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Addressing the Underlying Issue of Poverty in Child-Neglect Cases

Maren Dale


  • Growing evidence suggests a correlation between child maltreatment reports and factors such as low income, neighborhood economic status, employment, food security, and depression.
  • Poverty is often mistaken for neglect and addressing it as a significant factor could result in lower child removal rates and higher reunification and parental retention rates.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that children in low socioeconomic status families are at significantly greater risk of maltreatment, abuse, and neglect, with poverty-related factors playing a crucial role.
  • State legislatures and courts vary in their approaches to addressing the link between poverty and child maltreatment, with some recognizing poverty exemptions in neglect definitions.
Addressing the Underlying Issue of Poverty in Child-Neglect Cases
Olga Rolenko via Getty Images

Evidence of the underlying issue of poverty in child-maltreatment cases is growing. Recent studies have shown a correlation between reports of child harm and low income, neighborhood economic status, employment, food security, and depression. However, does this documented correlation equate to causation?  While poverty can lead to increased rates of actual maltreatment, poverty itself is often mistaken for neglect, resulting in increased rates of child- maltreatment reports.  The inability to feed, clothe, or house a child should not be mistaken for neglect. 

State legislatures, courts, and state agencies vary in their stances on and approaches to addressing this underlying issue of poverty in child-maltreatment cases. Addressing poverty as a significant factor in child-harm cases could lead to lower rates of child removal, higher rates of reunification, and higher rates of parental right retention. Acknowledgement and innovative solutions are needed to prevent poverty from being mistaken as child maltreatment, as well as to prevent poverty from contributing to actual child maltreatment.

The Numbers

In its fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (2004–2009), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families found that children in families of low socioeconomic status were at significantly greater risk of maltreatment, abuse, and neglect, using both the endangered standard, which encompasses a broader range of perpetrators and acts, and the more stringent harm standard. Children were considered to be in families of low socioeconomic status (low SES) if the household income was below $15,000 a year, parents' highest education level was less than high school, or any household member participated in a poverty-related program. The incidence rate of the harm standard maltreatment in low-SES families is more than five times the rate of children in families that were not of low SES. The incidence rate of abuse for children in low-SES families is more than three times the rate for children not in low-SES families. And the risk of harm standard neglect for children in low-SES families was over seven times the risk for children not in families of low SES. U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., Admin. for Children & Families, The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-4) (2004–2009).

Specific characteristics of poverty have also been linked to increased rates of child-neglect reports. Researchers found that each percentage point increase in state-level unemployment was associated with an increase in child-abuse reports of approximately .50 per 1,000 children.Presentation, Am. Acad. of Pediatrics Conference, What Happens to Child Maltreatment When Unemployment Goes Up?, Oct. 2–5, 2010.

A review of 25 studies on the influence of geographically defined neighborhoods on child maltreatment indicated that neighborhood structural factors, economic in particular, are most consistently linked to child maltreatment. Ctr. on Urban Poverty & Cmty. Dev., Mandel Sch. of Applied Social Scis., Case Western Reserve Univ.,  How Neighborhoods Influence Child Maltreatment: A Review of the Literature and Alternative Pathways.

The Urban Institute found that 11 percent of infants living in poverty have a mother suffering from severe depression. Fifty-five percent of all infants living in poverty are being raised by mothers with some form of depression, including mild and moderate. Evidence suggests that depression can interfere with parenting, potentially leading to poor child development—setbacks that are particularly devastating during infancy. Compared with their peers who are living in poverty with nondepressed mothers, infants living in poverty with severely depressed mothers are more likely to have mothers who also struggle with domestic violence and substance abuse, and who report being only in fair health. Tracy Vericker, Jennifer Macomber & Olivia Golden, Infants of Depressed Mothers Living in Poverty: Opportunities to Identify and Serve (Aug. 2010).

