It’s not the recession, it’s the RESPONSE to the recession

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The long decline in the number of children in foster care slowed significantly in 2010 and the decline in entries into care – the number of children taken from their homes over the course of a year - ended entirely, according to the latest state-by-state data compiled by the federal government.

After peaking at 307,000 in 2005 and inching down to 304,000 in 2006, the number of children torn from their families each year dropped nearly 17 percent to just under 255,000 in 2009.  But sadly, the 2010 figure is virtually identical.  The number of children trapped in foster care on any given day peaked in 1999, but big declines were not seen for many more years.  Between 2006 and 2009 this number also dropped by nearly 17 percent.  But it declined only three percent in 2010.

Contrary to what the child welfare establishment will say, this is not because of the recession. It is because of how child protective services agencies are responding to the recession. 

Yes, recession increases stress on families and stress can cause parents to lash out against their children.  But the federal government reports that all forms of physical abuse, from the most minor to the most brutal, constitute less than 18 percent of child abuse allegations that caseworkers deem to be “substantiated.”  (That usually means that the caseworker believes there is slightly more evidence than not that maltreatment took place.)  Sexual abuse represents another 9.5 percent.

By far the most common category of “substantiated” maltreatment, the one in more than three-quarters of all cases, is “neglect.” State laws often define neglect as lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter.  That means in many states being poor can be deemed neglectful literally by definition. 

So here’s the predominant link between recession and “child abuse” – in a recession there is more poverty so there are more poor people to mislabel as “neglecting” their children.

Three cases, all since late June, illustrate the problem.

The first is from Houston.  It concerns the Leonard family – Prince Leonard, his wife Charlomane and their six children. 

After Prince was injured at work, the couple no longer could afford to live in their apartment complex. They lived in a shelter for awhile, but it wasn’t safe enough for the children.  So the family moved into the only “gated community” they could afford – a 12 x 25 foot storage unit.  Mr. Leonard built a loft area and shelves.  The unit had electricity, heat and air conditioning.  The family lived there, and the children did well, for three years.  Then someone called Child Protective Services.  CPS removed the children on the spot – without lifting a finger to help to find the family housing.

A CPS spokeswoman insisted the children were not torn from their parents because of poverty.  Rather, she said, they were taken because they were living in an “unsafe living environment” The spokeswoman explained: “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.”

Right. Or, as author Anatole France put it, “The law, in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

The family was reunited, thanks not to CPS but to publicity about the case, which led to someone donating a four-bedroom rental house for the family.

Given the judgment Texas CPS displayed in this case, it’s no wonder that, even as nationwide entries into care remained about the same in 2010 the number of children torn from their parents in Texas soared by 26 percent – the worst increase in the nation.

But it’s not just Texas.

– In York, South Carolina, Janice Dowd, a 51-year-old grandmother and the seven-year-old grandson she’d raised since the boy was an infant became homeless when  Dowd fell behind on rent and utilities.  They lived first with a relative then a friend.  She qualified for a public housing apartment but couldn’t move in until she could afford to switch on the utilities.  When the friend wouldn’t let her stay, she and her grandson moved into a tent in the woods.

That’s where 72-year-old Ken Thomas found Dowd. "Nobody should have to live like that, and, by God, if I have anything to say about it, it will never happen again," Thomas told The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C. He immediately opened up his own home for Dowd to sleep in that night.  "A granny and a child out in a tent. That's not the America I know," Thomas said.

Other good Samaritans came forward to help her move and to solicit donations.  But they were undercut by one bad Samaritan which got there first, the South Carolina Department of Social Services. DSS was notified by police, who’d found Dowd and her grandson in the woods.  And DSS promptly threw the boy into foster care. Not only did DSS do nothing to solve the housing problems, but when those good-hearted volunteers accomplished it themselves, the agency still wouldn’t give the boy back. He won’t come back until grandma meets “stringent DSS requirements” according to the Herald.

– In Michigan, the Department of Human Services filed a petition charging Justin and Trishia Rygg with neglect not because they’re homeless, but because they might become homeless – since their precarious finances have forced them to live with friends and in motels. They’d already placed their infant daughter with friends, a placement a DHS caseworker deemed “appropriate.” The friends even were willing to become formally-licensed foster parents, and  a DHS caseworker “did find the home to be appropriate,” but DHS moved to take over the family’s life anyway, and moved the child in with strangers. DHS did nothing to help the family find housing.

Recessions can cause people to become homeless. Recessions can cause parents to have too little food to properly feed their children. Recessions can cause families to lose health insurance so children don’t get the health care they need. Recessions can cause people to leave children home alone because they have to work and they can’t afford child care.

But recessions don’t cause children to be placed in foster care. Child Protective Services agencies cause children to be placed in foster care.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org