How the Foster Care System Punishes the Poor

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law


As vital calls to defund the police rise, some have been suggesting these funds be redirected to Health & Human Services departments. These departments, as scholar-activist Dorothy Roberts notes, tend to house child welfare” and foster care, which provide punishment rather than care for many families, particularly Black and Brown families. As we call for defunding punitive police systems, it’s especially important to recognize the child welfare” system for what it is: surveillance, policing and punishment. The following excerpt first appeared in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

Mariame Kaba aptly terms foster care the child kidnapping system” — a set of practices that break apart families and punish marginalized people, much like the prison system itself. That’s a term that rings true in the case of Angela Willard, a Pennsylvania mother of seven. Willard is white, but she lives below the poverty line and has a serious medical condition, two strikes that have been used against her when she has sought help. In 2012, Willard married a man who was on the sex offender registry. Willard signed a spousal agreement” vowing never to leave her children unsupervised with her husband. But despite her precautions, the calls to the Department of Human Services (DHS, Pennsylvania’s child protective services agency) began. The calls were from neighbors who’d seen her husband’s name and address on the sex offender registry and wanted him out of the community. Sometimes someone would call simply because they were upset with Willard’s family for another reason. Disputes between neighbors became an opportunity for vindictive attempts to get Willard’s children taken away from her. DHS visited Willard’s house seven times over the next four years in response to these calls; it ruled every complaint unfounded.”

However, these visits meant that DHS caseworkers were familiar with Willard’s home when they arrived for a different reason in April 2016. This time, they were responding to a call regarding Willard herself.

Willard’s husband had turned abusive the previous year, beating her regularly and eventually pushing her thirteen-year-old son when he tried to intervene. So Willard called Women Against Abuse, a large Philadelphia nonprofit that provides services to domestic violence survivors.

The counselors at Women Against Abuse told Willard they could temporarily arrange for shelter for her and two of her four younger children. (By then, her three oldest children were adults and living elsewhere.) Willard had no one else to care for her other two children, so she decided to stay put with all of her children and plan an escape on her own. Eleven days later, DHS was at her door, threatening to take her children.

This is because Women Against Abuse is a mandated reporter, meaning that employees are required to notify DHS if they suspect a child is in an abusive situation. When Willard didn’t leave her husband, the agency informed DHS about her disclosure of domestic violence. The agency that was supposed to help Willard instead surveilled her because it was mandated to do so. Now DHS had arrived to take away her children.

Child protective service agencies and the foster care system exert social control over hundreds of thousands of families across the United States, and these numbers are growing. A 2018 report by the Department of Health and Human Services found a 10 percent rise in children in foster care nationwide — from 397,600 in 2012 to 437,500 in 2016. Meanwhile, the complete termination of parental rights has also risen precipitously, increasing by about 60 percent from 2010 to 2016. This dramatic rise in both foster care and parental rights termination targets low-income parents of color, particularly Black and Native parents. Advocates have dubbed this phenomenon the new Jane Crow” given that the criminalization of parenting falls largely upon mothers of color, particularly low-income Black mothers.

Contrary to popular opinion, most of the time, when children are removed from the home, it’s not because of abuse; the allegation is usually neglect. Neglect is an allegation that encompasses a range of problems — in addition to leaving a child alone for periods of time, it can refer to homelessness or substandard housing, a lack of weather-appropriate or clean clothing, and chronic latenesses or absences from school. Many of these problems stem from poverty and lack of adequate access to housing, food, and other resources rather than parental malice or indifference.

The swelling of the foster care system is another case in which reforms are driving the expansion of surveillance and punishment. The net is widening — and more and more families are getting caught in it — in part because of a supposedly more compassionate approach to child welfare. Roberts, who has studied the issue for nearly twenty years, has noted this change in child welfare approaches. Children may come across the authorities’ radar for a host of reasons, such as a neighbor calling the police to report the scent of marijuana in the hallway, school officials calling child protective services after noticing a student’s continual absence, or a bystander calling in to report a child seemingly left alone in a playground. Not all complaints warrant removing a child from their family, but in response to increased scrutiny over their actions, child welfare officials are increasingly dividing children into low-risk” and high-risk” groups. Low-risk” youth are not considered to be in immediate danger and are generally not removed from the home right away. Instead, their families are given requirements to fulfill and their actions are supervised by child services. In practice, this means that many low-risk” families who previously would never have fallen under state surveillance are now swept into the net. Then, if the social workers surveilling their homes discover any infraction, their children are more likely to be placed in foster care.

