Deep poverty increases risk of child welfare system involvement 

New bill would set a floor for welfare benefits to help fix that

EVEN THE MOST LOVING PARENT is challenged to provide quality care for his or her child when he or she is struggling with the many ways in which poverty constrains his or her choices. Here in Massachusetts, there is no reason anyone should be living in deep poverty. A bill entitled “An Act to Lift Kids out of Deep Poverty” filed this legislative session by Senator Sal DiDomenico and Representative Marjorie Decker would set a floor for welfare benefits at half of the federal poverty level, increasing Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TADFC) grants by 10 percent each year until grants reach 50 percent of the federal poverty level.    

A key benefit of this bill is that when we give parents the resources they need to meet basic needs we reduce the risk of child welfare involvement, creating opportunities for our state’s most vulnerable children to thrive.  

Imagine a single mother with two young children, ages three and one. This mother is trying to get by on a TADFC grant of $593 a month, which is not enough to meet this family’s most basic needs. 

It is winter and her three-year-old has a persistent cough and a rash, which she fears are due to lack of heat, a crack in her windows, and insects in their sub-standard housing. She is afraid to report the conditions to her landlord for fear she will be evicted and they will then become homeless, or that her housing conditions will be deemed unsafe for children, causing her children to be taken from herShe has not yet gotten her three-year-old to the doctor because getting there requires two busses and a long walk, which she knows would be difficult, particularly in the cold, for her two young children, and she has nowhere to leave the one year oldShe has no car and cannot afford a taxi. 

Instead, she has been hoping the cough and rash would resolve on their own. That evening, the three-year-old is coughing heavily and she needs to get him some medicine. She has run out of minutes on her phone, preventing her from calling nearby friend to watch the children while she runs to the store for the medicine. She considers taking the children with her, but it is cold out and she hasn’t been able to buy them warm winter jackets. Instead, she runs out to the store, leaving the two children alone for the 10 minutes it takes to get the medicine. While she’s out, a neighbor on her floor calls the Department of Children and Families (DCF) and reports that she’s left her children unsupervised – the very thing she tried to avoid.   

When the DCF worker arrives in response to the reporthe inspects her apartment noting a crack in her window where cold air enters, few toys or books for the children, and cockroaches in the eating area. When the worker opens the refrigerator, he sees mostly empty shelves. The worker asks to see the children’s clothes and notes the lack of appropriate winter clothes. He notes that the three-yearold has a bad cold, which has gone untreated. When he speaks to the mother, he notes her anxiety, stress, and flat affect, suggesting depression.    

Under these circumstances, it is very possible that DCF might open a case for child neglect. This is despite the fact that every decision this mother has made has been with her children’s best interests in the forefront. Poverty, not love or parental fitness, is what has deprived her of the best options for her children.  

It’s not likely that DCF would remove the children under these circumstances without more evidence, but they may open a case and she would remain subject to DCF’s monitoring, causing her to feel even more stressed. If something were to go wrong, say she was injured and required a temporary hospitalization, the children would be at risk of being placed into foster care. 

This scenario is drawn from situations we see in the Massachusetts Law Reform caseload and those of advocates we work with at the National Association of Social Workers – MA Chapter and beyond. It illustrates a key reality of child welfare in Massachusetts and across the country.  In Massachusetts and nationally, approximately 75% of the cases in the child welfare caseload are neglect cases, not child abuse cases. This means that most of the cases for which DCF becomes involved, do not involve parents intentionally hurting or abusing their children, they involve parents struggling to care for their children. Child neglect can be directly or indirectly related to poverty. Even with government assistance, parents with inadequate income do not have adequate housing options, cannot get their children the healthy food they needoften do not have access to transportation to get them to medical care and other appointments when a medical or other crisis occurs, and they often are not able to hold together an already fragile situation. 

The research bears this out. Several studies looking at the connection between safety net programs and child welfare system involvement demonstrate that increasing the availability of safety net programs decreases child welfare system involvement. One in particular, titled “Do State TANF Policies Affect Child Abuse and Neglect?” by Ginter and Johnson-Motoyama (2017), looked specifically at the impact of changes in welfare grants on child welfare involvement and found that increases in welfare grant amounts lead to decreased child welfare system involvement.  

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
With recent media attention pointing to how overburdened our DCF and foster care systems are, increasing TAFDC cash grants as a means to lift families out of deep poverty and prevent DCF-involvement, is common sense. A small increase in the TAFDC family grant is not only an investment in family stability, but also saves the Commonwealth a significant portion of the over $584 million we are currently spending to place children in foster care.  No one should have to choose between medicine and child care, and no one should have to endure the trauma related to family separation just because they are poor. It’s time to lift families out of deep poverty and give every parent and child in Massachusetts the opportunity to thrive.  

Susan Elsen is a staff attorney with the Mass Law Reform Institute. Rebekah Gewirtz is the Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers, Massachusetts chapter.