Thursday, November 2, 2017

Thousands of children are trapped in foster care because their parents don’t have adequate housing. That is The REAL Foster Care Housing Crisis

By Richard Wexler, Executive Director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform


 ● Yes, there is a disconnect between the number of foster parents and the number of foster children. But that’s not because we have too few foster parents. It’s because we have too many foster children.

● The REAL foster care housing crisis is the fact that study after study has found that 30 percent of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents simply had decent housing.  Fix that foster care housing crisis and the so-called shortage of foster parents disappears.

● The REAL foster care housing crisis is part of the biggest problem in American child welfare – the confusion of poverty with “neglect” and the racial bias that goes with it.

● The so-called Chronicle of Social Change uses moderate rhetoric to hide an extremist agenda. Part of that agenda is trying to undermine efforts to curb the use of the worst form of “care” – group homes and institutions. Obviously, if you want to stop a reform movement aiming to curb the use of group homes and institutions, you have to hype an artificial “shortage” of family foster homes.


An online site called the Chronicle of Social Change has released a “report” about what it calls “The Foster Care Housing Crisis.”  The report contains nothing new. It’s just another attempt to scare Americans into embracing the Chronicle’s extremist hidden agenda. Story after story in the Chronicle sends the same message:

            1. Take more children from their families.
            2. Warehouse more of them in the worst form of care, group homes and institutions.
            3. Deny the role of racial bias in needless removal of children from their homes – even to the point of promoting pernicious racial stereotypes.

It is because of this extremist agenda, and its suppression of meaningful dissent, that we refer to the Chronicle as the Fox News of child welfare.  And it is point #2, opposing efforts to curb the use of group homes and institutions, that is behind the Chronicle’s new “report.”

Indeed, the real purpose of the report is summed up in this paragraph, discussing proposed legislation to very slightly curb federal funding for group homes:

in the short term, limitations on congregate care placements might require some states to rely more heavily on their available foster homes. And as this research shows, many states are challenged as it is when it comes to foster home capacity.

In fact, as is discussed below, the “challenge” is of these states’ own making, and is easily fixable.

Indeed, promoting the use of group homes and institutions is the only reason to issue a “report” that is nothing but a rehash of what everybody already knows: There are more foster children than there are family foster homes for them. But the Chronicle almost completely ignores the real reason for this: It’s not because there are too few foster parents. It’s because there are too many foster children.


To understand the Chronicle’s phony version of the foster care housing crisis, it’s important to understand the real foster care housing crisis.

The real crisis is the one that ensnared Prince Leonard and his family.

After Leonard was injured at work,[*] he and his wife and their six children no longer could afford to live in their apartment complex. They lived in a shelter for awhile, but it wasn’t safe enough for the children.

So the family moved into the only “gated community” they could afford – a 12 x 25 foot storage unit. Leonard built a loft area and shelves.  The unit had electricity, heat and air conditioning.  The family lived there, and the children did well, for three years. Then someone called Child Protective Services. CPS removed the children on the spot – without lifting a finger to help the family find housing.

A CPS spokeswoman insisted the children were not torn from their parents because of poverty.  Rather, she said, they were taken because they were living in an “unsafe living environment.” And, in a comment Anatole France surely would have cherished, the spokeswoman added: “You could live in a mansion and be in an unsafe living environment.”

Publicity – not CPS – ultimately led to this family being reunited.

The only thing that separates this case from tens of thousands of others is that publicity.  The biggest single problem in American child welfare is the confusion of poverty with neglect – a problem compounded by the racial bias that permeates child welfare systems.

And one of the biggest components of the confusion of poverty with neglect is the penchant of American child welfare to take away children because parents lack decent housing.

The problem goes back decades …

· Families struggling to keep their children out of foster care were stymied by two major problems: homelessness and low public assistance grants, according to two New York City studies.[1]

● Courts in New York City and Illinois found that families are repeatedly kept apart solely because they lack decent housing.[2]       
● In California, homeless children were given emergency shelter only on condition that they be separated from their parents, until a successful lawsuit put an end to the practice.[3]

· In Washington D.C., where the foster care system was run for several years by the federal courts, the first receiver named by the court to run the agency found that between one-third and one-half of D.C.'s foster children could be returned to their parents immediately -- if they just had a decent place to live.

…and it hasn’t stopped

·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.[4]

· 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.”[5]

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 housing problems were a key cause of removal and a key barrier to reunification.  But the researchers write that while birth parents “see housing as a major source of concern …child welfare workers are less attentive to this concern.”

