By Michelle Hughes, Executive Director
North Carolina’s child welfare system, where we provide support and services for victims of abuse and neglect and their families, has been under a fair amount of scrutiny lately: a federal review found that NC didn’t achieve a single federally required outcome. North Carolina leaders have signaled that they mean to address the problems identified in the federal review. We hope they do, but we also hope that they zero in on one of the strongest predictors of child maltreatment—poverty.
The vast majority of kids enter the child welfare system because of neglect, which is deeply intertwined with poverty. We know this from extensive research and from the experience of judges, social workers, law enforcement officers, families, and communities. Unfortunately, the child welfare system is where many, many families end up when the financial stressors they face in their homes and communities overwhelm their ability to cope and nurture their children. Some states and jurisdictions have even begun to explicitly tease out the differences between poverty and neglect.
If we want to prevent kids from being abused and neglected (ever) and from coming into the foster care system (at all), then we had better become serious about addressing poverty. And by “become serious” I mean take preventative action upstream with policy solutions that have been proven to work, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, home visiting programs, and access to affordable child care.
When families work low wage jobs without health insurance, are on a county’s long waiting list for child care assistance, and live in under-resourced communities where transportation, mental health services, and effective parenting programs are few and far between – day to day survival is exhausting and tremendously stressful. Add to that the normal challenges of raising children and life can overwhelm families. No one benefits from allowing families to “bottom out” before we provide support and help. It hurts children and risks their lives.
The child welfare system isn’t designed to lift families out of poverty, nor should it be. But an array of evidence-based policy solutions that promote family economic opportunity can ensure that we effectively prevent child maltreatment and entry into foster care.