A few weeks ago, my client, a mother in a child protective case trying to regain custody of her children, informed my students she had lost her housing and was now homeless. Immediately, my students picked up the phone and called the one person tasked with helping our client get her kids back – the agency caseworker.
When the caseworker didn’t pick up the phone, they sent her an email. Days passed without a response. About a week later, they finally received a short message with a list of other community agencies that might be able to assist with housing, which my students had discovered days prior through a simple Google search. The caseworker ended the email indicating that there was nothing else she could do to help with housing.
Experts predict that due to the pandemic, up to 28 million Americans will lose their housing once federal protections end. Undoubtedly, many will be families with children. Families may become homeless or be forced to live in dilapidated housing characterized by deplorable living conditions.
And when teachers, doctors or neighbors learn of children living in these conditions, they may call Child Protective Services, driven by both mandatory reporting laws which broadly define neglect and a genuine desire to help. We’ve created a narrative that CPS has the tools to support families in crisis.
But that narrative is false. The reality is that as its name suggests, child protective services is focused on shielding children from harmful parents and is ill-equipped to support struggling families who have concrete needs that must be met. Few child protective agencies have social workers – or relationships with professionals in other community agencies – who have a sophisticated understanding of how to access public benefits like housing.
Nor does the agency have relationships with legal service attorneys who might be able to inform individuals of their right to remain in their housing and represent families in eviction proceedings. Agencies also lack stable funding to provide families with what they need the most – emergency rental assistance to retain their housing.
Instead, when families are reported to CPS, the agency’s response all too often feels like a criminal investigation to the families experiencing it. They conduct an investigation to see whether children must be protected from their parents. Homes are inspected. Children are interrogated. Refrigerators are checked. What might begin as a referral regarding inadequate housing will likely turn into a broad inquiry on the family’s entire life.
Many of my clients – children and parents – speak of the long-term trauma created by these investigations. Few of us would welcome – or even tolerate – this type of scrutiny into our own lives, especially if that scrutiny never led to the type of support a family actually needed.
The housing crisis created by the pandemic presents an opportunity for CPS to reimagine how it serves families. Rather than “investigate” every family that is referred to it, CPS should assess what type of support a family needs to determine how it should respond. Instead of an investigator whose job it is to uncover facts, maybe the family needs a social worker from another agency who can help the family access community resources? Perhaps the agency can contract with legal service organizations to help the family access the benefits to which they are entitled, or to prevent unscrupulous landlords from taking advantage of the family’s situation. Maybe state and federal foster funds can be reallocated to give agencies the flexibility to offer families emergency rental or food assistance? All that family may need is immediate help so that they can get back on their feet.
What our families need now more than ever are governmental agencies with the tools and relationship to support them, rather than the mandate to simply question their parental decision-making. Perpetuating a system that turns families over to an agency without the tools to help them, but with the power to traumatize them will only exacerbate the pain so many are feeling.
For now, my client remains homeless. Her kids remain in foster care. She awaits a world in which child welfare recognizes the need to partner with other agencies to address her needs. Until then, she’s on her own.
By redesigning how agencies serve families, and giving those agencies the tools to address a family’s concrete needs, we have the opportunity to change this trajectory.