First Person

In the Child Welfare System, Somebody’s Always Watching You

When you become involved in the child welfare system, you learn one lesson quickly: All eyes and ears are on you. Even those relationships that are supposed to be therapeutic, such as counseling, transform into something else. Providers must earn your honesty, and even once they do, that dynamic can become instantly dashed with one report to your caseworker.

I learned this early on in my case, which began in April 2018. The services required for me to reunify with my daughters included trauma-based individual therapy, a psychological assessment, substance use treatment, and parenting classes. I remember going to the first of these, my psychological assessment, and spending 20 minutes in the office arguing over paperwork.

In order to complete the mandatory assessment, I had to sign a consent form that would allow the assessors to send their findings to child services. But when I asked what their “findings” included, it was not simply a diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Instead, it could be the full readout of the evaluation.

Everything I said during this invasive and highly personal evaluation would be sent to my caseworker, his boss, the state attorney, the guardian ad litem and her attorney, my attorney, my husband’s attorney (and by proxy my husband), and the judge. Any time my caseworker was changed, which had happened once already and would happen two more times, the new stranger would also be privy to the contents of my psychological evaluation.

But the service was mandated. Without this evaluation, I was not allowed to engage in therapy, substance use treatment, or parenting classes. So I had to do it.

This is standard fare for families involved with the child welfare system. It focuses on the collection of parents’ information, and control over what those parents do and how they behave, not, as proponents of the system fervently claim, on ensuring the safety of children. Like probation and parole, child welfare involvement becomes one more way for the government to keep tabs on people.

As it would turn out, the report would not be a transcript of my evaluation. Rather, it was an interpretation, in which the evaluator handpicked which details to include. She described me as eccentrically dressed. (I had worn a floral dress and flats, but have visible tattoos and a facial piercing that can’t be removed.) She detailed that sometimes I answered questions right away, and sometimes I paused to answer them, which sounds normal enough but seemed sinister and awkward when inserted in the context of the psychological evaluation. She wrote that I suffered from insomnia, even though I’d repeatedly told her I was tired on that day specifically because I was worried about my husband, who had been hospitalized earlier that week. She generalized my history with drug use to make it appear that I had been addicted to heroin since I was a teenager, which is not the case.

In the end, the recommendations didn’t include anything besides the talk therapy I’d already been mandated to take — but the inclusion of all her other highly subjective details handed my opposition a slew of quotes they could use to describe me as eccentric, erratic, and ill-equipped to handle the daily realities of parenting.

It was an evaluation I had no choice but to attend, which should have been a doorway to resources and help for my PTSD. Instead, it served as an intelligence-gathering exercise for the people separating me from my two young daughters.

Other parents have experienced similar issues with the services that are supposedly in place to help them. Kim, a mother in Alabama who asked that her last name not be shared, has been involved with child services since January 2019. Kim’s case was triggered by her arrest when she failed to appear for a court date, but she says the crime she is accused of was actually committed by her abusive partner, who forced her to take the blame by threatening her life.

When her caseworker learned Kim was experiencing domestic violence, she told Kim to move into a shelter. Which she did, but only for about a month. She said the shelter had stringent rules, which included nightly curfews and that she report her whereabouts when she left the grounds.

Kim was never told by the shelter that this information was shared with her caseworker, but she figured it out when her caseworker suddenly knew details only the shelter had. “She knew my comings and goings there. Knew when I met with the therapist, left for work; all of it,” Kim said.

“The sheer fact and status of having a child places you in a situation where you can no longer openly and honestly express what’s happening in your life to mandated reporters because you’re facing family dissolution, or, at minimum, family surveillance,” said Erin Miles-Cloud, a former parent defense attorney in New York who is now the co-founder for Movement for Family Power, a parent advocacy group. Exactly who falls under the category “mandated reporter” varies by state, but they are typically frontline workers such as nurses, doctors, therapists, and teachers, who are required by law to report any suspicions of child maltreatment. She specifically cites shelters, hospitals, and schools as some of the “biggest offenders” when it comes to reporting parents who are seeking care to child services.