They continue:
“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.”[6]

Child welfare agencies even admit it (when it will get them money)

Many people are familiar with federal “Section 8” vouchers, federal funds provided to impoverished families by local governments to help those families find housing they can afford.

There is a small, special program within Section 8 called the “Family Unification Program.”  As the name implies, these vouchers are reserved for cases in which, as the Department of Housing and Urban Development explains

lack of adequate housing is a primary factor in:
a. The imminent placement of the family’s child or children in out-of-home care, or
b. The delay in the discharge of the child or children to the family from out-of-home care.  

But to apply for these vouchers state or local child welfare agencies have to admit that such cases exist – notwithstanding their pious pronouncements to press and public that they would never even think of tearing apart a family because of housing problems.

Housing is just one part of the larger picture discussed earlier: the confusion of poverty with neglect.  Another example is when children are taken because lack of adequate child care leads to “lack of supervision” charges.  

Indeed, the connection between poverty and what child welfare calls “neglect” is so profound that one recent study found that simply raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour would reduce the rate of what those systems label “neglect” by 10 percent.  Many more studies have drawn similar conclusions.

Another study found that deducting an additional $100 a month from a parent’s income adds six months to the average length of time her child will be trapped in foster care. (Ironically, this study looked specifically at a particularly obscene form of income deduction: forcing poor people to help pay for the foster care.)


The consequences have been devastating for children.

· When a child is needlessly thrown into foster care, he loses not only mom and dad but often brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, friends and classmates.  He is cut loose from everyone loving and familiar.  For a young enough child it’s an experience akin to a kidnapping.  Other children feel they must have done something terribly wrong and now they are being punished.  The emotional trauma can last a lifetime. 

So it’s no wonder that two massive studies involving more than 15,000 typical cases found that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably-maltreated children placed in foster care.

· That harm occurs even when the foster home is a good one.  The majority are.  But the rate of abuse in foster care is far higher than generally realized and far higher than in the general population.  Multiple studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes.  The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

· But even that isn’t the worst of it.  The more that workers are overwhelmed with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to find children in real danger.  So they make even more mistakes in all directions.  Overloading the system with children who don't need to be there also creates an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.

None of this means no child ever should be taken from her or his parents.  But foster care is an extremely toxic intervention that should be used sparingly and in small doses.  For decades America has prescribed mega-doses of foster care. 


The Chronicle report amounts to a molehill of truth embellished by a mountain of misdirection.

The molehill is this: 1. There are more foster children than there are foster family homes.  2. The number of children in foster care is likely to grow over the next few years.

But the reason there are more foster children than foster parents is not that there is a “shortage” of foster parents.  We do not have too few foster parents.  Rather, we have too many foster children.  Get the children who don’t need to be in foster care back home (such as the 30 percent who are there because their parents don’t have decent housing) and there will be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for the children who really need them.

Or, to put it another way, fix the REAL foster care housing crisis and the foster care housing crisis created by the system itself disappears.

Then there will be no need to do what the Chronicle wants most – stop the reform movement that is closing more and more group homes and institutions – the very worst form of substitute care.

The real role of drug abuse

The report is probably correct when it notes that the number of children in foster care is likely to increase for the next few years.  Child welfare systems say that’s because of the “opioid epidemic.”  But the opioid epidemic is not what is causing foster care numbers to rise. Rather, child welfare’s knee-jerk take-the-child-and-run response to the opioid epidemic is causing foster care numbers to rise.

That’s because child welfare is a field with almost no learning curve. It learned nothing from using the same failed response during previous “drug plagues,” such as crack cocaine. And as usual, children suffer because of the system’s take-the-child-and-run mentality.

University of Florida researchers studied two groups of children born with cocaine in their systems; one group was placed in foster care, another left with birth mothers able to care for them.  After six months, the babies were tested using all the usual measures of infant development: rolling over, sitting up, reaching out.  Typically, the children left with their birth mothers did better.  For the foster children, the separation from their mothers was more toxic than the cocaine.

Similarly, consider what The New York Times found when it looked at the best way to treat infants born with opioids in their systems. According to the Times:

a growing body of evidence suggests that what these babies need is what has been taken away: a mother.  Separating newborns in withdrawal can slow the infants’ recovery, studies show, and undermine an already fragile parenting relationship. When mothers are close at hand, infants in withdrawal require less medication and fewer costly days in intensive care.
“Mom is a powerful treatment,” said Dr. Matthew Grossman, a pediatric hospitalist at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital who has studied the care of opioid-dependent babies.

