United States: Child welfare system hurts families

(New York, November 17, 2022) – Child welfare systems in USA too often treat poverty as the basis for allegations of neglect and decisions to separate children from their parents, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report released today. The disproportionate impact of the system on Black and Indigenous families and people living in poverty, as well as the large number of children unfairly separated, make this a national crisis that requires immediate attention and action.

The 146-page report “‘If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit’: The Family Separation Crisis in the US Child Welfare System” (“’If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Deemed Unfit’: The Family Separation Crisis in America’s Child Welfare System”), documents how conditions of poverty, such as a family’s struggle to pay rent or maintaining housing, are misconstrued as neglect and are interpreted as proof of incapacity and lack of fitness to parent. Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in participation in the child welfare system. Black children are nearly twice as likely to be investigated as white children and more likely to be separated from their families.

“The child welfare system punishes parents for poverty by taking their children away,” he said. Hina Naveed, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and author of the report. “Parents need resources to help support their families, but what they get is surveillance, regulation and punishment.”

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU analyzed national and state data on income and poverty levels, child maltreatment, and the foster care system, and interviewed 138 people, including affected parents and caregivers, attorneys, government officials, local advocates, state and national, and others.

One in three minors in the US will be part of a child welfare system investigation by age 18. Nearly eight million were referred to a child abuse hotline in 2019, with resulting investigations for three million of them. It was determined that more than 80 percent had not faced abuse or neglect.

A woman told us that her son was injured when he slipped on the water while dancing in the kitchen. “I took him to the emergency room when he hurt himself. The doctors asked me questions and I told them everything.” She was shocked to discover that she had been reported to child protective services for suspected abuse, setting off a cascade of interventions that she said deeply harmed her children and damaged her relationship.

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found that nearly 75 percent of child abuse cases nationwide in 2019 involved “neglect” by the system’s definition.

A 52-year-old Oklahoma mother said the condition of her small mobile home was a factor in a child welfare investigation that caused her to lose custody of her 8-year-old son. “They said that [una de las razones] it was that we didn’t have running water, but I had like 12 gallons in my caravan,” he said. We were looking for a place [más grande] to rent and we hadn’t found any yet.”

Counties with higher poverty rates have higher rates of maltreatment investigations. But investigation rates are high for black families even in counties with low poverty rates.

Black and indigenous families are disproportionately affected. Black boys and girls represent only 13% of the US child population, but 24% of child abuse or neglect reports and 21% of children entering foster care. White boys and girls make up 50% of the US child population, and 46% of children reported for abuse or neglect and entering foster care.

Indigenous children enter the foster system at almost double the national rate. Indigenous parents are up to four times more likely to take their children from them than their non-indigenous peers.

On November 9, 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Brackeen v Haaland, which challenges the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which requires state courts to take active steps to keep Native families together. The case could have significant consequences for boys and girls, families and native communities. A decision is scheduled to be issued by June 2023.

Investigations are often very stressful, even traumatizing, for children and their families, and include unannounced home and school visits, as well as body checks.

The state’s broad and vague definitions of abuse and neglect allow social workers to make subjective decisions. If a caseworker or agency determines that abuse or neglect has occurred, the parents or other caregivers are listed on a central state registry, often for years. This negatively affects their employment and their ability to care for other children, including their own family members.

Separating a child from their parents, even for a short time, can be very traumatizing, with long-term consequences, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. In some cases, children placed outside the home experience mistreatment, including sexual or physical abuse, causing further trauma.

Parents who work to reunite with their children are allowed to visit, but often under the supervision of a caseworker, leading to awkward interactions that can be used against parents as evidence of lack of parental bond .

“It takes a toll on me every time the visit is over,” said a California mother.

More than 250,000 minors entered the foster care system in 2019. The parents of almost 61,000 minors saw their parental rights stripped of their parental rights that year. The parents said their families were “torn” or “destroyed” when they suspended their parental rights.

Poverty conditions, including unstable housing or the inability to take time off work or pay for travel and other expenses, make it difficult for parents living in poverty to be reunited with their children.

The number of children placed in foster care due to parental alcohol or drug use has more than doubled in the past two decades. The child welfare system indiscriminately penalizes parental use of any substance, even legal or medically indicated, without clear evidence of harm or risk to the child. In some cases, recovering parents said that following prescribed medical treatment plans was used against them.

Parents have fewer procedural protections in child welfare cases than in the criminal justice system. “I wish this would happen in criminal court,” said a California parent. “At least we would have a jury trial.”

Parents often lack information about their rights and adequate legal support when fighting to keep their children, limiting their ability to assert their rights, respond to charges, and appeal. Many child welfare interventions occur without judicial oversight.

Federal, state, and local authorities must take immediate action to reduce the detrimental impact of child welfare interventions and strengthen and support families and communities to prevent child maltreatment. Expanding social protection programs, such as child tax relief, can provide families with much-needed financial support that can help reduce and prevent abandonment, as defined by states, rooted in poverty.

Officials should hold public hearings to hear from affected families, ensure poverty-related circumstances are no longer criminalized, replace anonymous reporting with safe confidential reporting, reduce unnecessary intervention, increase due process protections for parents, and give parents more meaningful support that addresses their needs without subjecting them to surveillance and regulation.

“The damage caused by the child welfare system is so severe that the entire system needs to be rethought,” Naveed said. “Long-term change requires addressing the dire economic hardship that is at the heart of many child welfare cases and the corrosive impact of systemic racism.”

United States: Child welfare system hurts families