While speaking with me for a story I wrote for Filter Mag about the way child services targets parents who use drugs, a nurse named Tracy Longbreak told me about her experience with the “mandatory” aspect of mandated reporting. When a mother came into her emergency department with her baby while smelling of marijuana but appearing prepared, competent, and tidy, Longbreak was told by her superiors that she had to call in the report or risk her job.

She knew my comings and goings there. Knew when I met with the therapist, left for work; all of it.

Ultimately, the best she could do was include her perceptions of the mother in her report and hope that her positive remarks would offset the accusation of neglect via marijuana intoxication (which was not yet legal in the state of Oregon, but is now).

“In North Carolina, the mandatory reporting law is around any abuse that may have taken place by the caregiver,” said Julie Owens, a survivor of domestic violence who now consults with organizations around the country advocating better practices for people who have experienced violence in the home. “The protective parents who go into domestic violence shelters—primarily mothers—are not the abuser, but unfortunately they are reported as or regarded as abusers because they haven’t reported the abuse that their children have been experiencing, and they often end up being punished or deprived of their children as a result of this.”

Put together, this all means that service providers can be forced to act as eyes and ears for child services, even when they don’t want to. But more reports doesn’t equal more child safety. In Philadelphia, for example, mandated reporting laws were drastically expanded after the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. In an article published in Pediatrics in 2017, Mical Raz wrote that “there is no indication that the increase in reporting has improved the safety of Philadelphia’s children, and there is reason to believe it may detract.” Some of these detractions included increased hotline calls resulting in an overburdened system less able to make accurate safety assessments, and a heightened risk of family separation for low-income families. Later Raz noted that “fear of reporting may prevent families from seeking help, whereas assurance of confidentiality has been shown to increase help-seeking behaviors.”

The majority of substantiated maltreatment charges in the child welfare system are for neglect, which typically means issues like lack of food, child care, or weather-appropriate clothing – things that could be fixed with better social supports or a little more money. Creating a system that encourages families to seek help should be the goal for any agency in pursuit of children’s health and safety.

But forcing more and more providers and even laypeople to report on parents whether they want to or not achieves the exact opposite of that goal. Instead, it creates a cyclical, hypocritical system in which parents are afraid to seek assistance for fear of being punished because of the issue for which they need help, then punished for not seeking that help on their own. It also harbors distrust in therapeutic situations, which renders impossible any kind of genuine recovery.

The network of surveillance that child welfare-involved parents become trapped inside will continue to harm families like mine until it is lifted and parents are allowed to seek help and engage with services without simultaneously leaking the most intimate details of their lives.




A City in California Gave Land Back to Indigenous People. It’s a Start.

On Oct. 21, the northern California city of Eureka returned more than 200 acres of land on Duluwat Island to the Wiyot Tribe, the Indigenous inhabitants of the area. The land — which represents the physical and cultural center of the universe for Wiyot peoples — was taken during a massacre of the tribe’s women, children, and elders in 1860.

This massacre, followed by subsequent relocation to Fort Humboldt, resulted in the death of nearly one half of the pre-contact Wiyot population — estimated at close to 2,000 people. Today, the tribe has returned to near its ancestral territory, after long legal fights to gain federal recognition, with close to 600 Wiyot people living locally.

Eureka’s return is believed to be the first time a local government has returned land to a tribe in the U.S. Eureka City Council member Kim Bergel described the return as “the right thing to do.”

Eureka’s actions are significant politically, spiritually, and also economically. While Duluwat Island is relatively small, returning the land takes the tiniest step towards rectifying the injustices that the United States has committed towards Wiyot peoples. It signifies a desire to help Wiyot peoples rebuild their community and nation after centuries of dispossession and genocide.

From 1776 to 1887, the United States transferred nearly 1.5 billion acres of land into American control. Initially, this was done through treaty and executive order or through forcible removal of Indigenous peoples from their homelands, often putting them on reservations. While this made up the majority of land seizures, the seizure of land also included the 1887 Dawes Act, otherwise known as Allotment, which sought to individualize Indian land ownership, converting Indigenous peoples into models of homesteading farmers. The Act would cause Indigenous-controlled land to go from 138 million acres in 1887 to just 48 million acres by 1934.

