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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Soaring rates of childhood poverty should wake up child protection policy makers

Reports out of the United States this week speak about soaring rates of children living in poverty, too often accompanied with homelessness. The National Centre on Family Homelessness states that there are 2.5 million children who were homeless for at least part of the year in 2013.

Neglect, one of the most common issues that child protection faces, is driven in very many respects, by poverty. The reasons are many, but include:

  • inadequate shelter places children at risk of illness;
  • many families are forced to find space in high crime, high risk areas;
  • parents may be forced to leave children with inadequate caregivers while they try to hold on to marginal wage jobs;
  • homelessness makes it hard to get kids to school;
  • there is a lot of stress on parents trying to manage homelessness increasing risks of various forms of maltreatment;
  • children may be recruited into petty crimes like shoplifting as a way to try to get food and other necessities;
  • children lose connections to friends and community programs as families wander from place to place;
  • parents find it hard to meet the emotional needs of their children.
It would not be hard to add to this list. When child protection becomes involved, parents are seen as neglecting children. However, this is not the kind of neglect that typically is related to a parent's lack of desire to do the right thing for their child. Rather, it is the reality of living without resources.

Taking children into foster care may be the limited solution available in many cases but it is a poor solution. It adds unnecessary pressure to the child protection system in the form of increased case loads and heavier demands on placements.

The National Centre on Family Homelessness points out that there are solutions. These can include increasing access to low cost housing; subsidized day care so parents can work; feeding programs; improving educational opportunities for parents. There can also be family oriented shelter programs (such as the Inn from the Cold program in Calgary, Alberta). 

The long terms costs of homelessness are seen in the children not being able to get an education and themselves entering the cycle of poverty. Homelessness adds to that cycle and the cost to society is long term. Chronic homelessness can be tackled. The City of Medicine Hat in souther Alberta has reported that they are on the brink of accomplishing this. But it took targeted efforts.

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