There is a common narrative about the families who are involved with child welfare systems—one that portrays parents as abusive and unfit (or unwilling) to care for their children. But reality is more nuanced than that. The truth is, nearly half of the families who have children removed from their homes cannot meet their basic needs and require additional supports in order to provide for their children.
This is especially true for the parents of young children. The birth of a child is one of the leading triggers of poverty in the United States, and since young children have unique costs—like diapers, formula, and child care—poor families often struggle to make ends meet.
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Research continues to confirm what we already know: Children do best when they are raised by their families and in their communities, as long as it is safe. The trauma children experience when they are removed from their parents unnecessarily can have significant and life-long effects, which can be particularly damaging for young children.
Current safety-net programs—including income support and child care and nutrition assistance—are essential for low income families, but if they were modified to be more family-centered, responsive, and flexible, we could prevent unnecessary system involvement and make it easier for families to care for their children safely at home.
Three key strategies could improve existing programs so that they better meet the needs of young children and families.
1. More flexible funding sources to support families facing multiple barriers
Most safety net funding is narrowly focused on providing a specific service, such as food, rent, or utility assistance. These programs are crucial, but the limited focus of each results in gaps across the safety net that can leave families vulnerable.
For example, one of the most common reasons that families become involved with child welfare is because caregivers are often forced to leave children at home—without adequate supervision—so that they can go to work or appointments. If families had cash resources to provide for unexpected costs such as backup child care, parents of young children could juggle multiple demands and attend work, school, or appointments while still keeping their children safe.
Funding sources that provide benefits to families through tax programs and direct cash transfers help meet this need. That’s why the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit, which lifted 9.4 million people out of poverty in 2013, are so crucial for millions of low- and moderate-income families. Child allowances, which provide cash benefits to families with young children, would provide even greater flexibility —and have the potential to significantly reduce poverty.
2. Coordinate between the programs that are designed for young children and families
For families who are navigating multiple benefit programs, overlapping, duplicative, or contradicting eligibility requirements can make it difficult to access the supports they need. For instance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements are often not aligned with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). That can make it difficult for families who rely on TANF to participate in WIOA work or training opportunities, since they do not always “count” as work for TANF work participation rates.
In addition, data sharing across programs—along with other information technology enhancements—would help families get the most out of safety net programs. Many states now use document imaging systems to save and file household verifications, and provide call centers for clients to call in and report changes to their status or benefits needs. This can simplify the eligibility determination process and allow states to create a single process for determining eligibility across a number of programs.
Several states participating in the Work Support Strategies demonstration project have implemented these strategies to better integrate various procedures for major safety net programs including Medicaid, SNAP, and child care subsidies. These states are improving coordination on intake, verification, and periodic redetermination of eligibility to create a more cohesive and easy to navigate set of work supports.
3. Make services available in locations that are convenient for families
Providing services and supports in the places where families already spend time—such as child care centers, libraries, schools, and pediatricians’ offices—makes it more likely that families will receive the essential services that they need.
For example, Project DULCE provides parents of infants with support in addressing stress, building resiliency, and developing a nurturing relationship with their young child, while simultaneously linking families to legal and other community resources—all during the course of standard well-child visits. An evaluation of Project DULCE has shown that the intervention contributes to improvements in preventive health care delivery and accelerated access to concrete supports, such as nutrition or utility assistance, among low-income families.
Safety-net programs that are flexible enough to meet the needs of families, are well-coordinated, and offered in environments that are comfortable and convenient are critical to ensuring that children can thrive at home with their families.