The seizure of lands and territories and the creation of reservations is a significant reason why Indigenous communities have such concentrated poverty in the United States. Imagine being forced to move from the only home you have ever known to a place you have never been, with fewer resources to succeed there, and then being told that the lifestyle that has helped you prosper is “uncivilized,” and that to survive, you need to embrace a completely new worldview. Not exactly a model for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For many, the taking of land coincided with an effort to eradicate Indigenous peoples in general. Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, remarked as such when he told the nascent legislature in 1851 “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

To exterminate a whole group means not just the physical killing of a community. It means the destruction of a worldview, a home. This extermination created Allotment. It created boarding schools that sought to “kill the Indian, and save the man.” It created Indian termination policy, which sought to terminate tribes, relocating and assimilating Indigenous peoples. All of these American policies created the conditions for the intense poverty that Indigenous peoples face today.

The taking of land coincided with an effort to eradicate Indigenous peoples.

These processes of extermination have not resulted in the erasure of Indigenous peoples in the United States – far from it. They have altered the ways in which Indigenous peoples interact with the world, though. Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa/Yurok/Karuk), assistant professor of Native American Studies at Humboldt State University, notes two things in this regard: First, that the world that contemporary Indigenous peoples inhabit is a post-apocalyptic one. Second, that this post-apocalypse alters Indigenous peoples’ abilities to thrive socially, communally, politically, and economically. When your base mode of living for generations is mere survival, how can you imagine building anything beyond that?

The combination of both land seizure and eradication efforts has resulted in significant economic disparities for Indigenous peoples in the United States. The 2008 Census estimated that 30 percent of all American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) peoples were in poverty. This reached 40 percent for those living on a reservation. Comparatively, the total U.S. population recorded a poverty rate of 16 percent. According to a 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the AI/AN unemployment rate was 7.8 percent. Comparatively, the total U.S. rate hovered around 4.4 percent.

This is what makes the return of Duluwat Island to Wiyot peoples so important. It acknowledges past wrongs, understands how the original seizure of land harmed generations irreparably, and tries to rectify that in a culturally, spiritually, politically, and economically significant way. In giving back the land, instead of Wiyot Tribe buying the land back as has happened previously, Eureka took a step towards conciliation.

While the United States has often tried to find alternative methods of compensation for Indigenous land, the federal government would do well to follow the example of Eureka and the Wiyot Tribe. Just give the land back.





State Laws Can Punish Parents Living in Abusive Households

One in four women in the United States will experience some form of intimate partner violence in her lifetime. For men, that number is one in nine. And 90 percent of kids affected by domestic violence will view the abuse firsthand, often by one parent against another.

These numbers are staggering. When you consider the impact of childhood trauma — which tells us that kids who experience or witness abuse are more likely to develop a slew of physical and mental illnesses as adults — those numbers are infuriating. And baffling. Domestic violence can be hard to escape, especially for those who have been in the mire of it for years, but once kids become involved, shouldn’t that be enough motivation to leave?

It’s this question, and the assumed answer, which drives “failure to protect” laws in child welfare programs across the United States. Essentially, failure to protect laws charge a parent with not doing enough to shield their child from witnessing or experiencing abuse. Virtually every state pursues some form of failure to protect charges within the civil child welfare system. These laws are aimed at the non-abusive parent living in an abusive household. Usually, the parent has been subject to intimate partner violence. But the laws can also be used in households in which the child is the victim of one parent but not the other.

While these laws were written with the intention of penalizing a parent who neglects the safety and/or well-being of their children, they all too often make unsafe environments even less safe by penalizing non-abusive parents living in an abusive household, and can become the basis for temporarily or permanently removing children from the home. They rarely leave room to consider the complexities of intimate partner violence, instead relying on assumptions and stereotypes that are incapable of capturing the nuanced reality of family bonds.

In January of 1999, Sharwline Nicholson decided to end her relationship with the father of her infant daughter. He lived in South Carolina, and had been crossing state lines each month to visit Nicholson and their daughter in New York. But when she ended the relationship, he responded with violence.

She called 911 and made arrangements with a friend for the care of her two children while she stayed overnight at the hospital. The next day, Nicholson was notified by the New York Administration of Children’s Services (ACS) that both of her children had been temporarily removed from her care on the basis that she had failed to protect them from witnessing the violence that had been inflicted upon her by her former partner. At the time, this was considered a form of neglect.