The report presents data from a recent Children's HealthWatch study, which examined associations among mothers' positive depressive symptoms (PDS), food insecurity, and changes in benefits from federal-assistance programs. The report found that mothers with PDS had odds of reporting household food insecurity 169 percent greater, fair/poor child health 58 percent greater, and child hospitalizations 20 percent greater than mothers without PDS. Mothers with PDS had odds of reporting decreased welfare support 52 percent greater, and odds of reporting loss of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits 56 percent greater than mothers without PDS. P. Casey, S. Goolsby, C. Berkowitz, D. Frank, J. Cook,  D. Cutts, M.M. Black, N. Zaldivar, S. Levenson, T. Heeren, A. Meyers &Children's Sentinel Nutritional Assessment Program Study Group, "Maternal Depression, Changing Public Assistance, Food Security, and Child Health Status,"113 Pediatrics 298–304 (Feb. 2004). These results suggest that maternal depression may be an indirect pathway by which household food insecurity exerts negative influence on child health and development. Feeding America & The ConAgra Foods Foundation, Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on Our Nation (2009).

State Legislative and Judicial Approaches to the Poverty-Child Neglect Link
To address the higher rates of child maltreatment in low-income families, it is important to distinguish between poverty as a cause of child maltreatment and poverty as child maltreatment. Some states and courts have recognized that raising a child in poverty does not equate to child maltreatment.

About half of the states have acknowledged that poverty does not equal neglect, by including a poverty exemption in their statutory definition of neglect. The exemptions range from outright exemption for neglect if poverty is a factor, to an exemption for environmental factors beyond the parent's control. Many focus on the parent's financial ability. Additionally, Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North Carolina have statutes that prohibit the termination of parental rights due to poverty alone.

A number of appellate-level courts and judges from various states have discussed the connection between child maltreatment and poverty in both majority and dissenting opinions. 

These opinions express concerns regarding the poverty as grounds for parental rights termination, reunification requirements that discriminate against impoverished parents, child-welfare agencies' failure to provide impoverished parents with services and resources designed to address poverty as the underlying cause of neglect, and inappropriate comparisons of impoverished natural parents to more affluent foster parents in the "best interests" analysis.

In Tennessee Department of Human Services v. Riley, 689 S.W.2d 164, 165 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1984), the Court of Appeals of Tennessee affirmed the termination of both parents' parental rights to their children on the grounds that "the conditions which led to the removal [of the children] still persist[ed]" at least one year after the removal. The parents lived in a state of extreme poverty in a house "built from junkyard parts" with no running water. The mother was found to be mentally retarded, and the father's low IQ only enabled him to perform unskilled work. The court found that termination was in the best interests of the children. In his dissenting opinion, Judge Nearn explained that even though he agreed that custody should remain with the state, he thought it improper for the state to terminate parental rights absent a showing that the parents' conduct amounted to willful fault.

Some of the standard reunification goals that child-welfare agencies require parents to meet before regaining custody of their children discriminate against impoverished parents. In some instances, for example, agencies want parents to be able to provide for their children without relying on family, friends, or neighbors for support. 

In In re C.J.V., 746 S.E.2d 783 (Ga. Ct. App. 2013), the Court of Appeals of Georgia reversed the termination of a mother's parental rights to her children. The trial court based its decision to terminate on the mother's failure to satisfy two requirements of her case plan—stable housing and employment. The court of appeals, however, found that the mother's rights were terminated because of her "economic inability to provide for the children, and that her shortcomings in failing to comply with the two major components of her case plan stem[med] largely from her relative poverty." The court stated that "poverty alone is not a basis for termination."

