When Michael’s mother called Maine’s primary welfare assistance hotline asking for help, she was a depressed and homeless 18-year-old single mother of three. It was the winter of 1996, and her boyfriend — her last source of additional support — had left her.
A social worker with Maine’s Child Protective Services offered assistance with finding an apartment, but there was a catch — Michael’s mother had to agree that her young children would be taken into foster care. In the state’s eyes, her poverty meant she didn’t have the resources to take care of her kids. But perhaps they could be reunited once she became more stable.
This never happened.
Michael was 4 years old when he entered the foster care system. It took five years for him to meet Mary Callahan, the foster carer who eventually adopted him.
At first, Michael blamed his birth mother (whose name isn’t shared for privacy) for what happened — not because he felt she had neglected or abused him, but because she asked for help, and set off the process that would tear their lives apart.
“It took him a long, long time to get over being angry that she’s the one who made the phone call,” Callahan said.
Raising children in the US on a low income is already incredibly difficult, and parents have limited support from social safety net programs. Single parents, teen parents, and families of color face particular disadvantages; states with high Black populations tend to have the weakest social assistance programs, and welfare work requirements can trap parents in low-paying jobs. Cash welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which provides cash payments and other services to low-income families with children, are often insufficient to cover child care expenses. Nationwide, the average monthly payment is less than $500, well below the poverty line and half the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment as of 2021.
And seeking out help comes with its disadvantages. Poverty is considered a contributing risk factor for child neglect, which makes up the majority of Child Protective Services reports. And as such, CPS continues to scrutinize low-income families for neglect at a much higher rate than those who are above the poverty line, even when the resulting investigations can be harmful rather than helpful to vulnerable families. While child poverty rates have fallen, especially since the 2020 child tax credit expansion, 12 million children still lived below the poverty line as of 2022, and the system meant to help them is falling short. When foster kids age out of the system, they face higher rates of homelessness and incarceration and an increased likelihood of becoming teen parents when compared with the general population.
After the Dobbs verdict, 24 states are in the process of banning or heavily restricting abortion access, and these laws will hit hardest for low-income families and young, single, or Black parents, who are less able to travel to access abortion care. These states, mainly in the South and Midwest, already have disproportionately bad maternal and child health outcomes, with higher rates of maternal death and low birth weight infants. To make matters worse, women denied an abortion end up at even higher risk of poverty — and the abortion bans are mostly in states with limited and shrinking social safety net programs.
Although a year has passed since the Dobbs verdict, data collection is still limited; it takes time for local health care providers to report data at the state or national level, and for reports to be compiled. The Society of Family Planning’s #WeCount program estimated a decrease of 32,260 in the number of abortions nationwide between July and December 2022. (To put that in perspective, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that there were 930,160 abortions nationwide in 2020.) Texas alone — a state with a notoriously dysfunctional child welfare system — saw an estimated 15,540 fewer abortions over the six-month period.
It’s not yet clear how many additional births new restrictions will ultimately cause, or what fraction of those children will end up in foster care, but it’s a population at high risk of coming to the attention of Social Services. An October 2022 forecast by data scientist Russ Clay predicts that the Dobbs verdict could mean an 8 to 11 percent increase, or an additional 3,600 to 4,400 children, in the Texas foster care system by 2040, relative to the baseline forecast.
“What the Dobbs decision has done is [that] it has continued to show that the government does not care about women who are trying to raise families,” said Emily Berger, director of Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, the country’s largest legal nonprofit dedicated to representing parents in child welfare court cases.
As more infants are likely born to financially struggling parents in the wake of Dobbs, the foster care system will continue to be touted as a potential solution, as it was in the beginning of the opioid epidemic. Even before Dobbs, the foster care system was already strained and underresourced. It’s easy to fall back on imagining that more funding and more foster parents are the most urgent priority to prepare for surging numbers of neglected children.
But nearly everyone that Vox spoke with who works within the system itself thinks that foster care isn’t the answer and that the current child welfare system is one that traps families in poverty and then penalizes them for it. Even when the system functions at its best, separation is still a traumatic experience that can affect both the parent and the child for the rest of their lives. Nine out of 10 women who are denied an abortion want to raise their child despite the hardships. Refusing them this opportunity damages communities and propagates a pattern of discrimination that harms the most vulnerable families.
Surveillance agencies, not service providers
The US child welfare system is complex, with programs run at the state or even local level. The federal Children’s Bureau works with these local agencies, following the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974. CPS isn’t a single organization but refers to many different state departments — though sometimes, as in Los Angeles County, child welfare is instead run by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). All of these agencies in theory follow the same federal guidelines, but implementation and specific programs vary massively.
In the communities that need support the most, trust in the child welfare system is low. Families are — quite reasonably — concerned that accepting support services will mean more oversight and monitoring. The ultimate worry for families is that, at some point, a worker in the system will report them to CPS or DCFS for perceived neglect. Because neglect is so broadly defined by both federal and state law, parents fear that resource limitations, like not being able to afford child care or medical care, might be seen as grounds to place their children in foster care.
