House the Homeless has been considering, with dismay, the brisk back-and-forth exchange between the foster care system and the ranks of people experiencing homelessness. An untethered, chaotic lifestyle leads to more of the same in the next generation. Any young person whose past includes periods of homelessness is more likely to face homelessness in the future. Kids who age out of the foster care system are more likely to become homeless. In a vicious cycle, kids from homeless families are often at risk of winding up in the foster care system.
Writer Annie Gowen interviewed the executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, Ruth Anne White, who said “about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect.” In mid-2012, news came from Washington, D.C., that homeless parents were not signing up with agencies that existed to help them because they feared losing their children.
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless learned that clients avoided seeking help because intake workers had threatened, if the clients really had nowhere to live, to report them to the child welfare authorities. According to rumor, the city purposely created this climate of fear to scare families away from applying for services in an overburdened system. The Washington Post quoted a Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) spokesperson who said:
[W]hile homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect.… So far, 32 families have been reported … but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care.
Also in our nation’s capital, the disappearance and probable death of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd caused consternation. Relisha went missing from D.C.’s former General Hospital, now a massive homeless shelter where she and three younger brothers were among some 600 children in residence. They stayed with their mother, Shamika Young (who, incidentally, entered the foster-care system at age 6). Relisha was allowed to leave the facility with her “god-daddy,” a man Young trusted as a longtime friend who had taken Relisha to his family’s home many times before. She was last seen on March 1, and shortly afterward the man killed his wife and then was found dead himself.
When questioned about why she had not reported her daughter missing, Young said she was afraid that if she went to the police, the authorities would take her other kids. Apparently, this fear was not unfounded. Records showed that some type of report had been generated three times before that could have led to the four children being placed in the foster care system. Nothing ever happened, but the possibility was perceived by their mother as a real threat.
When Relisha Rudd was in the news daily, some online commenters expressed very sentimental opinions about the superiority of foster care over shelter life or, even worse, street life. How, they wondered, could anyone possibly hesitate to recommend foster care? The sad truth is, it’s all too easy to find foster care horror stories, and all too easy to meet unaccompanied youth who ran away from foster placements to become street people.
The mutability of circumstance presents child welfare agencies with chronic uncertainty. A crisis focuses official attention on the family, but then their situation stabilizes. Then turmoil comes again, followed by relative calm. The rationale for placing kids in foster care is rarely cut-and-dried. Case workers have to make judgment calls all the time. On behalf of Washington’s CFSA, Mindy Good spoke to a reporter who wrote this account:
[I]n 2012, the District had one of the nation’s highest removal rates and one of the lowest in placing children with relatives once they were taken from the home, Good said. A year earlier, the city’s Citizen Review Panel, which is charged with monitoring the agency, issued a report that called for “significant reforms to prevent unnecessary removals — and to prevent the unnecessary harm they cause to children and families.”
In other words, the child protection authorities are criticized and attacked for two opposite reasons — for interfering too much and taking too many kids; and for not removing Relisha and her brothers from their mother’s care. The city’s health and human services, the official bodies in charge of Relisha’s life and well-being, promised a review of their procedures, but no report has yet been issued. At any rate, it is clear that homeless parents are not paranoid, because a very real possibility exists that their children can be taken from them. Sometimes it is necessary; other times it is not in the best interests of anyone.
Source: “Homeless D.C. families, who turn to the city for help, risk triggering a child welfare investigation,” WashingtonPost.com, 06/23/12
Source: “Before Relisha Rudd went missing, the 8-year-old longed to escape D.C.’s homeless shelter,” WashingtonPost.com, 04/05/14
Source: “Body in park tentatively identified as Relisha Tatum’s alleged abductor, police chief says,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/31/14
Image by Lyman Erskine