Opinion

Housing Help Can Be a Child Welfare Intervention

foster care: Sad mother missing her daughter holding a little shoe sitting on the floor of the bedroom in a house interior with a dark background

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Imagine being a parent who, despite your best efforts, cannot afford safe and adequate housing. Imagine that because of low earning power, physical ailments or inadequacy of supplemental benefits, you are forced to live in substandard conditions. Maybe you don’t have adequate heat during winter and insufficient cooling in the summer. Or you may have housing that is fully up to code, but you cannot consistently pay for electricity or hot water on top of all your other living expenses.

immigration: Marie Williams (headshot), senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation, smiling woman with necklace, earrings, pink top

Marie Williams

If you were such a parent, without a safe housing alternative, your children could be removed from your care and placed in foster care. Or, were your children already in foster care, you might face lengthy delays in getting them back home. In the face of the national housing crisis with high housing costs, there is a growing problem of families having their children removed from their care or having reunification delayed in whole or partly because of an inability to maintain adequate and stable living arrangements. Not only does this practice fly in the face of good child welfare practice, which emphasizes the value of reunification and maintaining positive family engagement, it may cause much more harm than good.

Every year across the United States, thousands of children are removed from their families and placed in foster care because of parental abuse or neglect. In 2016 (the most recent time for which data is available), children in foster care numbered almost 450,000, the vast majority of them having been placed in non-relative foster homes. Although the number may seem staggering, children who are at risk of serious harm should be ensured safety, with the family supported and the child placed with a foster parent or kin until they can be safely returned to their family of origin. In fact, consistent with the goal of reunifying children with their families as soon as safely possible, more than half the children who exited foster care in 2016 were returned to their parents or primary caregivers.

Despite its efforts to support families, the challenges in our current child welfare system are well-documented, as are some of the poor outcomes for youth who are involved with it. These outcomes include increased likelihood of homelessness, contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system and subpar outcomes for education, employment, health and virtually every marker of wellness. States — many strapped for resources — often rely on outmoded or ineffective practices.

Many child welfare agencies have found it difficult to fulfill their mandate to protect children from harm, and in the case of older youth, prepare them for independence. In light of these issues, systems should be deliberative and diligent about the decision to separate children from their families and primary caregivers.

At the same time, systems have begun to embrace a broader interpretation of harm and recognize trauma and other stressors to child well-being that were once not as commonly accepted. Historically, there has always been debate about where to draw the line between the predictable effects of economic insecurity and outright neglect. This uncertainty may, in some cases, lead to a broadening of circumstances where child welfare intervention is seen as warranted.

No correlation between poor housing, neglect

In some cases, it may even lead to child welfare involvement in families that are otherwise fully functional, but suffering only from the consequences of poverty, including housing insecurity or inadequacy. This is particularly troubling when one considers that it is still unclear whether there is any correlation between inadequate housing and child maltreatment, or neglect.

According to the national data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System for 2016, just over 10 percent of children entering the child welfare system (as reported by 34 states) had a caregiver with inadequate housing. Estimates by state vary widely, ranging from just over 2 percent to more than 33 percent. Similarly, there is some evidence that in cases where housing was a factor in the removal of children, even upon resolution of all other issues inadequate housing alone could delay reunification in as many as 30 percent of cases.

In some jurisdictions around the country, mindful of the challenges in their child welfare systems and of the harms caused by needlessly separating children from their families — or keeping them separated — systems leaders have begun to use a common-sense approach. Rather than resorting to removal or delaying reunification where there are housing challenges, some systems are exploring and implementing housing assistance strategies that keep families together and out of the child welfare system.

In Boston, for example, the Department of Human Services provides shelter beds for families experiencing homelessness or a housing crisis; New York state provides financial assistance to help stabilize housing for families so they can avoid child removal. And in Philadelphia, system leaders at the Office of Homeless Services and the city’s child welfare agency, the Department of Human Services, recently took an innovative approach after seeing actionable data indicating that a lack of adequate and affordable housing was one driver of the length of time some kids spend in the child welfare system.

In May, Philadelphia launched an ambitious new initiative called Rapid Rehousing for Reunification to expedite reunification for families whose barrier is a lack of safe and affordable housing. Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the program will reconnect families experiencing housing insecurity to permanent housing through a tailored assistance package that includes rental assistance and supportive services.

Specifically targeted to families that are within six months of reunification, the program provides expedited move-in assistance with subsidized rent and housing counseling for 12 to 18 months. Replicating the success of the rapid rehousing model used for homeless families, Philadelphia hopes to successfully reduce the significant number of families who are waiting to be reunified but for inadequate housing, reducing the costly and damaging trauma of separation.

The two-pronged tragedy of placement of children in foster care and delayed reunification because of inadequate housing calls for new and innovative solutions like Philadelphia’s throughout the country.  Being poor and unable to afford safe and adequate housing should never be a reason to place a child in foster care or delay the child’s reunification with his or her parents, particularly when the evidence is clear that all too often, child welfare involvement is predictive of other poor outcomes for youth and families.

To learn more about the Philadelphia Rapid Rehousing for Reunification program, contact Nan Feyler, Stoneleigh Fellow and director of the Housing and Child Welfare Initiative for Philadelphia at nan.feyler@phila.gov.

Marie N. Williams, J.D., is senior program officer at the Stoneleigh Foundation. Before that she was immediate past executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and a longtime advocate for social justice causes.

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