Families that experience poverty-related stressors such as income insecurity or loss, material hardship, and housing hardship or instability—in other words, families with a financial inability to provide for their children—are also more likely to come into contact with the child welfare system. The intersection of poverty and economic insecurity with neglect poses a challenge to child welfare agencies when they respond to reports of maltreatment. Of all maltreatment types, neglect is particularly difficult to identify and define because it involves the omission—rather than the commission—of actions that can harm children. Untangling whether a child’s unmet needs are due to poverty or to some other factor is difficult, which begs the question: To what degree do child welfare agencies include income-related factors in their definitions of child maltreatment? The answer is different in every state.
Federal law identifies general parameters for what constitutes child maltreatment. It is up to each state to write its own specific definitions of child maltreatment that comply with federal laws, as well as policies and procedures for how to respond to reports of child maltreatment. As a result, a family living in one state will experience the child welfare system in a different way than a family with the same set of circumstances living in a different state.
Our team used the State Child Abuse and Neglect (SCAN) Policies Database—a new resource funded by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation and developed in collaboration with Mathematica and Child Trends—to examine differences in state definitions of child maltreatment and neglect for the inclusion of income-related factors. We found that:
All states include at least one broad income-related factor in their definitions of maltreatment. While states are not required to specify subtypes of maltreatment that are considered neglect, most states do so anyway. As shown in the map below, nearly one third of the 45 states that make this distinction include five or more income-related factors, and all but three states include at least one. Income-related factors include inadequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care, hygiene, nutrition, and supervision—all of which can be byproducts of poverty and financial insecurity.
While all states include income-related factors in their definitions of maltreatment, many also recognize situations in which inadequate income or poverty prevents a family from meeting their children’s needs, and that these circumstances should not be considered maltreatment. States may exempt specific circumstances or conditions from their definitions of maltreatment. (For example, relinquishing an infant in accordance with safe haven laws—e.g., relinquishment of a child under a certain age, unharmed, to a fire station—does not constitute maltreatment.)
However, almost half of all states do not specifically exempt financial inability to provide for a child from their definitions of child maltreatment. The map below shows which states have an exemption for financial issues. In states without such an exemption, conditions such as inadequate clothing or shelter—absent any evidence that a child has been harmed—could meet the definition of neglect and potentially lead to child welfare involvement.
States that do not have exemptions for financial inability to provide for a child
In federal fiscal year 2020, the majority of both substantiated child maltreatment reports (76%) and family separations due to entries into foster care (64%) involved neglect. Policymakers and child welfare stakeholders should work to understand what is driving the prevalence of neglect cases in the child welfare system. The inclusion of income-related factors in definitions of neglect without any exemptions may be funneling families into the child welfare system even if their children have not been harmed and/or are not at risk of harm due to their parents’ caregiving abilities. For such families, access to concrete supports can reduce contact and involvement with the child welfare system, which can be traumatizing. Furthermore, failure to exempt income-related factors can contribute to racial disparities in the child welfare system. For example, Black families experience poverty at disproportionate rates due to past and ongoing systemic racism such as slavery and discrimination in housing, education, and employment. In this way, addressing the intersection of poverty and neglect may be a mechanism to reduce racial disparities. A deeper understanding of the relationship between these and other child welfare policies and poverty can help researchers and other stakeholders identify ways in which child welfare agencies can revise their policies to help children and families thrive and stay together.
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