Nicholson would eventually win back custody of her children, but would be placed on a child maltreatment registry. This action kickstarted a lawsuit that would eventually lead the New York Court of Appeals to rule in 2004 that a parent’s inability to prevent a child from witnessing abuse could not be a sole factor for removing a child. Child welfare reform activists celebrated the decision.

“What Nicholson actually did was not just to change the attitude toward victims of domestic violence,” said David Lansner, a civil rights and family law attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the Nicholson case. “Neglect had to be shown as a serious matter; you had to show that … there was imminent danger of serious harm and not just the possibility of harm. … [Child services] and the court had to balance the harm that would result from removal against the risk of leaving the child at home, so you couldn’t just ‘take the safer course’ because removal was harmful to kids and shouldn’t be done unless it was really necessary.”

Unfortunately, New York is relatively unique in that respect; other states, lacking a case like Nicholson, still remove children for the possibility of harm that caseworkers and judges interpret by a parent’s “failure to protect” her children from being in a household where abuse takes place.

Erin Miles-Cloud, who formerly worked as a parent attorney in New York and is currently one of the co-founders of the advocacy group Movement for Family Power, explained the ways in which some of the better-resourced, urban systems can still fail families, even today. “Because New York has this middle ground of family shelters, ACS sees it as an unreasonable option to stay in a home where intimate partner violence is occurring,” she said.

What many people don’t realize is that — in New York City — parents who access a shelter as the result of domestic abuse will automatically be moved to a different borough, meaning a change in school district for their children, not to mention the loss of access to support networks, such as friends and family or trusted child care, lack of which can easily become another maltreatment charge. There’s also no guarantee as to what type of housing the family will receive or for how long. In some cases this could mean dormitory-style living for a year or longer, with no access to even a personal refrigerator.

But even the most comfortable, “home-like” shelters remain government-funded institutions — which means they come with restrictive rules, such as nightly curfews and rigid limits on how many days a parent can be away from the shelter, even to visit family. They are also a source of constant surveillance for the families housed inside. Miles-Clouds calls shelters and hospitals among the “largest offenders” when it comes to calling in new maltreatment reports, and notes that New York ACS often uses shelters as “second or third eyes on a family” when arguing a related case in court.

Because child welfare agencies self-report their data, and failure to protect  is not an independent maltreatment category in itself (these cases typically fall under the “neglect” umbrella), it is difficult to know exactly how many non-abusive parents end up being investigated because they were victims of abuse who sought help, or because their children reported being harmed by someone else in the household. But we do know that most states do not have even the mild protections enjoyed by families in New York. That means a child can be removed if the state convinces a judge they have been or will likely be psychologically harmed by witnessing the abuse.

Better-resourced, urban systems can still fail families, even today.

Some states will also pursue criminal charges against victims of intimate partner violence who have children in the home. In six states – Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina and West Virginia – non-offending parents face potential life sentences for failure to protect charges, and in Texas the maximum penalty is 99 years. Last year, the Associated Press reported on the case of Tondalao Hall, a mother whose boyfriend was sentenced to two-years time served (meaning he had already completed his jail time while waiting to be sentenced) for beating her children, including a three-month-old infant. Hall, who was never accused of harming her kids, is currently serving 30 years in prison for not calling the authorities on her boyfriend.

Latagia Copeland-Tyronce, a parental rights advocate and the founder/executive director of the National African American Families First and Preservation Association who spoke to TalkPoverty about her experience, knows first-hand how devastating it can be to be accused of not protecting children from another person’s abuse. She first faced the traumatic confusion of a failure to protect charge in Toledo, Ohio, in 2013.

She was 26 years old and had been involved in an abusive relationship for 10 years. What she did not know, however, was that her daughters’ father was also sexually abusing her three eldest girls. When one of Copeland-Tyronce’s daughters finally disclosed the abuse to her sister, she promptly contacted child services.

Copeland-Tyronce immediately left her children’s father. She also cooperated with the criminal case that would ultimately land him a 30-year prison sentence. But this was not enough for Lucas County child protective services. They claimed she had known about the abuse and had failed to protect her children both from witnessing the violence perpetrated against her, and from the sexual abuse which they had experienced.