If a mandated reporter, like a teacher or a day care worker, notices a child coming in hungry or with worn-out clothing, they often have few options other than to call a Child Protective Services hotline. In more than half of cases, this leads to a CPS investigation, even if the intent of the call is for additional support. As a result, one in three kids could experience a CPS investigation at some point by age 18, said Kelley Fong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine. These are mostly children in working-class and low-income communities, particularly communities of color. “Once that process gets in motion, it’s a train that’s on the tracks,” Fong added, “and they start turning over stones.”
According to Fong, the vast majority of CPS reports don’t lead to family separation, but this doesn’t mean that such encounters are harmless. CPS cases can drag on for months, if not years, and touch on all elements of a family’s life, not just what was initially reported. It can be another way to police families of color, playing out a pattern of racial disparities in the US justice system. “They will ask your children how they are disciplined,” Fong said. “They can ask you to complete a drug test. They will walk around your home and kind of assess your private domestic space.”
While CPS workers can make referrals for therapy or parenting classes, the services they offer generally don’t address poverty directly — and the offers can easily feel coercive, given that case workers and therapists can and will report on parents to the state. “Child welfare agencies are not service agencies,” said Mishka Terplan, an OB-GYN who works with pregnant patients with addiction in San Francisco. “They’re like surveillance agencies. … They can make services part of an equation, [where] the solution of the equation is either keeping or losing your kid.” When families are afraid of CPS attention, it stands in the way of asking for help.
The ultimate goal of any child welfare system is to keep children safe. It’s critical to have some kind of support to call in if there are concerns that a child is abused or neglected. But the current system is set up in a way that fails many families, even when individual case workers are trying their best to help.
The realities of separation
Foster care can include “kinship” care by other relatives, often considered the best option, but this isn’t always available or pursued. Across the US, about 400,000 children are in foster care with strangers, under a system that moves them frequently between caregivers, and often fails to prioritize contact with birth parents who many children miss desperately.
The backdrop for the current foster care system lies with the Adoption and Safe Families Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1997. This law came in response to a reasonable criticism of the child welfare system, repeated over the years: too many children were spending multiple years in foster care without any long-term plan. The proposed solution — to create a clear process and timeline for determining whether a child could return to live with their birth parents or be adopted — was an understandable goal.
But while the goal may have been to more quickly reunite families, the actual result created rigid and often impossible timelines for families: 18 to 24 months in most cases, or for children under 3, as little as six months.
During this period, parents are still closely and invasively supervised, can be required to attend parenting classes or therapy, and are responsible for traveling to regularly visit their children. For parents who need to take public transit, often over long distances, this can be nearly impossible — and according to experts Vox spoke with, missing a contact visit, even due to bad weather, is seen as a mark against parents’ commitment.
Two years may seem like a long time for parents to meet the expectations laid out and prove they can care for their children, but in an overstrained system, where social workers often have heavy caseloads, delays add up. Missing and needing to reschedule a court-ordered medical appointment can add months to an already tight timeline.
In her work representing parents with Los Angeles Dependency Lawyers, Emily Berger believes that, again, this system penalizes low-income parents. “In Los Angeles, for example, [the county] is not paying for court-ordered programs that parents need to do to get their children back,” Berger said. “So if you are a person with a history of mental illness or drug use or abuse, you’re in a position where you need to be paying out of pocket for programs.”
And once children are in foster care, reuniting families can be an uphill battle, one where parents need to perfectly toe the line, submit to ongoing supervision, and meet any requirements that social services asks of them — or risk fully losing their parental rights and having their children placed for adoption. These visits are often supervised by a social worker — in Berger’s area, monitored visits are the default — and parents may be ordered to follow an exact script, even though this can sometimes be upsetting for children.
Dominic Benavides, a parent representative with the Washington State Office of Public Defense, says that tension and mistrust can build up between social workers and parents who don’t feel that the system is on their side. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t love and want the best for their children,” Benavides said. “It’s just really hard to constantly come back to a room and negotiate with people who say that you’re untrustworthy or that you’re a bad parent.”
Inadequate funding and a shortage of foster homes means that, rather than being placed within a family, children often end up in group homes, institutions, or even sleeping on the floors of social work offices — which could be considered a more damaging form of neglect than just empty fridges and unwashed clothing. According to Richard Villasana, founder of the nonprofit organization Forever Homes for Foster Kids, it’s exceptionally hard to find suitable homes for children with disabilities or mental health issues. “The ones who are sleeping on office floors are the ones who have the greatest need … either because they were born with a particular issue or because of the trauma they’ve experienced,” he said.
The same resource constraints mean that children who spend over a year in foster care — which is unfortunately more than 60 percent of cases — are often moved repeatedly between foster homes. In addition to the trauma and instability of repeatedly losing their new attachment figures, Villasana believes that these frequent moves are part of why only about 50 percent of former foster youth graduate from high school — compared to 87 percent for the nation as a whole — and only 1 in 25 will complete a four-year college degree. “Some of these kids take the same course two to three times,” Villasana said; with frequent moves, children can end up having to change schools multiple times mid-school year. “If you don’t complete it … they can’t count it.”
