New Evidence Of A Link Between Poverty/Housing Instability And Child Welfare Involvement

Any sociologist worth her weight could tell you that there is a link between poverty and involvement of families in systems like the child welfare system (in addition to other systems like the criminal justice system). New Information from Partners For Our Children, a collaborative effort of the University of Washington School of Social Work, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and private funders, reaffirms what child welfare attorneys and practitioners already know anecdotally about families in our care.

In a new online piece, Poverty and Housing Instability: The Implications for Families Involved in the Child Welfare System, researchers claim strong correlations between housing instability and involvement in child welfare cases. Affordable housing has always been an issue in America but families are increasingly challenged to obtain affordable housing in light of ecomic factors across every state.

The reality is that there is no state in this county in which an individual can afford a two-bedroom apartment working a full-time minimum wage job. Yet stable housing provides the critical foundation that children need. Without stable and safe housing, children are challenged to thrive in other areas including education.

Homelessness is not always as it seems. Homeless families may not stand on street corners– they may share housing with other families in unstable arrangements or move from shelter to shelter. Yet in a political climate in which it is suddenly acceptable to shift the burden of balancing government’s budgets onto the poor and working poor, resources are even more scarce for the families who need the most help. Housing resources have become extremely limited as funding is cut to programs that help keep kids and families off the streets and out of shelters.

Ultimately, homeless families are at greatest risk of being caught in the web of child protective services intervention. The most common reason children enter foster care is “general neglect” or inadequate food, clothing, and shelter. “Research has shown a link between poverty, homelessness or substandard housing and child welfare involvement; in fact, housing instability is often the reason families come to the attention of child welfare in the first place and, in some cases, housing issues hinder family reunification efforts.” Approximately 30% of children in foster care are there primarily as a result of a lack of housing. These children are disproportionately children of color.

While some states have barred removal of children due to poverty-related conditions, these factors remain strong predictors of whether a child ends up in this system. Ultimately, the burden falls back onto social workers and other government actors to help connect families to the scarce community resources that are available to help provide stable housing.

Political discourse around these issues fails to address the human realities of drastic cuts to social welfare programs in the United States. Ultimately, if we fail to provide help to children and families who need it most, we fuel cycles of povery and state-custody or intervention. These are real families and children’s lives, not talking points for the 2012 election.

Lauren K Johnson is an attorney who represents parents in juvenile dependency cases in the trial court and on appeal.