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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Poverty Narrative

A recent story in the Huffungton Post suggests that a majority of children are in foster care for reasons largely connected to poverty. The focus is on the notion that children are being neglected because parents cannot afford to meet the needs of the children. The article also suggests a series of other somewhat nefarious intrusions by child protective services in the United States.

Poverty and child protection have been issues that have been linked for decades. There would be little doubt that the poor have a long history of over representation in child protection systems. Indeed, if one looks at the early roots of this work, it was the friendly visitor who would come to help the less fortunate. Yet, there are also early cases of horrific abuse that also stood out.

Critics, such as the author of this Huffington Post article talk about how the media focuses on the high profile, emotional stories that tug at the public's anger and causes politicians to become enraged. I agree that these are typically the stories that get the media attention and rarely does the media talk about the cases where child welfare has kept families together; offered services that reunified families that needed intervention; helped parents get sober and then raise their children.  The media doesn't like those stories very much - they don't garner the attention.

One has to wonder why the critics do not slam the media for the attention on the stories that push politicians to over react and then thrust child protection to be more intrusive.

The question of poverty though remains crucial. It is easy to blame child protection for being intrusive when not asking society at large why they remain so unwilling to solve the problems of poverty. Why are we so unwilling might be linked to our unwillingness to pay the taxes. It might also be because we have seen such failed efforts at the "welfare" state in places like the United Kingdom.

Economic policies that continue to create greater divides between the wealthy and the poor will only add to the child protection system needs.

As the world economy gets worse, there will be greater pressures on child protection systems. More children will come into care because of poverty related issues.  This can be seen in a tragic case in Greece reported in the Sydney Morning Herald where a family struck down by economics sought the placement of some of their children.

There are also public policies that will ensure more children come into care. In Canada, we are seeing the introduction of new crime legislation that will result in more people going to jail. This will have many negative consequences on Canadian society that will include parents not being able to look after children or families sliding into poverty as the bread winner goes to jail. I am certainly not supporting crime, but one must consider the downstream impacts of legislation.

There are no easy solutions for child protection who act as society's clean up scheme when we are unwilling to collectively address the core issues that exist. I agree with the author of the Huffington Post article that children are, in many cases, not better off in foster care. But children will end up there if we are not going to address the larger systemic issues.

As the Lilly Manning story shows, the solutions can be as bad or worse than the original problems.

However, I must take exception to the author of the Huffington Post story that social workers, lawyers and judges live with a master narrative of parents as brutal, devious and monstrous. This may be his experience but it is not mine. Yes, I have met those parents - the ones who do brutally abuse their children or the ones whose addiction is so profound that the children are significantly neglected or the parent who sexually abuses their children. But mainly I have met parents who try to sort their way through poverty or other adverse events in life. I have met lawyers, judges, social workers who believe strongly that finding ways to support families and keep them together is the preferred solution. This is not to suggest that mistakes are  not made - but it is to suggest that, at least in my experience, that the master narrative that he suggests is not so pervasive.

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