Policing the Poor

The Racial and Class Disparities Within Family Unification

Programs that help poor but striving families stay together are important but facing steep cuts due to deficit reduction efforts, writes Jassmin Poyaoan.

In this photo taken Friday, March 9, 2012, homeless veteran Misha McLamb, 32, talks in her transition home in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
In this photo taken Friday, March 9, 2012, homeless veteran Misha McLamb, 32, talks in her transition home in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Four years ago, Charlomane Leonard and her husband Prince Leonard hit hard times. Prince was injured at work, and as a result, the couple could no longer afford to live in their apartment complex. While the Leonards acquired a small plot of land, they did not qualify for a loan to build a house there. Instead, the family became homeless, initially living in a shelter before finding solace in a 12-by-25-foot storage unit in Houston, Texas. In spite of their living conditions, the Leonards maintained a poor but happy family.

Charlomane and Prince made sure that their six children—ages 2 to 12 years old—always had sufficient clothing and food, and that they consistently attended school. Inside the storage unit, clothing was shelved and folded neatly beside canned food, boxes of cereal, textbooks, board games, and family photos. The shed was equipped with a refrigerator, an air conditioner, a wood-burning heater, and even two computers—one of which was entrusted to the Leonards on loan from their children’s school. Beyond the material possessions, the Leonard children come across as happy, well-adjusted, and perform well academically—not one child ever received a grade lower than a B, according to their parents.

But the Leonards’ efforts weren’t enough to stop Child Protective Services from taking their children away from them. Although the agency’s purpose is to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect as well as remove children from parental custody when reports are substantiated, Charlomane and Prince Leonard are convinced that they were targeted due to poverty.

“They didn’t ask us if we need help or anything. They just said, ‘You can stay here, but your children can’t,’” Charlomane Leonard said. CPS immediately removed her children after a single three-hour visit. A spokesperson for CPS later explained that the removal was due to the shed’s unsafe living conditions.

Fortunately, the Leonards have secured a rental home with the help of a local community activist and have since been reunified with their six children.

The Leonards, however, are an exception to the rule. Those who aren’t as fortunate to be aided by their community lose their children to an already inundated foster care system. The foster care system is designed to be a temporary solution for children until a permanent placement can be made. Yet statistics from 2009 indicate that there are more than 423,000 children in foster care—some who have been waiting years to be reunified with their families or to be adopted.

Most of the children who face this outcome are African American. Disproportionately, African American children constitute 30 percent of those in foster care despite composing only 15 percent of all children in the United States. According to a report by Jessica Arons, black children are not only four times more likely than white children to be in the child welfare system but are also more prone to languish in foster care for years due to lower rates of adoption and family reunification.

These disparities have long been linked to racial bias in the child welfare system. A recent study at Washington University suggests that the black-white disproportionality is more the result of poverty than anything else. While racial bias should not be discounted, the study highlights the importance of addressing the underlying risk factors affecting impoverished black families.

Considering the chronically low socioeconomic status of most African American families entrapped by poverty and family disintegration, as well as the widening racial wealth gap, child welfare policies should provide low-income parents with recuperative resources, such as those described below, and holistic analysis of family circumstances.

With 42 percent of black children under the age of 5 living in poverty, the child welfare system should assess its impact on African American communities and shift its focus from punitive policies toward sustainable ones. While well-substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect certainly exist, it is often difficult to separate the systematized perception of child maltreatment from the conditions of poverty. As it stands, practices that removed the Leonard children from their home conflate poverty with negligence and punish striving families for being poor.

Instead of breaking up the Leonard family due to their living conditions, Child Protective Services should have linked the Leonards to housing assistance and reevaluated the familial circumstances once CPS-approved housing was acquired. At the very least, this approach would have deferred the possibility of the children entering foster care. Given that studies show the benefits of keeping children with their families, except in cases where children are in overt danger, more efforts should be made to keep families together. Family reunification services such as home visitation programs, parenting classes, family-friendly substance abuse treatment programs, domestic violence interventions, better educational and job opportunities, and safe and affordable housing and child care should be prioritized and made more readily available to families in need.

A prime example of an effective family reunification service is the Federal Unification Program, or FUP, which assists families that are separated or at risk of separation due to homelessness through housing subsidies. Statistics show that housing assistance is a more cost-effective alternative to foster care. The average cost of caring for a child in foster care is $56,892, while the average yearly cost to house and provide services to one family is $13,193. Additionally, Congress made substantial investments in homelessness prevention through the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program as part of the Recovery Act. This program has already helped a number of families, but some—like the Leonards—have fallen through the cracks. Moreover, funding for this program is due to expire next year, absent any discussion of refunding. 

Unfortunately, housing assistance among other programs has been or will be at risk of being undermined by federal budget cuts, similar struggles at the state and local levels, and deficit reduction efforts. For example, states such as California are making drastic cuts to child care and development programs that provide at-risk families with vital family reunification services.

Conservatives tout these cuts as necessary to reduce the national deficit yet fail to consider eliminating costly tax breaks to the wealthy. The Center for American Progress has outlined 10 tax breaks to the country’s highest earners that can be reduced or eliminated in order to maintain vital programs for children and their families.

Ultimately, the ones hurt the most by unchecked poverty are children. If we are to truly prioritize the country’s best interests, decimating limited opportunities for those that have inherited disadvantage is not the answer. As the Leonard children’s best interests have been prioritized by a Good Samaritan, one can only hope that America’s child welfare policies will follow suit.

Jassmin Poyaoan is an intern with Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.

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