At VPLC, April is Help Families Thrive Month 

Friday, April 19th, 2024

Every April, Virginia and the nation observe “Child Abuse Prevention Month.” But at VPLC, we prefer to think of April as “Supporting Families Month” or “Help Families Thrive Month.” Why? Because the best way to help children is to support families and help them thrive. 

In Virginia as elsewhere, the number one reason families are reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) is “neglect.” This sounds bad. But when a family is reported for “neglect,” very often the real reason is poverty — and lack of access to resources.  

Examples: a family reported to CPS because they are sleeping in their car — due to an eviction. A family reported to CPS because a child shows up to school unwashed—when their water was cut off because they couldn’t afford to pay the bill. A family reported to CPS because they lack childcare. Further, many low-income families in Virginia are threatened with being reported to CPS when they seek help—often by the very agencies that are supposed to be providing that help! 

Often, those who report families to CPS do so in the belief that the family will be helped by such contact. But contact with CPS is harmful to children and families, often resulting in traumatic separation that harms children. When those who have concern about children view their role as supporters, rather than reporters, better outcomes for children can be achieved. Instead of picking up a phone and calling CPS because a child is dirty, why not ask the parent if they need help with a water bill — or, if homeless, a place to bathe? What services in the community may be available to help a family? Many communities have mutual aid societies that help families in emergencies. If a family is facing eviction, why not call a local Legal Aid office instead of CPS? Ask the family what they need, rather than assume that CPS is the answer to problems. One example of the transformative effect of supporting rather than reporting: schools that provide washing machines for students see a 60% improvement in absenteeism (often deemed “neglect”) at all grade levels—and an increase in academic performance. Why not install a washing machine rather than call CPS if a child’s clothes are dirty? Maybe the family has a hard time hauling all their clothes to a laundromat (they’re becoming increasingly scarce). 

Are the systems that are supposed to be helping children actually hurting them?  

The National Institute for Children’s Health Quality notes that “interventions that are meant to help end up causing unintentional harm,” especially to Black families impacted by bias and structural racism. Human Rights Watch reports that “conditions of poverty, such as a family’s struggle to pay rent or maintain housing, are misconstrued as neglect, and interpreted as evidence of an inability and lack of fitness to parent… Removing a child from their parents, even for a short time, can be highly traumatizing, with long-term consequences.” The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges advises that “mistaking poverty for neglect contributes to the high rates of child neglect cases and child welfare involvement for families experiencing poverty. This is particularly the case with families and children of color.” A ChildTrends research brief finds that mandated reporting policies result in “poverty-related concerns routinely being reported as child maltreatment to the child welfare agency. These definitions may contribute to racial disparities within the child welfare system…” 

Further, while sensational media reports and the emphasis on “child abuse prevention” may lead us to believe that child abuse is rampant, in Virginia, more than half the reports of “child abuse and neglect” to CPS are invalid. And of those reports that are valid and investigated, 60% are deemed unfounded. Virginia CPS agencies thus spend thousands of person hours (and thus dollars) responding to reports and investigating cases that are either invalid, or unfounded. Meanwhile, the investigation alone can be traumatic to children, who may be strip-searched and taken away from their families during the investigation. 

Removing children from their families is not only traumatic to the child, but is extremely expensive: Virginia spends over $300 million annually on foster care. And children subjected to the trauma of removal and family separation in foster care are much more likely than children who remain home with family to have problems successfully transitioning to adulthood: with disrupted education, more criminal justice system involvement, and substance use disorders—which also harms the children, and society. How much money could we save if we just helped support families with their children in the home? 

In a state that insists that it values families and that “parents matter,” why do we perpetuate a system that breaks up families–and children’s hearts? In Virginia, with a high rate of children aging out of care without a permanent family, many children will never regain their family or even any family.  

 We need a new approach.  

