• Poverty and Child Abuse

Does Poverty Cause Child Abuse?

Poor parents are no more likely to hurt or neglect their kids, the author argues. They're just more likely to be punished for failings both real and imagined.

Cornell University released a large study last month positing that poverty causes higher instances of child abuse and neglect. Considering the advance publicity, it seemed to me that the average reader might overlook the crucial role that socioeconomic and racial biases play in determining which families come under the scrutiny of the child welfare system to begin with.

While poverty is widely recognized as a risk factor in abuse and neglect cases, it is by no means a cause of abuse and neglect. Children are just as likely to be abused or neglected in wealthy homes as in poor ones. However, wealthier white families are simply not under the same scrutiny that brings families of color of low socioeconomic status to the attention of child welfare authorities.

Is this increased scrutiny due to societal or systemic factors that make living conditions worse for minority families? Or is it due to implicit biases? Disproportionate minority representation of children of color in foster care is a complex one with many contributing factors. But as much as people may want to deny it, this is due in part to implicit bias and choices that are made by decision-makers who encounter these families. Consider the brief released in June 2011 by University of Chicago research institute Chapin Hall, which argued that that foster care placement is needed to protect black children from the "self-destructive behavior" that occurs in "racially segregated impoverished enclaves."

Racial prejudices, biases and assumptions contribute to the fact that 97 percent of children in New York City foster care are children of color. According to a leading researcher in the field, Dorothy Roberts, author of "Shattered Bonds," "[t]he fact that the system supposedly designed to protect the children remains one of the most segregated institutions in the country should arouse suspicion." This is most clearly demonstrated by the documented decisions that medical professionals make when they encounter abuse and neglect in families of color. The data in the books "To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care" (Cris Beam) and Roberts's "Shattered Bonds" illustrates this point:

  • Black women have been reported to health authorities at delivery 10 times more often than white women, even though studies show that drug use is relatively equal, for instance, between blacks and whites (9.5 percent and 8.2 percent respectively), and that more pregnant white women use drugs than pregnant black women (113,000 versus 75,000).

  • Doctors failed to detect abusive head trauma twice as often in white as compared to minority children.

  • Even reviewing neutral e-rays for fractures, hospitalized minority toddlers were five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and three times more likely to be reported for child abuse, than white children.

    Any child protective attorney can attest to the truth of this statement. New York City Family Courts, which handle child protective cases, are courts of the poor where white families are a significant minority. White families are given the benefit of the doubt when allegations of abuse and neglect arise, and, as noted in the statistics, they simply do not suffer the same scrutiny by mandated reporters. In addition, they have less contact with the mandated reporters at schools, mental health facilities, welfare offices and hospitals, resulting in fewer calls to the Administration for Children’s Services. Factors such as homelessness, unemployment and welfare enrollment bring poor families into greater contact with more bureaucracies and caseworkers. In addition, living in a poor neighborhood with drug use and street crime where there is greater police presence increases a family’s visibility to police scrutiny.

    One of the only cases in which I represented a young white child of white parents involved a mother from England who was addicted to heroin. I came to call it my "heroin chic" case. Three times, the mother was found with the young child on a street in the classic "heroin high" pose—a blissful and euphoric state in which she was nodding out while standing up, slowly falling forward and displaying seemingly amazing acts of balance before slowly standing straight up again, her child by her side.

    Was this mother immediately arrested and the child removed from her care by the Administration for Children’s Services? No, not the first two times. Emergency personnel who responded escorted the mother home and ACS offered the mother drug-rehabilitation services , with which she refused to cooperate. It wasn’t until the third time when the mother passed out on the street and the child was injured that a case was finally filed against the mother in family court. Had this been a child of color, it is much more likely that the child would have been immediately removed from the mother’s care when she was first found nodding out in the street.

    I had this case during a time where there were hundreds of neglect cases being filed in family court involving allegations of marijuana use under the theory that marijuana was the gateway to hard drugs. Frequently, neglect charges were brought solely based upon recreational use and then other allegations were added later to bolster the neglect claims. And a small portion of these marijuana cases involved children being placed into foster care. Needless to say, these cases all involved families of color.

    The racial and socio-economic prejudices, biases and assumptions that result in a disproportionate amount of children of color being placed into foster care in New York City are systemic and institutional issues, and they are larger issues than those of us in the family court who work on child protective cases can address. This bias that exists goes beyond foster care and implicates society as a whole.

    Certainly, as the Cornell study shows, poverty is a strong risk factor in abuse and neglect cases. But it should never be assumed that abuse and neglect predominately occurs in poor homes or that children will be better off in foster care than in so called "impoverished enclaves" where they may live.

    With contributions by Sarah McCarthy, a Kirkland and Ellis Fellow at the Children’s Law Center of New York. The views expressed are of those of the author and not of the organization.



    Coming from a poor family in the South Bronx during the 1960's, I can tell you first hand that I was never abused, but often times neglected because my parents were working their hrearts out somewhere in NYC trying to give their children a better life in a poversihed neighborhood. There is a big difference between neglect and abuse. My parents were always too tired to do things with us outside the home, but my sisters and I always knew our parents loved us and that they were tired from working all the time. But we were always dressed decent, always had food on the table and medical treatment when needed. I say we were neglected to the point of always being alone and doing our own cooking during the week. We did our own hair and kept our hygiene up. Our parents barely had time to have a decent conversation with us and we were left to make decisins on our own most of the i\time. I think this is the greatest of the neglect because as children we made a lot of wrong and sometimes not good decision. We literally shaped our own lives....which is not a good thing, we were children and we needed direction and guidance that we did not get because our parents were always working or too tired. We need our parents to ask us what do you want to be when you grow up, show us how to achieve that goal, keep us in tune with our education, etc and these are the things I am talking about when I say neglect. I think if my parents had more time to spend with us while we were growing up, that I would have been in college at the correct age of 18 years old, not had children in my ealry twenties, got married and formulated my career to my interest. In other words, with the proper attention from my parents, i think i would not be a case manager, I would be the Founder of my own Non Profit that targets an age group that has no services available to them at that time or at this time.

    Kendall Marlowe

    Exec. Dir., National Assn. of Counsel for Children

    Child welfare systems must learn to evaluate child safety objectively, basing their decisions to take protective custody on identifiable, imminent risks of actual harm. In the absence of that objectively determined, imminent risk, we have no right to judge others, their "behavior" or the "enclave" where they live. As long as we continue to think that we know better, we'll continue to jam group homes and residential programs with young people of color. Rich or poor, all families and their children should be equal before the law and on equal footing when a child welfare worker knocks on their door.


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