It is extremely difficult to take a swing at so-called “bad mothers” without the blow landing on their children. That doesn’t mean we can simply leave children with hopelessly addicted parents.  But it does mean that in most cases, drug treatment for the mother is a better option than foster care for the child. 

Of course there are times when drug abuse by a parent does require removing the child. But states and counties should be taking a long, hard second look at all the other cases that don’t involve drug abuse, where they have been rushing to tear apart families – such as those 30 percent of foster children who are trapped in foster care now not because their parents are addicts but because their parents lack decent housing.

And yes, it can be done. Instead of a panic-stricken race to tear apart families, Connecticut is responding to the opioid epidemic by bolstering home-based drug treatment. Even in Ohio, which one story after another brands the “epicenter” of the opioid epidemic, two counties have safely reduced foster care.  (One of them, Montgomery County, did it by using a safe, proven approach that has been the subject of a smear campaign led by, yes, the Chronicle of Social Change.)

Although it’s buried almost at the very end of the report, even the Chronicle had to admit that some of the increase in foster care is due to states taking away children needlessly; they cited Arkansas. But that message is drowned out by the one about the artificial “shortage” of foster homes.


The notion that poverty is confused with neglect is deeply offensive to those in child welfare whose 19th century counterparts proudly called themselves “child savers.”  So is the well-documented fact that the class bias that permeates the system is compounded by racial bias.

Among other things, recognizing the role of poverty means less prestige for child savers

Decades ago, Malcolm Bush explained why this happens in his book, Families in Distress:

“The recognition that the troubled family inhabits a context that is relevant to its problems suggests the possibility that the solution involves some humble tasks … This possibility is at odds with professional status. Professional status is not necessary for humble tasks … Changing the psyche was a grand task, and while the elaboration of theories past their practical benefit would not help families in trouble, it would allow social workers to hold up their heads in the professional meeting or the academic seminar.”[7]

Much more recently, Molly McGrath Tierney, former director of the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, offered a similar take.

Facing up to the confusion of poverty with neglect also means America’s latter-day child savers would have to face up to the fact that much of the “good” they’ve convinced themselves they are doing actually does severe damage to children by consigning them needlessly to the chaos of foster care.

And nowhere does the denial run deeper than at the so-called Chronicle of Social Change.


Part of the problem with the entire child welfare debate is that everybody says the same things – but we all mean different things by those same words.

No one ever says “Foster care should be the first resort of the child welfare system” – everyone proclaims it should be the last resort. Yet Alaska tears apart families at more than quadruple the rate of Alabama, even when rates of child poverty are factored in.  (And it’s Alabama where independent court monitors found that reforms emphasizing family preservation improved child safety)[†]

Similarly, nobody ever says “I’m so against prevention. If there’s one thing I hate it’s prevention.” But what constitutes prevention can vary enormously – as can the amount people want to invest in it and the priority it should receive.

So it’s easy to hide extremist positions behind moderate rhetoric.  Similarly, it’s easy to hide the racial bias that permeates child welfare – indeed, many in the system hide it from themselves.

That’s what Chronicle publisher Daniel Heimpel does.

To understand the Chronicle you need to understand Heimpel.  And to understand Heimpel you need to understand someone else: Elizabeth Bartholet.

Bartholet’s ideas are so extreme that they include requiring every family with a young child to open itself to mandatory government surveillance. (That’s not an exaggeration. There’s a summary of her views in the section of this post to the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog called “Harvard’s resident extremist”  and the details are in her own book, Nobody’s Children, pp. 170, 171).

Other Bartholet proposals, if implemented, would lead to the removal of at least two million children every year. (Againsee this post for how that figure is calculated.) 

Where Bartholet leads, Heimpel follows.  When Bartholet and her allies gathered for a conference attacking efforts to keep families together (with no dissenters invited), it was Heimpel who wrote up the proceedings, in a paper called “Child Welfare’s Parental Preference.”

Heimpel also provided extensive help to Bartholet for a paper she wrote attacking differential response, a safe, proven alternative to child abuse investigations in many cases – the approach that is succeeding in Montgomery County, Ohio. Then he promoted Bartholet’s findings in the Chronicle. (He did disclose his role.)  