Courts have expressed concern when child-welfare agencies fail to provide impoverished parents with services designed to address their inability to support their children.  In In re G.S.R.,159 Cal. App. 4th 1202, 1205 (2008), the Court of Appeal of California reversed the termination of a father's parental rights to his two sons. The father was a noncustodial, nonoffending parent when his children were taken into state custody as a result of their mother's arrest. The child-welfare agency informed the father that he could not have custody of the boys until he found suitable housing. When the father failed to obtain suitable housing within two years, the agency filed a petition to terminate his parental rights, which the trial court granted. The court of appeal reversed the termination, holding that the trial court had violated the father's right to due process by terminating his rights absent a finding of unfitness against him. The court also commented on what it termed the "absurdity" of the child-welfare agency's failure to assist the father in obtaining suitable housing. The court went on to note it makes no sense for states to pay a significant amount of money to subsidize foster-care placements but not to assist parents in overcoming the financial barriers to regaining custody of their children

Parental rights cannot be terminated unless a court makes a finding that termination is in the "best interests" of the child.  At times, child-welfare agencies and courts have a tendency to compare impoverished natural parents with more affluent foster or pre-adoptive parents when determining whether termination is in the child's best interests. The Court of Appeal of Louisiana elaborated on the danger of comparing natural parents with foster parents in In re S.M.W., in which the court reversed the termination of a mother's parental rights. The court explained that, taken to its extreme, comparisons could lead to children being taken out of impoverished and undereducated homes to be put into homes with more affluent and educated parents. In re S.M.W., 771 So. 2d 160, 163, 168, 171 (La. Ct. App. 2000), overruled by 781 So. 2d 1223 (La. 2001) (holding that appellate court improperly substituted its own judgment for that of the trial court).

The concerns raised by the courts have focused on the child-welfare agency's handling of the impoverished parents in the removal, reunification, and termination-of-rights processes. These criticisms could be addressed at the state agency level.

States Agency Approaches  
States vary with regard to their approach to addressing the underlying issue of poverty in alleged child-neglect cases. Some acknowledge the correlation and address the need to provide specific services to alleviate the pressure of poverty, while other state approaches to poverty are separate from the state approach to child welfare. Approaches for addressing the underlying issue of poverty in child-maltreatment cases seem to have fallen into three categories: (1) increased availability and access to financial services, (2) increased parental self-advocacy, and (3) the differential response approach that treats reports of child neglect in poor families with a family- needs assessment, rather than a pure adversarial and investigative approach.

Increased availability of and access to financial services. Providing more resources to families in poverty is a twofold endeavor. In addition to increasing the amount of funds and services available to families, families also need to know they are there and be able to access them.

A few states have created programs that increase the services or funds available to struggling parents. For instance, Texas has the Texas Families: Together and Safe (TFTS) Program. TFTS funds community-based programs that have been shown to relieve stress and promote better parenting skills and behaviors to help families become self-sufficient and successfully nurture their children. Montgomery County, Maryland, has a Child Care Subsidy Program for families involved with the child-welfare system. And in Florida, the Florida Department of Children and Families runs a Temporary Cash Assistance Program. The program provides cash assistance to families with children under the age of 18, or under age 19 if full-time secondary (high school) school students, that meet the technical, income, and asset requirements. The program helps families become self-supporting while allowing children to remain in their own homes.

More states have acted to link families in need to existing funds and services. The Georgia guide to preventing unnecessary removal to state custody describes services as "tools that are available to child protection and family preservation workers to prevent the unnecessary removal of children from the home." It notes that available in-home services can range from basic services, such as SNAP and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to community services, such as support systems and screening for illness or disabilities, to more personalized services, such as therapy, counseling, and family meetings. 

In Wake County, North Carolina, the Middle Class Express is an innovative approach to help low-income Wake County residents make progress toward economic and social self-sufficiency by ensuring access to employment, educational and financial development opportunities, and other health and human service resources.  This approach provides participants life coaching and life planning to achieve a middle-class life style in five years.

States have made increased efforts to link their Child Protective Services with TANF, the federal subsidy program. Oregon has a child abuse and neglect prevention program that provides services through home visits called Family Support and Connections (FS&C). FS&C services are generally provided to families who are eligible for TANF and who have barriers or issues that put them at a higher risk of involvement with the child-welfare system. The services focus on strengthening parenting and family stability, and decreasing the risk factors for child abuse and neglect to prevent children on TANF from entering the foster-care system.