“My children never said that I knew anything or that I was involved in the abuse and I was never charged with a crime related to the case,” countered Copeland-Tyronce.

Less than a year after the initial removal, her parental rights were terminated and all six of her daughters were adopted to other families. When she gave birth to a son in 2014, by a different father and with stable housing in place, he was also removed from her custody.

“Because I had a [termination of parental rights] TPR, failure to protect, with my daughters. No other reason,” she said. At the time, the first TPR was still under appeal.

Candis Cassioppi, a mother based in Athens, Georgia, had her youngest child removed from her in the hospital after giving birth, she told TalkPoverty. The removal was prompted by an incident of assault by her child’s father perpetrated against her during her pregnancy.

Although she initially called the police and sought medical attention — causing those injuries to become part of her medical record — she ultimately declined to press charges or testify against her abuser. After her son’s birth, this incident became a reason to claim she was failing to protect her children from harm. Now, she is court-ordered to participate in a slew of activities, including domestic violence groups and parenting classes, in the hopes of regaining custody of her infant.

Like mandated reporting laws, which require certain professionals and institutions to report suspected child maltreatment, failure to protect laws and policies are in place, purportedly, to ensure that child maltreatment does not go unreported. “If a child dies in the home because there was a batterer who was so dangerous that the victim-partner couldn’t protect [the kids] … we’re still liable to make sure that the child stays safe,” explained Mary Nichols, a now-retired administrator at Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), to the California Health Report in 2015.

But she also admitted in the same article that the laws are confusingly vague: “If you look up California Welfare and Institutions Code 300 and just read the definitions of ‘failure to protect,’ you can see how broad they are … [If] somebody would like to craft legislation to make it more workable, in terms of protections for domestic violence [victims], that would be great. It’s a pretty raw tool that we have.”

As the cases detailed in this article demonstrate, the reality of domestic abuse is far too complex to address with vague, generalized laws. Instead of protecting families, these blanket laws mean that parents who experience domestic violence may end up burdened by a fear of reprisal for reporting that violence. Take Cassioppi’s case, for example. Her baby was born healthy; had she not called the police and sought medical attention after being assaulted during her pregnancy, she likely would have walked out of the hospital with her newborn in arms. And Copeland-Tyronce now asserts that if she were to ever encounter intimate partner violence again, she would “not at all” feel safe calling the police for help.

Lansner said implementation and caseworker attitudes are major problems with the way domestic violence cases are handled within the child welfare system. “The caseworkers just don’t get it,” he said, adding, “the caseworker might go to the home, find the guy there in violation of a protection order and then remove the children instead of calling the police and having him arrested, which is what [the caseworker] should do.”

Parents who experience intimate partner violence also face a number of other complexities that caseworkers and judges don’t always take into consideration when charging these parents as culpable for traumatizing their kids by proxy. For example, one study found that 99 percent of domestic violence survivors had also been subject to economic abuse, a form of financial control that can leave them stranded without the resources necessary to secure independent housing or provide for their children’s basic needs. Because lack of appropriate shelter, clothing, and food also fall under the child services maltreatment category of “neglect,” this leaves many non-abusive partners trapped between the crosshairs of a failure to protect and a failure to provide charge. Either way, they’re ending up on the maltreatment registry for neglect.

By necessitating that caseworkers identify concrete harm toward a child before removing her from the home, New York has found a way to slightly balance a system designed to punish parents simply for being unfortunate enough to experience abuse. Although their system is far from perfect — as Miles-Cloud noted, it funnels parents into a less-than-ideal shelter system, and the law still does not address the caseworker bias that concerned Lansner — it provides a template which other states could use to begin the process of clarifying these laws.

Ideally, however, survivors of domestic violence should be met with compassion and provided with services that help their families heal and thrive intact. It seems, instead, that as long as failure to protect charges exist, the child welfare system will continue to promote a culture of secrecy surrounding intimate partner violence, thus validating the very abuse it claims to condemn.



Dangerous Jobs. Harassment. Long Hours. Welcome to Court-Ordered Community Service.

Selena Lopez, 24, had several interactions with the criminal legal system before she was sentenced to a brief jail stint for burglary and offered community service as an option. From the start, she felt unsupported by the system.

