US child welfare system punishes poor families by removing children
Child welfare systems in the United States too often treat poverty as the basis for charges of neglect and decisions to remove children from their parents, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a report.
The system’s disproportionate impact on Black and Indigenous families and people living in poverty, and the sheer number of children removed unjustly, make this a national crisis warranting immediate attention and action.
The 146-page report, “‘If I Wasn’t Poor, I Wouldn’t Be Unfit’: The Family Separation Crisis in the US Child Welfare System,” documents how conditions of poverty, such as a family’s struggle to pay rent or maintain housing, are misconstrued as neglect, and interpreted as evidence of an inability and lack of fitness to parent.
Human Rights Watch and the ACLU found significant racial and socioeconomic disparities in child welfare involvement. Black children are almost twice as likely to experience investigations as white children and more likely to be separated from their families.
“The child welfare system punishes parents for poverty by taking their children away,” said Hina Naveed, Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the author of the report. “Parents need resources to help provide for their families, but what they are getting is surveillance, regulation, and punishment.”
One in three children in the US will be part of a child welfare investigation by age 18. Nearly eight million children were referred to a child maltreatment hotline in 2019, with investigations resulting for three million of them. More than 80 percent were found not to have faced abuse or neglect.
One woman told us her son injured himself when he slipped on water while dancing in the kitchen. “I rushed him to the emergency room when he got hurt. The doctors asked me questions, and I told them everything.” She was shocked to learn they reported her to child protective services for suspected abuse, triggering a cascade of interventions that she said deeply harmed her children and damaged their relationship.
Black and Indigenous families are disproportionately affected. Black children make up just 13 percent of the US child population but 24 percent of child abuse or neglect reports and 21 percent of children entering the foster system. White children make up 50 percent of the US child population, and 46 percent of the children in abuse or neglect reports and entering the foster system.
Indigenous children enter the foster system at nearly double the nationwide rate. Indigenous parents are up to four times more likely to have their children taken than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
Source: Human Rights Watch