Poor Enough to Be Eligible? Child Abuse, Neglect, and the Poverty Requirement

Article excerpt

An abused or neglected child must be poor to be eligible for federal funds for foster care maintenance payments.1 The income eligibility criteria forces agency workers to focus on the poverty status of a child's family. The agency should instead focus exclusively on the child and family's safety and service needs. The income eligibility assessment results in billions of dollars of irrelevant administrative determinations regarding the income and assets of abused and neglected children and their families. Ending the income eligibility for foster care maintenance payments, even if federal funding was not increased, could reallocate funds now wasted on income determinations to the shelter, clothing, and food needs of children in foster care. It would also formally disentangle child welfare from poverty and the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children ("AFDC") standards.

While no state law includes income eligibility in its definition of child abuse or neglect,2 the federal law mandates welfareeligibility for federal reimbursement of foster care and adoption subsidies for children adopted out of foster care.3 Foster care and adoption assistance subsidies are uncapped entitlement programs under title PV-E of the Social Security Act and are often referred to as "title IV-E programs." The November 2006 conference Race, Culture, Class, and Crisis in Child Welfare: Theory into Practice at St. John's School of Law assembled child advocates from practice and academics to address, in part, the issue of class in child welfare law. Does income eligibility lead to an undue focus on poor families as only they are eligible for valuable federal funds? Does it enter into the risk assessment in improper ways? Is poverty an overwhelming risk for child abuse and neglect? Does the child protection system overwhelmingly focus on poor families and their children to the detriment of these families and of children from non-impoverished families who may not get the attention and services they need? Is the child welfare system in a crisis, due in part to its overemphasis on the poor?

This article provides background to these difficult empirical questions and to the debate on class in the child welfare system by describing the historical and current entanglement between public assistance and federal foster care mandates and funding: You must be eligible for public assistance to be eligible for foster care maintenance payments. The article points out the lack of analysis at the origin of the interrelationship between public assistance and foster care. The importance of federal funding for foster care through the public assistance program was minimized and buried in other public assistance amendments that elicited much greater attention and discussion. The article also exposes the administrative and resource waste caused by the continuation of the entanglement. The article proposes that all questions regarding welfare eligibility be eliminated from eligibility determinations for abused and neglected children and that all administrative assessments exclusively focus on the needs of the abused or neglected child and the child's family, not on their income or financial assets.

Part One of the article first provides background to understand current funding of the foster care system and then reveals the historical origin of the placement of foster care and other programmatic funding for abused and neglected children within the public assistance program. While the interrelationship between public assistance and services to abused and neglected children can be traced to the Progressive Era, the 1960's brought the formal codification of foster care funding mandates into the Social Security Act's income maintenance program. As an end-ofadministration change in January 196 1,4 it was not thoroughly considered, and the extent of the federal involvement was wildly underestimated. 5

Part Two considers current eligibility requirements for foster care funding in the Social Security Act. …