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Azzi-Lessing: Reform the Child Welfare System to Protect Vulnerable Children

 

The child welfare system — like other powerful institutions, including law enforcement and the incarceration system — is under attack.

The devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic along with a reckoning with systemic racism and inequality over the past year are shining a harsh spotlight on child protective services (CPS), the nation’s system for protecting children from abuse and neglect. Similar to the movement to defund the police, long-standing concerns about racism and other gross inequities in CPS have erupted into calls to abolish this system.

This outcry is useful in pointing out the destructive consequences of a taxpayer-funded system having strayed over time from its original mission. But keeping the CPS system intact is necessary due to its critical mandate to protect endangered children who have nowhere else to turn.

This system needs significant reform, however, to ensure that it fulfills its mandate without harming many of the children and families it encounters.

More than 670,000 children are involved in the CPS system, which receives funding and limited oversight from both state and federal governments. It’s hard to argue with the virtue and critical nature of CPS’ mission, which is to protect children whose parents cannot care for them or are causing them serious harm. However, instead of providing struggling families with resources and support to safely care for their children, CPS needlessly separates tens of thousands of children from their families every year. This occurs when it classifies the effects of family poverty as child neglect, with impoverished families being as much as 20 times more likely to become involved in CPS than non-poor families.

Less than 20 percent of the nearly 424,000 children currently in foster care were separated from their families because their parents physically or sexually abused them. A much larger portion were removed due to neglect. Much of what is classified as child neglect, lacking adequate food, housing or other essentials, is symptomatic of family poverty.

Although separating children from their parents is necessary in the relatively small number of situations where parents pose a genuine threat to the safety of their children, it traumatizes already vulnerable children, who, in many cases, don’t know where they are going and when they will see their families again.

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