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Cuomo needs to veto this bill that puts kids at risk
View related content: Poverty Studies
Is it time for New York to make it harder to remove children from their homes for parental neglect? Lawmakers in Albany seem to think so.
Progressive legislators — now dominant in both the Assembly and the Senate — have decided to apply their dangerous ideology to child welfare. A bill passed by both houses would toughen the standard of evidence required by a child welfare worker to substantiate a finding of child maltreatment. Currently the state requires “some credible evidence” of maltreatment, but if Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs the bill, workers would have to find a “preponderance of evidence” before bringing a case to court.
In a state where hundreds of children suffer from repeat maltreatment, it is difficult to imagine why we would want to make it tougher to conclude that a family is in need of intervention. It’s also not clear why we’d expect child welfare workers, who may be overworked, inexperienced and undertrained, to be able to apply this kind of standard — when lawyers and judges often argue over it.
Sen. Velmanette Montgomery claims “parents are charged with neglect essentially because the family is in poverty” and we need to provide “support to families in crisis” instead of “punishing them for being poor.”
That notion and its corollary — neglect is a problem solvable with more money — have become common. Consider these headlines: “‘Poor’ Parenting — When Poverty Is Confused With Neglect,” “Live in a Poor Neighborhood? Better Be a Perfect Parent” or “Poverty Isn’t Neglect, But the State Took My Children Anyway.”
Let’s be clear: Neglect includes such horrors as leaving children in the care of known abusers, giving them illegal drugs, subjecting them to harsh corporal punishment and failing to provide them with medical care.
Nationally, more than 60% of kids in foster care were removed because of neglect in 2017. Substance abuse was listed in 36% of the cases. Another 5% listed alcohol abuse. And 14% cited a caretaker’s “inability to cope,” which is often a sign of substance abuse and/or mental health issues.
These numbers still likely undercount substance abuse since children are often removed for multiple reasons and caseworkers who remove them for reasons of, say, physical abuse but then later find evidence of substance abuse in the home do not go back and amend their reports accordingly.
In interviews with dozens of foster parents in recent months who have fostered hundreds of kids among them, I found they struggle to think of even a single case where substance abuse was not a factor.
Substance abuse can, of course, manifest as poverty. If you come upon a family that repeatedly had its electricity turned off or has no food in the home, it’s easy to think they’re short of funds. But countless programs exist to help financially struggling families. The safety net may not be as big as some may like, but the idea that a lack of money is making children starve is simply untrue.
Neglect is often a sign that something else is awry. Richard Gelles, the former head of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work, told me that he and most other experts and child welfare workers had long assumed that there would be “a progression of physical violence up to a fatal incident. That isn’t the case. There are dysfunctions in the family that come to public attention,” but they sometimes stop short of abuse.
Once they started to look at the data, Gelles says, “what you find is there are a series of neglect reports — four, five, six neglect reports — that predate a fatality.”
Indeed, in 2017, more than three-quarters of the child maltreatment fatalities in this country occurred as a result of neglect, or neglect in combination with other factors. Only 42% occurred as a result of abuse or abuse in combination with other factors.
Most tragically, 78% involved children 3 or younger, kids who, as every parent knows, need almost constant supervision — which is hard enough to provide sober, let alone high.
Trying to keep more parents out of the child welfare system may seem to be “mitigating social injustice,” as one advocate suggests. But neglect is a serious problem, and policies that don’t recognize that will only put more children at risk.