urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Five Questions for Jennifer Macomber

Jennifer Ehrle Macomber

Jennifer Macomber, a research associate with the Urban Institute's Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population, studies policies and trends concerning children in particularly vulnerable families —those facing such risks as domestic violence, child maltreatment, substance abuse, depression, and childhood disabilities.

September 13, 2006

1. Are poor children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect?

The stress of poverty may increase maltreatment. Poverty exerts great pressure on parents to cope with the daily challenges of raising children, which can make it very difficult for parents to effectively care for them.

It's also been suggested that abuse and neglect are not more prevalent in low-income families, and that these families simply have more contact with the service professionals that report abuse and neglect. This is sometimes referred to as the surveillance effect.

Poor families may be more likely to go to the emergency room or to interact with social service program workers. These mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect are apt to share their concerns with the local child welfare agency. In contrast, middle- or higher-income families may have the resources to conceal maltreatment.

Additional risks do crop up with poverty-whether parental depression, domestic violence, or neighborhood disintegration. It's been suggested that these risks combine with poverty to make low-income children more vulnerable to abuse and neglect. A parent coping with depression and living in a run-down neighborhood while still trying to hold a low-wage job may have difficulties caring for a child.

Professionals who work closely with at-risk families will say how much these parents love their children and how much they want to be able to care for them adequately. But the demands posed by their circumstances can make this tougher than it is for other parents.

2. What are we doing to protect at-risk children?

Several systems provide support to low-income families-welfare, cash assistance, housing, work programs, and child care assistance. Low-income couples can even get help in strengthening their relationships and marriages. Children with special needs receive help with education and basic needs. So there are programs in place.

But even with these programs, pressures can sometimes mount, triggering cases of abuse and neglect. At that point, the local child welfare agency will step in to support the child and determine the appropriate services.

Child welfare workers may provide in-home services to help stabilize the family and to prevent further risk to the child. Or, in situations where the child is not safe remaining at home, the agency will likely place the child in foster care. If the family can't be stabilized by a certain time, adoption is considered.

It's unfortunate that cases even get to that point. Child Protection Services (CPS) can be very traumatic for the family and especially for the children. Yet, the goal of catching problems before CPS gets involved has really eluded society. Current networks to support poor families involve a multitude of services and agencies that can seem very overwhelming to families.

Many resources go into protecting the child after the harm has been done, rather than into preventing the risks that lead to abuse or neglect. It's better to stem the problem before it comes to the attention of child welfare workers.

3. Is relying on relatives to care for abused and neglected children working?

For the past eight years, we've been using the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF) to try to glean insights into the health and well being of children in kinship foster care—a population that has drawn policymakers' attention as child welfare agencies have come to rely more and more on relatives to care for abused and neglected children.

We've found that these children do face some risks to healthy development. They're more likely to live in poverty than children living in traditional non-kin foster care homes. They're more likely to live with a caregiver who has no high school degree. And, they're more likely to live with a single caregiver.

There are many federal, as well as state and local, benefits available to kinship care families to help address their hardships. Research using the NSAF shows that many eligible kinship families don't use these benefits.

Our most recent analysis of children in kinship care does point to some positive trends. Rates of poverty and health uninsurance have declined steadily between 1997 and 2002. And, what's interesting about these declines is that they were generally even more dramatic for the kinship population than for the child population.

4. Do depression and substance abuse contribute to family vulnerability?

Of the vulnerabilities that families face, two of the most devastating are substance abuse and depression. Both hurt relationships and the ability to work or learn, and - most important - make it very difficult to care for a child. One in four kids in low-income families lives with a parent displaying mental health symptoms. That's more than double the portion in higher-income families.

We know that substance abuse is a significant factor in about a third of all neglect and abuse cases. Recently, the production and distribution of methamphetamines has had really devastating consequences for families--not only on the health and well being of the parents, but on the children's safety. Everyone, especially state and local policymakers, is really struggling to find ways to help families living with drug problems.

Substance abuse and depression pose some of the most vexing challenges to policymakers. For one, the treatments are really expensive because intensive services are required. Problems like this aren't solved overnight.

Where significant time is needed to resolve families' problems, conflicts occur with child welfare's goal of finding permanent homes for children. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act requires children be moved toward some type of permanent arrangement quickly. A parent struggling with substance abuse or depression may not be able to resolve the issues fast enough.

These problems tend to occur in tandem. Depression can trigger substance abuse. And substance abuse can ignite family violence. This loop can't be broken without intensive services and without multiple services to achieve any kind of stability or security.

Unfortunately, we haven't figured out a good way to help low-income families with these chronic problems. Going to the Betty Ford clinic is not an option for these families.

5. Which trends indicate good news?

One exciting development is the increasing number of adoptions for kids coming out of foster care. Since 1995, that number has doubled from 26,000 in 1995 to 51,000 by 2000, and has remained steady through 2004. The number of children waiting to be adopted is also declining, though it hovers around 100,000 foster children on any given day.

A second positive trend is that violence between domestic partners has declined by half over the past decade. Unfortunately, rates of violence between intimate partners remain significantly higher for women in low-income families. And we know that children often witness family violence.

Increasingly, children with special needs or disabilities are receiving services through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As more special needs children get identified and get needed assistance, the burden on families can be reduced.