Similarly, the California Linkages project promotes collaboration between California's county-administered child-welfare services (CWS) and CalWORKs, the state's program for administering TANF. Linkages' goal is to decrease child maltreatment and improve outcomes for children and families by providing necessary services and supports through increased collaboration.

In Rockland County, New York, a number of mothers heading low-income households at risk for or involved with child-welfare services have benefited from a program designed to integrate services from TANF and child-welfare services. Using funding from a federal grant awarded by the Children's Bureau (CB) in 2006, the county's Department of Social Services (DSS) expanded its welfare-to-work program, Next Steps. Drawing from best practices in both TANF and child-welfare programs, Next Steps is a six-month weekday program that helps participants develop and work toward accomplishing goals in academics, employment readiness, computer skills, behavioral therapy, and parenting. The CB grant expanded Next Steps to include child-welfare services and improve child safety, father involvement, and family stability and self-sufficiency.

Increased parental self-advocacy. Increased family involvement efforts focused on increasing participation in family decisions and educating low-income parents about their heightened risk of scrutiny by child-protective services and their constitutional and legal rights as respondents are springing up across the country.

For example, the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City is a parent support and advocacy group that trains parents on the intricacies of New York's child-welfare policy and practice. In partnership with New York's Administration for Children's Services, parent advocates from the project and similar organizations are eligible for employment as parent advocates at private child-welfare provider agencies. The project spearheaded a successful advocacy campaign in the New York City Council that led to an ordinance to increase parent and foster parent access to child-welfare agency data and information.

The use of family team meetings is based on the premise that an "inclusive approach to involving families as partners with public child welfare agencies in case planning and decision making can also serve as a process for addressing poverty-related neglect." It includes family group decision making, family group conferencing, permanency teaming, and team decision making.  Georgia uses the family team meeting as a tool to prevent unnecessary removal. The Family Preservation in Georgia: A Legal and Judicial Guide to Preventing Unnecessary Removal to State Custody explains that it recognizes families' right to be free from governmental intrusion and that the family meetings allow the family to explain their needs and request services, such as SNAP or TANF.

The differential-response approach. The differential response is an alternative approach to the traditional investigative and often adversarial approach used by Child Protective Services (CPS). The differential response generally involves assessing the family's strengths and needs and offering services to meet the family's needs and support positive parenting. In November 2006, 15 states had implemented differential responses. By 2012, 21 states and tribes had implemented differential responses, with an additional 7 states contemplating the approach. Catherine Nolan, Jean Blankenship & Dori Sneddon, "Research and Practice Advancements in Differential Response," 26 Protecting Children 3 (Nov. 3, 2012).

An example of a differential response is Minnesota, which first implemented its family assessment response (FAR) in 2000.  It is now statewide. Families in FAR received more financial services and mental and health counseling through CPS workers than families that experienced a traditional investigation. General financial aid received doubled, and both the provision of food or clothing and help paying utilities almost tripled for FAR families. Overall, traditional investigation cost $4,967 while FAR cost $3,688, a reduction of 35 percent.Inst. of Applied Research, Differential Response in Missouri after Five Years: Final Report (Feb. 2004).The FAR approach contributed to a slight reduction in future removal and placement of children. Of the traditional investigation families, 18.7 percent had at least one child removed and placed out of the home.Only 16.9 percent of FAR families experienced this later removal.Anthony Loman & Gary Siegel, "Alternative Response in Minnesota: Findings of the Program Evaluation," 20  Protecting Children 78, 86 (2005); Interview with Rob Sawyer, Rochester, Minn. (Mar. 28, 2007).

Parental inability to feed, clothe, or house a child is often perceived as child maltreatment and can lead to government involvement and child removal. This inability is often the result of poverty and can be mistaken for neglect. Mistaking poverty for neglect contributes to the high rates of child-maltreatment cases for low-income families. Addressing the underlying issue of poverty through acknowledgment, increased parent involvement, and increased financial support can help prevent child maltreatment, limit unnecessary child removal, and increase reunification and the protection of parental rights.