Prevalence of Child Welfare Services Involvement among Homeless and Low-Income Mothers: A Five-Year Birth Cohort Study

Article excerpt

This paper investigates the five-year prevalence of child welfare services involvement and foster care placement among a population-based cohort of births in a large US city, by housing status of the mothers (mothers who have been homeless at least once, other low-income neighborhood residents, and all others), and by number of children. Children of mothers with at least one homeless episode have the greatest rate of involvement with child welfare services (37%), followed by other low-income residents (9.2%), and all others (4.0%). Involvement rates increase with number of children for all housing categories, with rates highest among women with four or more births (33%), particularly for those mothers who have been homeless at least once (54%). Among families involved with child welfare services, the rate of placement in foster care is highest for the index children of women with at least one episode of homelessness (62%), followed by other low-income mothers (39%) and all others (39%). Half of the birth cohort eventually involved with child welfare services was among the group of women who have ever used the shelter system, as were 60% of the cohort placed in foster care. Multivariate logistic regression analyses reveal that mothers with one or more homeless episodes and mothers living in low-income neighborhoods have significantly greater risk of child welfare service involvement (OR = 5.67 and OR = 1.51, respectively) and foster care placement (OR = 8.82 and OR = 1.59, respectively). The implications for further research, and for child welfare risk assessment and prevention are discussed. Specifically, the salience of housing instability/homelessness to risk of child welfare service involvement is highlighted.

Introduction

In the US, 1.4 to 2.15 million children are estimated to have been homeless at some point in 1996 (Burt & Aron 2000) and 547,000 children were in formal out-of-home placements and under child welfare agency supervision in the beginning of 1999 (Department of Health & Human Services 2000). Both phenomena reflect major family disruptions linked to residential instability, poverty, and psychosocial problems such as substance abuse and domestic violence. Yet little research exists on the relationship between homelessness and receiving protective supervision by a child welfare agency, including out-of-home placement. This article addresses this topic through a prospective, 5-year examination of a comprehensive one-year birth cohort in Philadelphia and records of involvement with the municipal shelter and child welfare systems.

Background

Homelessness, after its dramatic increase during the 1980's, has remained a significant social problem throughout the 1990s (Choi & Snyder, 1999; Children's Defense Fund, 1998; Susser, Moore, & Link, 1993; Link et al., 1994). Homelessness among women with children has generated particular concern, with the number of homeless women with children rising at a disproportionate rate in comparison to single homeless adults during the 1980's and comprising one-third of the national homeless population by 1986 (Burt & Cohen, 1989). The proportion of homeless persons in families has since remained at that level, although the number of homeless families has continued to increase as the number of homeless persons in general has increased (Burt et al., 1999).

Homelessness now appears to be a relatively common phenomenon, especially among the urban poor. A national telephone survey conducted in the fall of 1992 revealed that 13.5 million people, or 7.4% of the national population, had experienced "literal homelessness" at some point in their lives, including as many as 7.5 million people, or 3.2% of the US population, in the previous five years (Link et al., 1994, Interagency Council on the Homeless 1994). Closer examination reveals the incidence of homelessness to be unequally distributed by race and age, with as many as 16% of poor African American children under the age of 5 becoming homeless each year in large US cities (Culhane & Metraux, 1999). …