Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Poverty: Making Woes Worse

In a commentary this weekend in the Weekly Review section of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Michael Smith responds to Richard Wexler's editorial, "Paying the price of panic in Texas foster care." Mr. Wexler is a former reporter who covered many cases of child abuse during his career and now advocates for foster children through the National Coalition for Child Protective Reform. Among Wexler's arguments:
We argued that Texas was in the midst of a foster-care panic -- a sudden spike in removals of children from their homes in response to highly publicized deaths of children "known to the system." We argued that many of those children were taken from parents who were neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Instead, their poverty had been confused with "neglect." Worst of all, we said, all those children needlessly removed from their homes would distract caseworkers from finding children in real danger.
In his response, Smith points out that separating poverty from its causes and effects is not always easy.
I work in a public agency -- not CPS -- providing infant mental health services to children and families, including many who are involved with CPS. I see young children still living with their family of origin as well as children who have been removed because of allegations of abuse and neglect.

In my experience, CPS is, if anything, slow rather than quick to remove children....

If this family can receive and benefit from the support that it needs to properly nurture and raise the children, keeping it together is the right thing to do. However, we all need to realize how complex and challenging it is to help a family in which poverty, mental illness, trauma, low education and skills, and substance abuse are present in some degree.....

Poverty does not cause child abuse and neglect. All of us have heard of very poor families that were still strong and resilient and produced happy, healthy children.

But other families are not so fortunate. Poverty is a "risk factor" for many problems. It increases the family's vulnerability to other stresses and challenges. The family may be at greater risk for having problems with mental health, physical health, and child abuse and neglect.

No one familiar with the foster care system would argue that there are not areas in serious need of improvement, but Wexler oversimplifies both the problems and the solutions. For example, he tends to portray any parent who doesn't physically abuse a child as unjustly accused. In the real world, a child who is chronically neglected and fails to build an emotional bond with a parent is as much at risk as a child whose parent loses control on occasion and physically abuses him. The latter might suffer bruises or worse, but the former may fail to develop a conscience.

Mr. Wexler often cites the Illinois child welfare system as a model for reform. But knowing the level of intervention required to keep families functioning, how close can Texas come to replicating the Illinois model? CPS alone cannot provide every service required by a family. That requires an adequately funded, integrated system of social services, focusing on the big three: addiction, mental illness, and mental retardation. Perhaps it isn't a coincidence that Illinois is a Democratically-controlled state. In Texas, where cutting taxes is the mantra of every political campaign, it is hard to imagine a public willing to fund the programs necessary to reduce risk for society's most vulnerable families.

Michael Smith acknolwedges as much in his editorial.

What will we do with these families?

They don't all fit our ideal picture of personal responsibility. Some of them have faced obstacles and traumas that would break any of us down -- were we in their shoes, we might be just as impaired. But when we see them accused of hurting children, it is hard to be empathetic. We could blame them and throw them away, but if we do, we had better be prepared. When their children grow up, they will place increased demands on the courts, jails, mental health systems and child protective systems.

On the other hand, we could make a meaningful commitment to provide real treatment to families, and in those cases when it is too late to heal the family, remove the children and give them a better chance at a future.

This option also carries high costs. Like all public agencies in Texas, CPS is spread very thin -- even with the changes that have been made in the past year. Intervening with families requires a great deal of time and skill, from CPS and from therapists and social workers.

So no matter which way we react, there will be a cost. I hope we will think carefully about the outcomes of our choices.


Daniel Haszard said...

Well said,i applaud your blog, mental health consumers are the least capable of self advocacy,my doctors made me take zyprexa for 4 years which was ineffective for my symptoms.I now have a victims support page against Eli Lilly for it's Zyprexa product causing my diabetes.--Daniel Haszard

maggi said...

The Family's are not so fortunate. poverty is a risk factor, for many problems,it increases the family's vulnerability to other stresses.If this family can receive and benefit from the support that it needs to poverty.
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