We all make mistakes while parenting. We try to be a friend rather than a parent, or we are too strict when comfort is needed. We sometimes scold or hit when exasperation takes over, or we are negligent when depression creeps in. Imagine what our parenting would be like without resources to fall back on — like money, family, friends and connections — and what might be revealed if our lives were constantly scrutinized in public housing, in public hospitals, in public child care and at our child’s public school.
This is the situation for many low-income parents, often single mothers of color, whose children come to the attention of the child-welfare system. Granted, there are horrible situations of abuse, but those are relatively infrequent cases. A recent study in California of all children born there in 1999 found that by the age of 7, 19.8% of them had been reported to the state central registry. That is a strikingly high number, but research from 2011 shows that children nationwide are found to have been abused or neglected in only 18.5% of reported cases. A great majority of cases involve neglect, not abuse — for example by leaving a child home alone, not making sure a child attends school or not having adequate housing.
But in many cities across the country, the main response by public agencies when parents have these types of problems is to place the child in long-term foster care, even though as Steve Cohen, a child-welfare expert working with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says, “[M]ost of the families involved with the child-welfare system are committed to their kids and are torn up by not being able to raise their kids safely.” The parents become the enemy, as opposed to an essential partner in bettering the life of the child.
It doesn’t have to be this way. In the mid-1990s, New York City had one of the worst child-welfare systems in the country, with almost 50,000 children in foster care. Today fewer than 13,000 are in foster care, with many more children remaining safely in their families with additional support to ensure that the children are well cared for, including day care, homemakers to assist with family chores, counseling and anger management for the parents, legal representation and better housing. These changes came about a few years ago after mothers whose children had been in foster care put pressure on the city administration to change. Parents who had changed their lives and were able to reunite with their children became advocates in helping other parents who were struggling as they had. They led parent-support groups in foster-care agencies, advised commissioners on advisory panels and testified in city-council hearings. And when policymakers wouldn’t listen, they demonstrated in the streets against child-welfare agencies’ practices.
In the next few months, the commissioner of New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, Ronald Richter, will implement a historic change that many parents have wanted. Every time there is a decision on whether to remove a child from his or her family, a parent advocate or community member will be present to ensure that parents’ needs are met and their rights are respected. But a new model that involves and supports parents needs to be adapted across the country. Most parents want to help their children, but at times they need the resources to do so. Involving and supporting parents is the best way to strengthen families. As an African proverb says, “Until lions have their historians, the tale of the hunt will only glorify the hunter.”