--three percent of the total--were victims of physical abuse (Dilorenzo, 1992). Hagedorn (1995, p. 147) explains the results of an analysis conducted during his tenure in Milwaukee:

After foster care cases were categorized by social workers and reviewed by a panel of experts, we found that most children did not need to be in foster care at all. The social workers and our expert panel agreed that a third of all children in foster care could immediately reunited with their families, if family preservation services were available.

The panel found another third of all children in foster care were in placement with relatives and in need of few services, and that only one-sixth of the cases examined could legitimately be categorized as having no chance of reunification.

In Los Angeles, lawyers at the office of Public Counsel reviewed every abuse and neglect petition filed in the county during one week in 1987. They found 30% of the petitions to be so groundless that they should never have been filed at all (Wexler, 1995). Two years later the Washington state Governor's Commission on Children (1989) reached a similar conclusion, finding that 30% of Alternative Residential Placement petitions filed were for children who did not need to be in foster care. The Commission found that there was misuse of the dependency statutes "due to capricious motives or lack of understanding" on the part of the child protection agency. The Commission recommended changes in the dependency statutes to decrease the amount of foster home turnover resulting from inappropriate placements, decrease inappropriate separation of families and children, decrease inappropriate out-of-home placements, and to decrease the misuse of residential placement facilities.

Defensive social work apparently plays a significant role in the inappropriate removal of children from their homes. In Illinois, researchers for the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta examined cases in three cities in 1994, conducting interviews with parents, foster parents, and caseworkers. As Chicago Tribune columnist R. Bruce Dold (1995) explains it:

The Child Welfare Institute determined that in one-third of the cases, there was absolutely no reason for the children not to be home with their parents. The children were in foster care for the protection of their caseworker, not for their own safety.

(The author contacted the Child Welfare Institute which acknowledged the existence of the report while refusing to provide a copy.)

To make matters worse, as child protective services caseworkers lack an empirically-validated knowledge base to guide them in their decision making (Lindsey, 1994), they are often encouraged to fall back on hunches, or gut instinct. As David Fanshell explains, "child welfare workers are often guilty of a kind of rank empiricism in the way they work with children and much of their effort is guided by a kind of 'seat of the pants' intuitiveness" (Meezen, 1983, p. 20, cf. Fanshell, 1962). Indeed, a user manual for child protective services supervisors issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services encourages the case manager to "analyze intuition without stifling creativity and spontaneity," explaining that: "As caseworkers gain confidence, they begin to act on hunches, common sense, and intuition. Supervisors should assist caseworkers to validate these instincts by helping them analyze what led to the intuition" (Morton & Salus, 1994).


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