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Are Homeless Parents Paranoid?

Oklahoma family during Great Depression

In the 2011-12 school year, in America, an estimated 1.2 million school kids (kindergarten through grade 12) were homeless. As House the Homeless has discussed, counting the people experiencing homelessness is not an exact science. The number of homeless children is assumed to be underreported for several reasons, one of which is that such families tend to keep a low profile, to the point where they have been called the “invisible homeless.” Parents don’t go out of their way to flaunt their homeless-with-kids status in public places. You don’t often see them panhandling in the business district. The last thing they want is to attract the wrong kind of attention — the kind that leads to losing custody of their children.

Apparently it becomes easier every day for a parent to get into deep trouble, as the world saw recently with the arrest of Shanesha Taylor, who left her two children in a car in Scottsdale, Ariz., so she could go to a job interview. Taylor faces a prison term of at least four years, and her children were removed by the authorities.

School

On paper, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, a homeless child can choose to keep attending the school appropriate to her or his last permanent residence. In reality, the logistics of allowing this to happen can be daunting for both money-starved school districts and parents who are already dealing with all the details of catastrophe.

Another homeless American mother made news within recent memory by using a friend’s address to enroll her 6-year-old son in a better-quality school where he technically didn’t belong. Tanya (or Tonya) McDowell was convicted of stealing educational services and sentenced to a long spell in prison.

Huffington Post writer Mary Ann West made an interesting point:

If the police, prosecutor, or really anyone of authority had shared their concerns with the school board, cooler heads would have prevailed, McDowell’s son’s rights as a homeless child would have been protected under the Federal McKinney-Vento Act, and perhaps a resolution would have been found.

It costs a lot of money per year to keep an adult incarcerated. If a child is placed in foster care, which is where McDowell’s son could easily end up, that costs a lot, too. The amount varies wildly according to the state, the level of care needed, the available funding, and other factors, but it’s a bunch of money. Here is an interesting question. Instead of taking kids away from homeless women and paying foster parents to take care of them, why not just pay the natural mothers enough to maintain homes and raise their own children? It might save the taxpayers a lot of money, and would certainly be cheaper in long-term consequences to society.

Cap City

In the District of Columbia, the Family Resources Center is where homeless families go for help. But that agency tells the Child and Family Services Agency everything, and CFSA had shown a pattern of taking kids away from parents who are characterized as neglectful just for being homeless. Kathryn Baer of Poverty Insights says it starts with intimidating investigations and interrogations that add to the burdens of already-stressed parents, and frighten already-insecure kids. She learned from the Washington Legal Clinic that, according to local law, “deprivation due to the lack of financial means … is not considered neglect.” However, Baer says:

CFSA has taken many children from their parents without getting a court order first. And, in more than half the cases, the precipitous removals were not justified. We also know, from CFSA’s own report, that “inadequate housing” was the primary reason it placed 35 children in foster care in 2010.

When Baer did her research, 308 families were on the waiting list of the Family Resources Center. How many parents stop renewing their applications for shelter space when they learn that they might be accused of not only neglect, but abuse, just for being poor? How many already know about the agency’s track record and never apply in the first place, preferring to take their chances in more tenuous surroundings? This achieves the exact opposite of what the law was supposed to accomplish, and makes children less safe, rather than more.

In the comments appended to Baer’s piece, two different readers warned of the truly horrifying possibility that some social service agencies may enter into an unholy alliance with private adoption agencies. Apparently, the bounty paid for a healthy, adoptable child, especially if white, can earn an agency thousands of dollars.

With all these things going on, how much anxiety is a homeless parent justified in feeling?

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Source: “’Stealing Education’ Case Round II: Petition to Drop Case, Mom Still Homeless,” HuffingtonPost.com, 05/12/11
Source: “Homeless DC Parents Fear Loss of Children … And They’re Right,” Poverty Insights, 05/24/12
Image by Ashley Wilson