It’s one of those myths that won’t go away and instead is gathering steam–the idea that parents who are found to be neglectful by child welfare agencies are really just poor people being judged for their inability to provide sufficient material support to their children. It doesn’t matter how much evidence is cited against it. The myth continues because it is an essential part of the narrative that is currently dominant in the child welfare arena. Nevertheless it’s been over a year since my last attempt to shed some light on this issue, and some new research has become available, thus it seems a good time to revisit the topic.
It’s Time to Stop Confusing Poverty With Neglect, exhorted Jerry Milner, Children’s Bureau Commissioner and his special assistant David Kelly back in January, 2020, in a typical statement of this myth. “Most of the reasons for child welfare involvement fall into what we call “neglect” rather than physical abuse or exploitation. Our most recent child maltreatment data tell us that 60 percent of victims have a finding of neglect only…More times than not, poverty and struggles to meet the basic, concrete needs of a family are a part of the equation in all types of neglect.” Miller and Kelly now sell their expertise at Family Integrity & Justice Works, an arm of the Public Knowledge consulting firm which has the goal of “replacing child welfare.”
Media outlets have taken this story and run with it. Here is the Philadelphia Inquirer: “A common misunderstanding is that the leading reason kids are taken into the foster care system is because of physical or sexual abuse. But that accounts for only one of six cases. Children far more often are removed from their homes for ‘neglect,’ which often amounts to symptoms of poverty, like food insecurity or unstable housing.”
The Biden Administration has endorsed the idea that most neglect findings reflect nothing but poverty. The Administration on Children and Families (ACF) has solicited applications for a grant of between one and two million dollars “to support the development and national dissemination of best practices to strengthen the capacity of child abuse hotline staff to distinguish between poverty and willful neglect.”
There is no federal definition of child neglect, and state definitions vary. In contrast to abuse, it is usually defined as an act of omission rather than comission. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, neglect is “commonly defined in state law as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety and well-being are threatened with harm.” The most commonly recognized categories of neglect include physical neglect or failure to provide for basic physical needs, failure to provide adequate supervision , educational neglect or failure to educate the child as required by law, and medical neglect.
There is no dispute that more children are found to be neglected than abused. Based on data collected by the federal government and published in Child Maltreatment 2020, three-quarters (76.1 percent) of the children found to be victims of maltreatment in 2020 were found to be neglected. A total of 16.5 percent were found to be physically abused, 9.4 percent were found to be sexually abused, and six percent were found to be victims of some other type of maltreatment.* Of the children who were removed and placed in foster care, according to the 2020 AFCARS Report, 63 percent had neglect listed as a circumstance associated with the child’s removal, compared to 12 percent with physical abuse and four percent with sexual abuse.
But the idea that neglect findings represent nothing but poverty is questionable. First, the neglect deniers would probably agree that most poor parents do not neglect their children but instead find a way to meet their needs, relying on charity, extra work, or subordinating their own wants to the needs of their children. When poor children are deprived of food, clothing or adequate housing, other factors such as substance abuse, mental illness and domestic violence are often involved. Second, more than half of the states exempt from the definition of neglect any deprivation that is due to the lack of financial means of the parents. Third, the definition of neglect is not confined to the failure to provide adequate food, clothing or shelter but instead includes other acts of omission, such as failure to protect a child from dangerous caregivers, or failure to ensure that children go to school and get needed medical care. Lack of supervision, a common form of neglect, can reflect poverty when parents feel they must rely on inadequate arrangements in order to go to work; we just don’t know the degree to which neglect findings reflect such decisions by parents.
But until now we did not have quantitative data concerning the types of neglect being investigated or the importance of risk factors like substance abuse and mental illness. A recent study from California, the nation’s most populous state, begins to fill this data gap. Palmer and colleagues used a representative sample of 295 neglect investigations that took place in California in 2017. They found that only 14 percent of the investigations involved physical neglect–the deprivation of food, clothing, and housing that is most closely connected with poverty. The most common types of neglect that were investigated were inadequate supervision, investigated in 44 percent of the cases, and failure to protect (leaving the child in the care of a known abuser or failure to intervene with known abuse), in 29 percent of cases. Moreover almost all (99 percent) of the investigations of physical neglect included concerns related to substance use, domestic violence, or mental illness; or they involved another type of maltreatment such as physical or sexual abuse or an additional neglect allegation. Thus, the authors conclude that almost no parent was investigated for material deprivation alone, although it is true that they did not separate out any lack of supervision cases that involved the inability to obtain adequate childcare for work or other necessary activities.
