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The American Rescue Plan Provides a Blueprint for Keeping Kids Safe and Reducing Reliance on the Foster Care System

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden has been lauded as a “force for fairness and justice in America,” and “breathtaking in its scope.” Its Child Tax Credit alone is projected to cut the child poverty rate by more than 40 percent, lifting 4.1 million children above the poverty line. But one marked way in which it’s revolutionary has gone unnoticed: The relief package is the most radical child protection plan this country has seen. Unlike our current approach to child maltreatment, it funds the very measures that have been demonstrated to keep kids out of foster care and safe in their homes.

The relief package is the most radical child protection plan this country has seen. Unlike our current approach to child maltreatment, it funds the very measures that have been demonstrated to keep kids out of foster care and safe in their homes.

“There’s lots of research out there showing that basic supports for families like housing and income and education can really play a role in supporting families and reducing reliance on child protective services,” explains Vivek Sankaran, a parent attorney and clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School. “The legislation addresses all three of those buckets,” potentially offering a new way “of supporting families so that they don’t have to resort to the foster care system.”

One study found that children participating in Head Start were 93 percent less likely to be placed in foster care than children with no early childhood education. The pandemic relief bill includes $1 billion for Head Start programs and $15 billion for child care subsidies.

Research links housing stability, including home foreclosures, evictions, and homelessness with increased child maltreatment reports. The new bill earmarks over $27 billion for rental assistance, and $10 billion to help homeowners with mortgage. It also provides funds for Section 8 housing vouchers as well as $5 billion to help families struggling to pay their rent, mortgage or utilities during the pandemic.

The stress brought on by economic hardship has been long associated with an increased risk of child maltreatment. Research also suggests that economic supports can reduce that risk. One analysis found that raising the minimum wage by one dollar reduced child maltreatment reports by 10 percent. And a recent survey of low-income families with preschool-aged children found that the combination of job and income loss during the pandemic created stress and “hurt child development.” But parents who lost their jobs but not their incomes reported having more positive interactions with their children than they’d had even while working.

Family advocates predict that the bill’s allowance of up to $300 per child a month could provide a similar boon by reducing the strain of financial hardship. There is “tremendous potential for the child tax credits to support families and reduce economic stressors,” says Kathleen Creamer, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who represents child welfare-involved parents.

The research-backed idea that offering concrete supports that reduce parents’ stress will also reduce the need for child welfare interventions may sound like commonsense. After all, most kids enter foster care not on allegations of abuse, but on findings of neglect, a classification which in the child welfare field is almost always fueled by poverty. A parent’s not having enough money to buy groceries, pay rent, keep the lights on or secure safe child care can all add up to a neglect case in Family Court. And a dearth of monetary resources also makes it more difficult for parents with children in care to bring their kids back home.

“I have families right now who if they had housing, they’d have their kids in their care,” says Sankaran.

And yet, helping parents has never been the United States’ approach to keeping kids safe. Instead, we prioritize funding foster care services, including the invasive child protective investigations used to determine which kids may be in danger. With only about 1 out of 6 of these investigations resulting in a finding of abuse or neglect, family advocates say they are a costly, inefficient and damaging use of resources, misdirecting funds away from serious cases of abuse while adding further strain to millions of struggling families each year.

“Investigations are actually bringing in a new harm to families because the surveillance is not benign,” says Chris Gottlieb, co-director of the New York University School of Law Family Defense Clinic. “These are almost all families who are dealing with the many stresses of living in poverty, and you’re introducing significant additional stress.”

Investigations also disproportionately impact children of color, and especially Black children, with one study estimating that 53 percent of African-American children will be part of a child welfare investigation before age 18.

Sometimes involvement with the child welfare system does lead to a family being offered services or supports. About 30 percent—or a little of over one million—of the children involved in a child welfare investigation in 2018 received services or supports. But too often, the offered supports fail to address underlying issues of poverty. The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018 was considered game-changing because it lets states use federal matching funds to keep children from entering foster care. But even that Act limits those services to the kinds already commonly offered by child welfare systems, and which focus not on changing a parent’s circumstances, but a parent’s behavior, such as counseling, parenting skills classes and drug treatment programs.

As research by Kelley Fong of Georgia Tech demonstrates, for many parents living in high poverty neighborhoods that are saturated with child protective investigations, help connected with the child welfare system comes tinged with the threat of being judged as a bad parent and losing one’s child to foster care. “Parents who need help with school challenges, a winter coat or box of food know that every request for assistance can put their families at risk of a hotline call, an investigation and even family separation,” parent leaders at Rise, the publication by child welfare-involved parents, explained in written testimony at a recent a New York City council hearing.

The pandemic relief bill holds the potential to upend this dynamic with the simple but transformative approach that other democracies have long depended on: Give parents the help they need with no judgment and no strings attached.

It remains to be seen whether the funding allotted to, say, housing help or Head Start will be sufficient to make a meaningful dent in the number of reports made to child protective hotlines—and that’s something that Sankaran would like to see studied. Also, undocumented parents have been left out of the plan, meaning their kids won’t benefit and attorneys at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia say it’s still unclear how easy it will be for eligible families to access the supports. They are particularly concerned that parents who do not normally file taxes may miss out on the child tax credit, and are urging all of their clients to file taxes this year, including those without earnings.

What some advocates say is certain is that the plan provides a powerful blueprint for reforming the way we keep kids safe in their homes. Sankaran says it has been a long time coming. “It’s the most significant legislation to help families in danger of losing their children to foster care. We’re not framing it like that, but that’s how I see it.”

Kendra Hurley is a journalist and researcher whose work has fueled reform and helped shape policy in education, child welfare, and homeless services. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg's CityLab, the Washington Post, the New York Times, USA Today, and others, and her investigation into teen adoption received an award from the Casey Journalism Center. For over a decade, Kendra worked as senior editor and reporter of the families and poverty project at an applied policy institute at The New School. Before that, she launched an online journal covering the youth media field for the Open Society Institute, and worked with teenagers living in foster care for the youth media publication Represent. While coaching the young writers, she received a PASEsetter award for impactful afterschool educators.

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