In unlucky cases, foster homes can be actively abusive. And because the system is overburdened, the processes for supervising foster parents aren’t always carried out, and cases of abuse or neglect by foster carers are very likely underreported. Callahan saw this with many of her foster children. “Kids were removed from chaos but put into hell,” she said.
Fortunately, this degree of abuse is a worst-case scenario. In Callahan’s experience, despite stereotypes that describe foster carers as “either saints or just horrible people in it for the money,” most foster parents she knew were dedicated “but had no idea how hard it was going to be.” But even if a foster home offers safety and three meals a day, it may not provide the same emotional security as a biological family member.
Obviously, in an ideal world, no child would ever be homeless, go hungry, or be left alone while a parent worked due to lack of child care. Unfortunately, the Dobbs verdict likely means that thousands more children will be born into homes where this is a real risk. Rather than providing support to keep families together, the current child welfare system is quick to take children into a foster care system that lacks the resources to consistently keep them safe, let alone provide them with a consistent, supportive, and loving home.
Not all families can be reunified. While child abuse makes up a minority of CPS cases, even parents who are motivated to reunite with their child and are trying to do their best may have challenges, like drug addiction, that are incompatible with healthy parenting. But given how badly the overburdened system is already failing many children in foster care, this only makes it more important to keep families together in any cases where there is no evidence of abuse, and where material support is enough to let a parent meet their child’s needs.
Case workers can end up feeling that once a child is in a foster home — often, as Benevides points out, “situations with quite wealthy parents, who are very privileged in their access to resources” — returning them to live with a low-income single parent means depriving them of opportunities. This perception can hold even if there are no other parenting concerns, and the need is for material support. As Berger put it, workers can “impose their own ideas about what families should look like. … And sometimes they forget that there is an absolutely priceless benefit a child gets from being raised with their families and communities of origin.”
Preventing this at the source would mean giving the people who so often flag concern about children, like teachers, day care workers, or family doctors, more options for supporting families in need without triggering a process that results in an invasive — and expensive — investigation. There are already studies indicating that keeping families together likely has better outcomes for children; ideally, this would be built into child welfare programs, with support workers able to work closely and build trust with parents.
“There’s too much concern about how they are going to get on the bus and get them to a doctor,” Benavides said. “Or they don’t have a car — are you sure that they’re going to get to school on time? But they present those issues, and far too often don’t present a remedy.”
The remedy starts with a focus on prevention; if a teacher or day care worker is concerned about a child’s well-being at home, they should have options other than a CPS investigation and potential removal to foster care. Given the mistrust toward child welfare services in many disadvantaged populations, community-based initiatives that aren’t directly run through CPS might be better. There are dozens such programs, including Oregon’s Fostering Hope Initiative, which has a leadership council open to anyone in the community and provides financial support, help finding affordable housing, and tangible goods like food boxes or diapers to families.
If foster care is necessary to keep a child safe, a child’s attachments will be less disrupted if they can still see their parent or parents, an opportunity that Michael was never given until Callahan went above and beyond for him. Under the co-parenting approach, birth parents work together with the foster parents and share parenting responsibilities. This can go as far as Shared Family Care, or whole family foster care, where the parent and child live in the same home with the foster parents, who can support and mentor them and help them develop parenting skills. It’s also important to investigate options for kinship care, including with “fictive kin” — the term for a close family friend not related by blood but with whom a child already has a relationship — and to make sure that the relative has the support they need.
There’s also the element of cost. Nearly everyone I spoke to, from social workers to family law representatives, believes that higher cash benefits for families — enough to actually cover living expenses — would make a huge difference. In fact, the Covid stimulus tax credits brought child poverty to a record low, but this progress was quickly reversed when the program ended.
Monthly payments to foster parents are usually significantly more than the cash welfare benefits available to low-income parents. Given the other costs for child welfare agencies, like staffing time, the actual cost to the state is much higher. Child welfare funding is a complicated mix of federal, state, and local, with significant state discretion on how to spend it. But in 2018, it came to a total of $33 billion; on average, $450 was given per child per year, or $2,800 for each of the approximately 12 million children living below the poverty line. Forty-five percent of funds go toward foster placements; only 15 percent are spent on preventive services.
But from the perspective of children in the foster care system — not to mention their parents — the best scenario is one where they were never separated at all.
Since leaving the foster care system a decade ago, Michael has tried to move on with his life. “ I haven’t paid too much attention to what currently needs to change,” he says. But the effects of his family’s separation are still permanent, and he thinks all of it could have been avoided with a few simple interventions. “She was given a deadline to meet, and when she didn’t meet that deadline, my siblings and myself were lost to the system. Had DHS offered tools to help her, such as a babysitter, I think my mom could have managed and been able to raise us.”
Michael’s birth mother is now a foster carer herself.
Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg is a freelance writer and former Future Perfect fellow based in the Bay Area.