NCCPR Issue Paper #5: Who is in “The System” — and Why

For a printable .pdf copy of this issue paper, click here.

Some parents are vicious.  Some parents are sadistic.  Some parents brutally beat, rape, torture, and murder their children.

            Those extremely rare cases get intensive public and media attention — as they should.

            But the typical foster child was not taken from a parent like that. 

     Of every 100 children investigated as possible victims of abuse, three are “substantiated” victims of sexual abuse or all forms of physical abuse, from the most minor to the most severe.  Most of the rest are false allegations or cases in which a family’s poverty has been confused with neglect.[1]

            Far more common than a child who comes into care because he was beaten are children who come into foster care because the foodstamps ran out or because an illness went untreated after parents were kicked off Medicaid or because a mother could not provide adequate supervision while she worked.

            ●Three separate studies since 1996 have found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be safely in their own homes right now, if their birth parents had safe, affordable housing.[2]

            ● A fourth study found that “in terms of reunification, even substance abuse is not as important a factor as income or housing in determining whether children will remain with their families.”[3]

            ● A study of “lack of supervision” cases in New York City found that in 52 percent of the cases studied, the service needed most was what one might expect — day care or babysitting.[4]  But the “service” offered most often was foster care.

            ● Courts in New York City and Illinois have found that families are repeatedly kept apart solely because they lack decent housing.[5] 

            ● In Genesee County, Michigan, which  includes Flint, from 2000 to 2003, the foster-care population doubled – and even the head of the county “child welfare” office said one of the main reasons is they’re removing children from women forced to leave their children (continued after the case history)


            James Norman was a widower living in Chicago.  He took enormous pride in his children, and in how he was raising them.  But after he developed a heart condition, he was unable to work full time.  Then he fell behind on his bills.  Then the electricity to his apartment was cut off.  Then the helping hand of child protective services struck.  A CPS worker found a messy home with food spoiling in the refrigerator because there was no electricity.  Instead of offering help with housekeeping and utility bills, the worker immediately removed the Norman children.

            James Norman took three buses and walked a mile at each end of the trip to visit his children.  After nearly a year, Norman’s lawyers had arranged the financial help that child protective services was supposed to provide, and a court hearing was scheduled to determine if James Norman’s children finally could come home.  But 12 days before the hearing, James Norman’s heart finally gave out.  He died at age 38.  In the last years of his life, James Norman had a weak heart, but it took the child “protection” system to break it ‑‑ and to make orphans of the Norman children.

Unfortunately, even that legacy was undercut during the Illinois Foster Care Panic (See Issue Paper 2).  Terrified by the anti-family preservation crusaders, for several years workers were afraid to use “Norman money” to try to keep families together.  A court-appointed monitor found that the funds were “underutilized” and “the shockingly low rate of children going home in Cook County is alarming.”[7]     And in 2021, Illinois is in the midst of another foster-care panic.  The cycle almost certainly is repeating.

with allegedly unsuitable caretakers while they go to jobs they must take under the state’s welfare laws.[8]

            ● Of 962 child welfare cases filed against families in King County (metropolitan Seattle) Washington in 2019 and 2020, only five families were not poor enough to be entitled to a public defender – not 5 percent, five families.[9]

            ● The National Commission on Children found that children often are removed from their families “prematurely or unnecessarily” because federal aid formulas give states “a strong financial incentive” to do so rather than provide services to keep families together.[10]

            And now a new set of studies comes at the issue from the opposite direction:  What happens when poor people get a little more money?

            Some answers:

            ● Increase the Earned Income Tax Credit by 10% and reports of “neglect” decline  by 9%.  Entries into foster care decline from 7.4% to 11%.

            ● Raise the minimum wage $1 an hour, cut what agencies call “neglect” by 10%.

            ­● Increasing income by only $100 reduces the likelihood of a “child maltreatment” report by two percentage points.  

            ● Each additional month that low-income mothers receive a child care subsidy is associated with a 16% decrease in the odds of a neglect report in the following year.