“I was homeless, looking for a place to live, and trying to get into a drug treatment program,” Gomez told TalkPoverty. “I couldn’t afford to enroll at a volunteer center and do my hours.” Her struggle to fulfill the terms led her down a rabbit hole of unsympathetic judges, sexual harassment, and dangerous working conditions.

Several recent high-profile cases have put court-ordered community service like that Lopez experienced into the headlines. So has a University of California, Los Angeles study that took a close look at how community service is used in LA County, and the wildly disparate outcomes within the county’s court-ordered community service framework. Limited research on this subject is in circulation, but the information from Los Angeles suggests tracking and quantifying data around community service nationwide might yield important insights into a little-researched aspect of the legal system. As with other elements of the criminal legal system, class and race heavily mediate the kind of service people engage in and how many hours they are ordered to complete.

The researchers found significant racial disparities, with Latinx and Black people being more likely to serve community service as a result of disparities in citations, arrests, and charging decisions. For example, in traffic cases that resulted in community service, which involve infractions like speeding and failing to stop, 81 percent of workers were Latinx, out of proportion with LA’s roughly 49 percent Latinx population, and 8 percent were Black.

They also found a high percentage of people who could not afford attorneys (78 percent) amongst those who performed community service, while 16 percent had limited English proficiency and needed translators in court. This paints a profile of a predominantly low-income population — 89 percent of those serving community service in the cohort they studied were low-income — of color, with substantial numbers of immigrants.

Around 100,000 people are sentenced to community service in LA County every year, serving the equivalent of 4,900 full-time, paid civilian jobs and 1,800 government jobs. The number of hours of labor this represents, and the significant cost savings for community service sites, is tremendous. Noah Zatz, a UCLA law professor and lead author, told TalkPoverty, “We were startled to see just how high the hours were for many people, people getting hundreds or even thousands of hours.”

The report argues this is a form of extractive labor that stacks on to existing “poverty penalties” in the criminal legal system, in addition to driving inequalities on work sites, where people completing community service work side-by-side with paid parties in everything from municipal animal shelters to for-profit nursing homes, but without the same benefits, protections, and wages.

Lopez recalled that at one placement, she was ordered to engage in unsafe activities like cleaning bathrooms with a mixture of bleach and ammonia. At another, she said she was forced to mop on her hands and knees in a kitchen surrounded by men who stared at her, but she had to “swallow that pill and push through” after the supervisor threatened to “throw out all my hours.”

“In addition to the direct displacement dynamic,” noted Zatz, referring to paid workers who might lose out on roles filled by community service, “the other dynamic at play is that these assignments function as a form of subsidy to nonprofits.” Government agencies also experience big savings through community service; over half of the cases the researchers looked at involved CalTrans, the state’s highway construction and maintenance agency.

The reliance upon free labor is troubling.

Community service is sometimes represented to members of the public as a compassionate alternative to jail time and a way to “work off” court-imposed debts. In fact, it can create significant hardships. People may struggle to complete high numbers of hours on top of their paid jobs and other obligations, such as school and child care. When Lopez struggled to complete her service and asked for help, judges were unsympathetic; it ultimately took the help of an attorney with A New Way of Life, an advocacy organization that works with women leaving prison, to get the court to work with her. The court agreed to accept volunteer hours she served at organizations not on its officially sanctioned list, acknowledging her work with community advocacy organizations.

The researchers noted that disability can also be a factor; the study cites one disabled person who was sentenced to 60 hours of work they were unable to perform and ended up with 180 hours of “light” service. Zatz notes that people receive more credit for physically demanding work, which creates inherent inequalities for disabled people.

And some still owe court-imposed fines and fees that can’t be worked off by laboring on construction crews or organizing files at the sheriff’s office, with 86 percent of those involved in criminal cases making payments that averaged $323 on top of their service. That’s, of course, after they’ve paid the fee for placement at a community service work site recognized by the court.

Many members of the public may not be aware of the close ties between court-ordered community service and the mounting crisis of court fines and fees. Nearly every state has seen steep increases, many of which are established in rigid fee schedules that judges can’t change. In many cases, courts are offering community service as a way to “pay off” the very fines the court has imposed, though they could conduct ability-to-pay assessments to determine whether those fines are realistic. For some, the only way to resolve these debts is to work, providing free labor to participating sites.