The evidence from California is very suggestive, but as the authors caution, it is possible that other states receive more reports that focus on unmet material needs, are less likely to screen out such reports, or emphasize them more during the investigation. This is possible because California, according to a recent study of state neglect definitions, is one of five states that have adopted an “expanded” definition of child neglect, including more neglect types and allowing for the threat of harm, rather than actual harm, in neglect findings. Studies similar to the Palmer study from other states with more limited neglect definitions would be useful.
While the California study is not sufficient to negate the presumption that findings of neglect represent nothing more than poverty, it is important to note that there are no studies supporting this viewpoint. So why does the myth that child welfare treats poverty as neglect persist despite the lack of evidence supporting it, and the many reasons for skepticism? It persists because it supports the narrative and associated policy prescriptions of the child welfare establishment today–child welfare leaders, administrators, legislatures, and influential funders like Casey Family Programs. The dominant narrative describes a racist family policing system that persecutes people only because they are Black, Indigenous or poor. The policy prescriptions involve radically shrinking or even abolishing child welfare systems.
According to the prevailing view, if omissions that are labeled neglect are strictly due to poverty, there is no need to intervene with social services or child removal. Instead, governments should provide economic benefits to neglectful parents. There is a body of research suggesting that economic support for families does help reduce maltreatment, perhaps not only by helping parents meet their children’s financial needs, but also enabling them to provide better childcare and improving parents’ mental health through stress reduction. Independent of their impact on maltreatment, I strongly support increases in the safety net for families and children. But available information suggests that it will take more than financial assistance to cure neglect in most cases. Improved economic supports will not be a replacement for services to help parents address challenges with substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and parenting, and for child removal when there is no other option.
What can be done to alleviate the confusion and misinformation around child neglect and poverty? Collecting better data from the states would be helpful. In its annual Child Maltreatment reports, the Children’s Bureau uses data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). When reporting on the type of maltreatment alleged and then found, states must pick up to four out of eight categories, including physical abuse, “neglect or deprivation of necessities,” medical neglect, sexual abuse, psychological or emotional maltreatment, sex trafficking, no alleged maltreatment, other or “unknown or missing.” It is not clear whether the “neglect” category is supposed to indicate all types of neglect or just those involving “deprivation of necessities,” but there is no way for states to clarify what they mean or to distinguish between the most common types of neglect. The same problem exists with the AFCARS data used to compile federal reports on foster care and adoption.
Clearly, a reform of the data elements that states are required to submit is needed so that resesarchers can see the types of neglect that are being alleged and found for each child. However, such an improvement would not substitute for careful research like the California study cited above because it will never be possible to rely on the thoroughness of database entries by overworked social workers. We cannot be sure they will enter all of the applicable categories, for many reasons, including that not all the applicable categories may be substantiated for a particular case. Moreover, while states are required to report on some caregiver risk factors contributing to abuse and neglect, such as alcohol and drug abuse, emotional disturbance and domestic violence, these seem to be vastly understated by the social workers who enter these factors in state databases. For example, only 26.4 percent of caregivers of maltreated children were found to have the risk factor of drug abuse and only 36 percent of removals involved parental drug abuse, according to federal data. Yet anecdotal reports from states and localities tend to indicate a much higher percentage of cases that involve substance abuse.
Thus, a reform of data collection might help, but would not solve the problem, especially considering that that many child welfare leaders and funders seem inclined to maintain the hypothesis that CPS confuses poverty with neglect. Ideally, the federal government and other funders would support more studies like that of Palmer et al, and more academics would consider performing such studies.
The myth that CPS confuses neglect with poverty is pernicious because, like other myths currently prevalent in child welfare, it runs the risk of hurting abused and neglected children. It is being used to justify dismantling child protective services, eliminating mandatory reporting, or more modest proposals to hamper these critical protections for children. The federal government should improve data collection on child neglect and associated risk factors as well as supporting additional research to provide more accurate estimates of their prevalance.
*According to the report’s authors, “other” could be anything that does not fit into the categories offered by the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting System and includes threatened abuse and neglect, drug addiction, and lack of supervision according to state comments submitted with the data.