            ● States that expanded Medicaid experienced a decrease in reported “neglect” compared to states that didn’t.

            ● States that expanded Medicaid and allowed it to cover methadone treatment significantly reduced the number of children taken from their homes because of drug abuse.[11]

            ● And when homeless families received housing vouchers the rate at which they lost children to foster care was cut by half. (The  study also found that when the housing vouchers were accompanied by inflicting social work on the families, the results were not nearly as good as just giving them the vouchers.)[12]

            Even some child welfare administrators admit it. The former head of one of the nation’s largest child welfare systems, the one in Los Angeles County, said up to 50% of the children in that county’s foster care system could be home if the families just had decent housing.

            Compounding the problem: Child welfare workers sometimes are in denial about the importance of providing concrete help to families.   A study of cases in Milwaukee County, Wis. found that    “Perhaps child welfare workers in Milwaukee are more focused on parental functioning and less attentive to concrete needs such as housing because of the principles guiding agency practice and the workers’ education and training.  Alternatively workers … may tend to ignore housing as a problem rather than deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by the recognition that they cannot help their clients with this important need.”

Updated November 23, 2021

1.U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Child Maltreatment 2019. See also this NCCPR Issue Paper for further details. //2. Deborah S, Harburger with Ruth Anne White, “Reunifying Families, Cutting Costs: Housing – Child Welfare Partnerships for Permanent Supportive Housing Child Welfare, Vol. LXXXIII, #5 Sept./Oct. 2004, p.501. /3. Ruth Anne White and Debra Rog, “Introduction,” Child Welfare, note 2, supra, p. 393  //4. Mary Ann Jones, Parental Lack of Supervision: Nature and Consequences of a Major Child Neglect Problem (Washington: Child Welfare League of America, 1987), p.2.  //5. New York: Decision of Justice Elliott Wilk, Cosentino v. Perales, 43236-85, New York State Supreme Court, New York County, April 27, 1988.  Illinois: Rob Karwath, “DCFS Hit on Family Separation,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 19, 1990, Sec. 2, p.2.  See also: Juanita Poe and Peter Kendall, “Cases of Neglect May be only Poverty in Disguise,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 24, 1995, p.1.  //6. Information about the Norman case comes from: “Introductory Statement” and “Plaintiffs’ Post-Trial Memorandum,” Jaqueline Fields, James Norman et. al.v. Gordon Johnson, the report submitted by the worker who visited the Norman home, “DCFS Neglects Parents, Creates Tragedies,” an unpublished essay by Norman’s Lawyer, Rob Karwath, “DCFS Hit on Family Separation,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 19, 1990, p.2, Natalie Pardo, “Settlement Too Late for Norman,” Chicago Reporter, January, 1995, p.8. //7. Jeanine Smith, Norman v. Ryder Fifth Monitoring Report, Dec. 31, 1993.  //8. Ron Fonger, “Foster care number swells; welfare-to-work one reason: Official, Flint Journal,  September 9, 2003.   //9. Nina Shapiro “Is Washington State taking too many children from their parents?” Seattle Times, March 30, 2021. //10. National Commission on Children, Beyond Rhetoric: A New American Agenda for Children and Families, (Washington, DC: May, 991) p. 290.  //11. Shichao Tang,,. “Impact of Medicaid Expansion and Methadone Coverage as a Medication for Opioid Use Disorder on Foster Care Entries during the Opioid Crisis,Children and Youth Services Review (2021) 12. Citations for all studies in this section except the one cited in note 11 can be found in Richard Wexler, “Want to Prevent Child Abuse? Behold the Transformative Power Of Cash,” Youth Today, Aug. 14, 2019  and Chapin Hall Center for Children Child and Family Well-Being System: Economic and Concrete Supports as a Core Component, June, 2021 //13. Troy Anderson, “Ways to care for an ailing foster care system,” Daily News of Los Angeles, December 8, 2003.  //14. Mark E. Courtney, et. al., “Housing Problems Experienced by Recipients of Child Welfare Services,” Child Welfare, note 3 supra., p.417.