How the Foster Care System Punishes the Poor

Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law July 31, 2020


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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