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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,