Poverty and Child Welfare, 101 Years Later

By Gustavsson, Nora; MacEachron, Ann E. | Social Work, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Poverty and Child Welfare, 101 Years Later


Gustavsson, Nora, MacEachron, Ann E., Social Work


It has been 101 years since the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Advocates were admonished to refrain from disrupting families simply because the families were poor. This basic instruction has proved difficult to implement. Public child welfare has become a system that primarily serves poor children and their families (Pelton, 1994). How well these families are served is open to debate.

POVERTY AND CHILD WELFARE

A review of families served by child welfare reveals that many of the families are poor. Most of the referrals to Child Protective Services allege neglect, which is strongly associated with poverty (Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2008). The overrepresentation of African Americans in the child welfare system suggests that race may serve to exacerbate the role of socioeconomic status (Harris & Hackett, 2008). Poverty is a threat to the well-being of children (Maluccio, Pine, & Tracy, 2002). However, policies and services to ameliorate poverty are much harder to find.

The disadvantages of poverty are cumulative. Poor families come to the attention of child welfare for poverty-related issues. Children can be hungry, be living in substandard housing or be homeless, be unsupervised while a parent works or is meeting other responsibilities, be truant from failing schools, lack medical care, or have a caretaker with untreated mental illness or substance abuse. Each of these issues can be a pathway to placement. Locating accessible and effective community services for these issues can be a daunting task for child welfare staff. Compounding the challenges are pressing workforce issues. High turnover rates among child welfare staff are costly for agencies struggling to recruit, train, and retain staff and are expensive for families as service plans are delayed, not evaluated, or not even implemented (Graef & Hill, 2000).

Housing and residing in low-income neighborhoods are especially troubling areas for families involved in the child welfare system. Housing problems can result in both the disruption of families and the inability to restore children to their families (Pelton, 2008). A condition for reunification often involves requiring the parent to secure safe and stable housing. This can be a substantial barrier for poor parents. There is a clear association of housing problems with child welfare involvement (Courtney, McMurtry, & Zinn, 2004; Freisther, Merritt, & LaScalla, 2006). The link between neighborhood characteristics and reported child maltreatment rates suggests that economically distressed areas have higher maltreatment rates, although the mechanisms by which this happens remain to be explored (Coulton, Crampton, Irwin, Spilsbury, & Korbin, 2007).

CHILD WELFARE SERVICES FOR POOR FAMILIES

There is little disagreement about the association of poverty with child welfare involvement. Disagreements develop when casual relationships are advanced. For example, does living in poverty increase the risks of other adverse events such as stress, substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence? These factors are also associated with higher rates of child welfare involvement. Research continues to advance the understanding of the etiology of child maltreatment.

However, child welfare agencies cannot wait for the definitive explication of the micro, macro, and mezzo complexities of maltreatment. Thus, service plans are often based on the best available data. When parents have substance abuse issues, the service plan is likely to require parenting classes and substance abuse treatment. If there is conflict in the family, then counseling is likely to be required. Poor parents may be ordered to get job training or to find a job. These typical service plans represent a step in an attempt to benefit the family. Unfortunately, they can ignore the pressing realities of poverty and inadequate services that are a part of the experience of families. …

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