He and Bartholet co-authored an op-ed column attacking differential response in Massachusetts – exploiting a horror story that never involved differential response at all.

Bartholet also is a leader of the movement that insists that child welfare is magically exempt from the racial bias that permeates all other aspects of American life. (For the record, study after study shows it is not.) 

Once again, where Bartholet leads, Heimpel follows. He not only published but personally promoted a vicious column that dredged up a pernicious racial stereotype.  The columnist in question, who has a history of denying the existence of racial bias in child welfare and promoting institutionalization of children, was named the Chronicle’s “blogger of the year.”

And just as Heimpel makes sure Chronicle coverage is slanted against differential response, he biases it in favor of “predictive analytics” a form of computerized racial profiling embraced by Bartholet and other extremists.


Support for institutionalizing children is another Chronicle bias.

The research on this one is overwhelming: Group homes and institutions are the worst form of “care” and there are far better alternatives.  So the only way to justify “congregate care,” as it is called, is to claim that there is such a dire “shortage” of foster homes that there is no other alternative.

As is discussed in detail in this post to the NCCPR Child Welfare Blog, the Chronicle has been doing this for years.  The Chronicle runs story after story bemoaning an effort by California to ever-so-slightly curb the misuse and overuse of group homes and institutions.  Yes, the stories include a quote or two from a token supporter of the reforms. But that perspective is drowned out by gushy prose about a particular group home or shelter that is now supposedly at risk, and hand-wringing quotes from people who run the places and their allies.

The premise is always the same: Congregate care may not be the best option, the story admits, but there simply are not enough foster homes.  Group homes and foster homes are presented as the only options. The idea that states could solve the foster home “shortage” by taking fewer children needlessly is never mentioned. 

Thus, a typical Chronicle exercise in fear-mongering, this one about one of the worst forms of institutionalization, first-stop parking place “shelters,” is headlined “California Time Limits 30-Day Shelters for Foster Youth in Midst of ‘Epic Crisis’ in Foster Parent Recruitment.”  That is, of course, also the theme of the “Foster Care Housing Crisis” report.

Readers dependent on Chronicle “news” stories would never know that California tears apart families at nearly double the rate of Illinois, where independent court-appointed monitors have found that child safety improved. They would never know that Los Angeles County takes away children at well over twice the rate of New York City and more than triple the rate of metropolitan Chicago.

Obviously, if you want to stop a reform movement aiming to curb the use of group homes and institutions, you have to hype an artificial “shortage” of foster homes.


In his most recent annual report, Heimpel declares that part of his mission is to change the fact that in the wake of a high-profile tragedy “people start to believe that foster care is broken …”

It’s certainly true that people often draw false conclusions from high-profile tragedies – and, as noted earlier, Heimpel and Bartholet have encouraged that in their own writing.

But while most people who work in the child welfare system, including Heimpel, mean well, the fact is the foster care system is broken. We’ve already noted the studies showing that foster care is worse than leaving children in their own homes in typical child welfare cases, and even in many cases involving children born with cocaine in their systems.  Another major study found that the system churns out walking wounded four times out of five.

In spite of all that, sometimes conditions in a home are so bad that foster care really is the least detrimental alternative.  But it takes an act of astonishing willful blindness to look at the American foster care system and suggest that it is not broken.

Foster care is broken.  And we can’t fix it by funneling more children into it.

[*] Throughout this report we link to source material wherever possible. When material is not available online, we provide information about the source in an endnote.
[†] A member of NCCPR’s volunteer board of directors was co-counsel for plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit that led to the reforms.

[1]. Studies cited in Karen Benker and James Rempel, "Inexcusable Harm: the Effect of Institutionalization on Young Foster Children in New York City," City Health Report, (New York: Public Interest Health Consortium for New York City) May, 1989.
[2] 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. 
[3] 11. Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction, Hansen v. McMahon, Superior Court, State of California, No.CA000974, April 22, 1986, p.1; California Department of Social Services, All County Letter No. 86‑77 ordering an end to the practice.
[4] 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.
[5] Ruth Anne White and Debra Rog, “Introduction,” Child Welfare, note 4, supra, p. 393.
[6] Mark E. Courtney, et. al., “Housing Problems Experienced by Recipients of Child Welfare Services,” Child Welfare, note 4 supra., p.417.
[7] Malcolm Bush, Families in Distress: Public, Private, and Civic Responses (University of California Press, 1988).