Although the words foster” and care” convey supportiveness and nurturing, in practice the system often doesn’t fit these descriptors. Foster care shatters the lives of both adults and children: as reported by the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a coalition of child welfare professionals working to reform the child welfare system, people who have been in foster care have significantly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than war veterans, and on average, even children who have been abused or neglected have fared better when they’ve remained in their homes than when they’ve been placed in foster care. Meanwhile, parents are often left defenseless in the face of a system that penalizes them and their children for forces beyond their control, such as poverty, homelessness, and domestic violence.

This brings us back to Angela Willard, who called a social service agency for help — and ended up with DHS at her door. DHS insisted that Willard’s children be removed from the home. Wanting to ensure their safety, Willard agreed to have the caseworkers take her four children to the home of her twenty-five-year-old daughter, who was living in another county. But the next day, caseworkers called Willard and told her she wouldn’t get her children back until she got safe.” However, she says, They didn’t tell me where to get safe at. I had no place to go.”

She waited a couple of days to make a move. One night, while her husband was sleeping, Willard grabbed some money, a backpack, and her children’s computer and left the house, not knowing where she was headed.

For a while, the answer was nowhere. Willard became homeless, and has been ever since. She also became severely ill: born with hyper-tropic cardiomyopathy, a serious heart condition, Willard had health issues that were exacerbated by her devastating circumstances. Not long after leaving home, she had a heart attack and stroke and was admitted to the hospital. To add insult to injury, DHS added her health to its list of reasons Willard was unfit to care for her children.

Willard’s poverty proved to be another strike against her. When her children were taken away, she was waiting to be approved for social security payments based on her disability. As she attempted to get her children back from DHS custody, she was told that her lack of income was an additional reason she was considered unfit. For her, the unfairness of the system was palpable: although those who care for others’ children in foster care and kinship care are given state money to do so, no one ever offered her financial support to care for her own children. In other words, child welfare officials were paying her daughter to care for Willard’s four children while keeping them separated from Willard for being poor.

Willard tried hard to take DHS’s mandate to get safe” to heart. However, all forms of help came with mandates, surveillance, and control. Mirroring police tactics, DHS caseworkers tracked Willard’s every parenting move and punished her for her poverty, poor health, and status as an abuse survivor. Rather than helping her find housing when she was sleeping on a bus, DHS gave her a long list of demands to meet in order to get her children back.

Desperate for reunification, Willard followed the agency’s instructions to a T. She took a slew of required classes that filled her days. Even after a heart attack and a stroke, she never missed a class, committed to doing whatever it took to get her children back.

Willard was too ill to hold a job, which, she says, gave her one advantage: were she working, she never would be able to meet all of DHS’s mandates. Eventually she began to receive disability checks due to her heart condition, giving her money to live on. But this reality doesn’t bode well for most mothers and caregivers, who must work in order to survive and have any hope of reuniting with their kids.

Among the classes that DHS mandates to regain custody are domestic violence workshops, parenting classes, and anger management courses. Child protective services’ parenting classes, as well as the other classes mandated on the path to reunification, tend to follow an assumption that people have lost their children because of individual failings, not because of poverty, racism, and victimization.

Willard put in the work and checked all the boxes to learn” how to be a good parent — but without help securing basic needs like housing, she still didn’t meet DHS’s definition of fit.”

Willard now lives at a city homeless shelter. Despite her efforts, she still doesn’t have custody of her children; instead, she is allowed only two hours a week of supervised visits. A judge has told her that even though she’s met the requirements for reunification in terms of classes, visits and other steps, she must also pass a parent capacity test. Willard is worried about the test. She’s had serious problems with her eyesight since her stroke, and the test’s written portion consists of 564 questions on a computer screen. She asked DHS whether accommodations could be made for her vision issues — like arranging for someone to read the questions to her. The answer was no. The parent capacity test determines whether Willard will get her children back, but no one will help her see the computer.

The system is so messed up,” she says. They set you up to fail.”

Copyright © 2020 by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. This excerpt originally appeared in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission.

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