One that respects the rights and dignity of families. One that provides them with the help they need to meet the needs of their children. And one that ensures if children must be separated, we provide the proper support for parents to successfully reunite with their children. While the agencies charged with children’s welfare are required to provide “reasonable efforts” to prevent removing children, and to reunite them with their parents if they are removed, many agencies put the burden on the parents—those same low-income parents who are struggling just to maintain their households on inadequate incomes—to fix the problems that brought the family to the attention of the agency. We then hold parents to standards impossible to achieve: A recent report on Georgia from ProPublica found that in 700 cases over five years, “inadequate housing” was reported as the sole reason for taking a child into foster care—and unreasonable requirements for the housing a family may be able to secure means the agency refused to return many of those children. These policies break families apart and keep them in the cycle of poverty. Many children who have been in foster care find that their own children end up in care. 

That’s why we advocate for policies that support families — policies that empower families to make their own decisions and stay together. Policies that have been shown to work. Policies such as:  

  • The minimum wage. Every $1 increase in the minimum wage results in a 10% drop in reports of child neglect. A measure to increase the minimum wage that was passed by the Virginia General Assembly this year was vetoed. 
  • Childcare. We force too many parents to make a terrible choice between working to support their child, and keeping their child safe. VPLC supported Governor Youngkin’s expansions of budgetary support for childcare for low-income families this year, as well as bills from the General Assembly to improve funding for and accessibility of childcare. 
  • Refundable Child Tax Credit. Congress funded this for a short time. It lifted millions of children out of poverty. We know parents spent this money on things their families needed. Then: we dropped them right back into poverty. VPLC supported a Virginia child tax credit in the General Assembly this year, but it did not pass. 
  • Guaranteed Income Support. A pilot in Arlington County provided 200 low-income households $500 per month with no strings attached for 18 months. The result? Increased employment levels and incomes. In addition, participants pursued certifications and training for better jobs, were better able to meet basic needs, such as food, and increased parental involvement in their children’s lives. VPLC supported a measure in the General Assembly this year to bring this program to all low-income families in Virginia, but it failed. 
  • Affordable Housing. 13% of the children in foster care in Virginia are there because families have lost their housing. But rising rents and Virginia’s high rates of evictions (double the national average) means many families, especially those with children, struggle with housing instability. VPLC’s housing team works to reduce evictions, provide advice and support to low-income families facing eviction, to change the laws to make the eviction process more fair, and to protect those living in manufactured housing. 
  • Better trained and compensated attorneys for parents. All three permanency goals for children are achieved faster – without loss of safety—when parents have better legal counsel with wrap-around, parent-centered support services. We need attorneys who challenge the increasing demands on the parent by DSS. VPLC has advocated for improving the quality of the legal services provided to parents, and this year worked to pass a bill that will create standards of practice for attorneys, and increase the compensation they receive (it has been the lowest in the country for decades). A provision for the state to start creating multidisciplinary legal offices to provide such wrap-around supports, shown to be highly successful in multiple other states, did not pass, but an option for localities to create their own centers did. 
  • Protections to keep families safe in their homes. Since a report for “neglect” can be based on lack of utilities, VPLC’s support for regulations to reduce utility shut-offs during unsafe times such as extremes of hot and cold, and to make it easier for families to get utilities turned back on when negotiating a payment plan will help keep children safe at home. 
  • Better education for GALs. Guardians ad litem are attorneys who represent a child’s “interests” in court—but do not receive training in what is in a child’s best interests and must rely on their own experiences and biases.  
  • A better-informed legal system. Many courts simply defer to an agency’s recommendations,  rather than focusing on what is truly in a child’s best interests. In DC and some other states, a court must weigh harms to a child before making the decision to remove a child. In some states, judges ask at each hearing: Why can’t this child go home today?  
  • Dyadic substance use disorder treatment. Babies recover best from Newborn Abstinence Syndrome when they have skin-to-skin contact with mom. We typically do not provide this to families, even though we have 6-7 dyadic treatment centers in Virginia, that would meet the criteria for federal reimbursement.  
  • Change policies that separate families. VPLC has advocated for bills that ensure that when families allow children to have a reasonable amount of independence, or who use legal substances—including prescribed medication —are not charged with neglect simply for doing so. 

Instead of celebrating “Child Abuse Prevention Month,” please join us in celebrating families and redefining what it means to protect children through family support. 

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