Parents struggling to provide for their children are often surprised to learn that gaps in basic care such as inadequate food, clothing, and safe, stable housing can result in allegations of neglect and child removal.
Here, social worker Rick Barinbaum of The Center for Family Representation, and attorneys Erin Cloud, Mimi Laver and Carlyn Hicks (see p.3), explain what parents should be mindful of when hard times hit, and reforms that would prevent families from being separated because they’re poor.
Q: What should poor parents know about caring for their kids? In what ways can they shield themselves from neglect charges?
Cloud: Parents should know who mandated reporters are because the law puts a lot of pressure on schools and other mandated reporters to make reports. Also, try to have food in your home at all times. If that’s not possible, have food stamp receipts to show investigators.
Barinbaum: Treat interactions you have with any professional—whether it’s at a school, a doctor’s office, or shelter—as an opportunity to show your best side. Connect with your community so you have supports that know you and how you parent.
Cloud: The Court system is not sympathetic to the practical complexities that many people face. I would advise against leaving your kids home alone, even for a brief period of time. It can result in an arrest and a removal.
If you must leave your child with someone, make sure it’s someone you trust because you can get a case for leaving your child with an inappropriate caretaker
Laver: The key is to know your child. Even if the law says 10 is a safe age to leave a child alone, if your 10-year-old is not responsible enough to care for themselves, the child should not be left alone.
Hicks: If there are safety issues in the home that put the family at risk, immediately request repairs in writing and document all communications with the landlord.
Barinbaum: If an allegation of neglect is made, find professionals or respectable community members that see your strengths and ask them to come to court with you. If they can’t, give their contact information to your lawyer and try to get documentation to bring with you.
Cloud: Unfortunately, your best option is to work with your lawyer and advocate to negotiate the best service plan possible and be consistent in visitation and working your plan.
Q: What needs to change so that families aren’t separated because they’re struggling?
Cloud: We should trust poor people to raise their children. No legal change will help without this critical culture shift. Public hospitals, which primarily serve poor people, should have training on the impact of reporting families to child protection and develop greater sensitivity about when not to call in a case.
Hicks: An increase in federal resources for programs such as Head Start would help lift the burden felt by parents who feel they have to choose between work and their children’s safety at home.
Laver: In some states, parents don’t have a court hearing until 20 to 25 days after a child is removed, and a lawyer isn’t appointed until then. There are some states where parents don’t even get attorneys. Our goal is to change the way things are currently done from a system that punishes poor families to a system focused on strengthening families and ensuring that children remain safely with their parents.