How Child Protective Services is punishing poor parents during coronavirus

salon owner in Oregon claims that representatives from Child Protective Services showed up at her home shortly after she “illegally” reopened her business in violation of the governor’s coronavirus stay-at-home order. The salon owner, Lindsey Graham, was fined $14,000 and says she believes the investigation was retaliation for reopening without authorization. At a press conference Friday, Graham stated that CPS investigators searched her home and interviewed her, her husband, and their 6-year-old son in separate rooms.

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Human Services declined to comment on Graham’s allegations, citing confidentiality, but stated that not following the governor’s order “would never be a reason to assign a CPS assessment.”

It’s likely that the family will never hear from CPS again. After all, Graham appears to be a successful small business owner and has attracted support from local activists who set up a GoFundMe to help pay her legal bills. But at a time when millions are out of work and it is estimated that more than 100,000 small businesses have closed as a result of the coronavirus crisis, investigating parents for trying to work so they can provide for their kids is not just a bad look, it’s a dangerous overreach.

If Graham’s allegation turns out to be true, something the Oregon state government disputes, the public is right to be outraged. Yet we should be equally outraged by the thousands of children currently in foster care because of poverty-related issues. As the economic downturn ripples across the country and compounds the financial struggles of families that are already at-risk, states should look closely at reforming child welfare policies and practices that improperly confuse poverty with neglect.

More than 60% of all child welfare investigations in the United States are for reports that only allege neglect. During fiscal year 2018, the most recent year federal data is available, 62% of entries of children into foster care cited neglect as a reason for removal. To be sure, some cases of neglect can be serious and require intervention to protect children from harm, but many removals are more a product of poverty than any act or failure on the part of the parent.

Researchers have long known that poor families have disproportionately higher rates of involvement with the child welfare system, and the link between poverty and neglect allegations is clear. One 2004 study found a strong association between reports to CPS for neglect and periods of parental unemployment.

Job loss and economic instability can also exacerbate other factors that, if left unaddressed, can increase the risk of a child entering foster care.

For example, substance use rose dramatically during the Great Recession of 2007-2009, particularly among workers in blue-collar, sales, and service occupations. Parental substance use is the second-most common circumstance associated with entry into foster care, contributing to 36% of entries in 2018. Many of the industries hardest hit by the coronavirus recession were those that saw spikes in substance use during the Great Recession, so it is probable that neglect-related foster care entries will increase over the coming months.

The good news is that state officials can act to prevent these needless entries — first and foremost, by quickly, safely, and responsibly reopening the economy in a way that balances the needs of all citizens, including low-income families. We can do this while still protecting those most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Beyond this immediate and necessary step, though, states should enact long-overdue reforms that can help reduce removals of children due to family poverty.

Policymakers should tighten overly broad and vague definitions of neglect that contribute to the confusion of poverty with neglect. In the long-term, child protection activities should be focused on protecting children from physical and sexual abuse and allow private charities and nonprofit organizations to take the lead in caring for their neighbors who are struggling with poverty, substance use, and mental health issues.

Despite the best of intentions, it’s virtually impossible for state child welfare agencies to “help” struggling parents when these same agencies possess the power to separate them from their children permanently. We must build a more compassionate child welfare system that recognizes that being a poor parent doesn’t make you a bad parent.

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