The reliance upon free labor is troubling for the researchers. Whether people are engaged in community labor, which includes a physically demanding element like working on a road crew, or community service, like volunteering at a thrift store, they are treated as a cheap and disposable resource. Not only are they not paid for their time, they’re not provided with meaningful skills and a path to advancement, with very few people hired on by the agencies and organizations they work for. These organizations can also be choosy, indicating that they won’t work with people convicted of certain kinds of crimes, which makes it harder for them to complete court-ordered community service.

At a time when labor organizing is in resurgence, community service represents a largely unexplored aspect of the labor movement. Some participants in community service programs are working alongside union members who have fought for robust contracts that include fair pay and benefits as well as protected working conditions. Community service workers don’t benefit from those contracts and are in fact sometimes forced to sign waivers explicitly identifying them as volunteers and giving up certain workplace rights and protections.

Reforming court fines and fees to address the modern-day debtor’s prisons and coercive labor conditions across the United States is critical, as is coming up with alternatives to incarceration that do not involve exploitation. Community service as it exists now could also be reformed; people could be provided with job training, meaningful pay, and other supports to turn a court-ordered job into economic opportunity, something people like Lopez, who’s been sober three years and is currently pursuing a college education, could have benefited from.

Until then, members of the public may want to look twice at community service’s role in their neighborhoods.



A Census Undercount Likely Cost Detroit $1.3 Million for Childhood Lead Prevention

In 2017 — four years after the start of the Flint water crisis — health department officials found dangerously high levels of lead in the blood of more than 1,600 children under the age of six in Detroit. That’s more than the number of students who attend an average American high school. Lead poisoning causes developmental delays, learning difficulties, weight loss, vomiting, hearing loss, and seizures, among a host of other side effects.

That year, the city applied for a $1.34 million U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant that would have allowed the city to hire more health department staff focused on assisting the city’s ongoing efforts in preventing childhood lead poisoning. The grant would have funded city officials to test more young children for lead poisoning and collect better data that would allow them to identify the most at-risk kids.

Just months after applying, the city was denied. But the reason had nothing to do with public health. As the CDC explained, the 2010 U.S. Census counted Detroit’s population at 713,777, which was shy of the grant’s 750,000 minimum population requirement. The CDC said in a statement that it does not advance grant applications that don’t meet eligibility criteria requirements for further review.

The lost opportunity underscores the importance of having an accurate count of all people living in the United States during the constitutionally-mandated decennial Census. The count factors into how billions of federal dollars are distributed throughout the country. The number of people in your city can determine eligibility for resources needed to address lead, fix up roads, or improve schools.

It is unclear whether Detroit’s 2010 population was undercounted by exactly 36,223 people, the number of residents by which the city fell short of the lead prevention grant’s threshold. But there is a lot of evidence that Detroit’s Census population in 2010 was less than the number of people actually living in the city, and it’s probable that it would have reached 750,000 with a more accurate count. Undercounts are typical for large cities with a large number of hard-to-count populations such as renters or immigrants.

In Detroit, only 64 percent of households responded to the Census, according to Victoria Kovari, the executive director of the city’s 2020 Census campaign. In total, about 220,000 people did not send in the forms. The Census Bureau was able to track down information about some of those households after workers spoke to residents at their doors, as well as landlords, neighbors, or even the mailman.

But, according to the Census Bureau, 26,585 people were never counted, and instead represented an estimated number of people living in uncounted units, which the federal agency calculated based on a formula that includes comparable household sizes for the specific neighborhood. It is likely that the Census Bureau was off on its estimates and that the actual number was higher.

The populations in Detroit that the Census was unable to collect any information for and forced to guess about include people living in gated communities or renters such as young people and small, low-income families living in multifamily apartment buildings, Kovari said.

Kovari said it was too tough to tell whether there was an undercount, but based on the high number of people that the Census Bureau had to make a guess about, the count was likely not accurate. “It’s clear that renters in multi-family housing were not counted,” Kovari said. “I would go as far as to say we did not get an accurate count in those areas.”

For a city like Detroit, which filed for municipal bankruptcy just six years ago, those federal funds that were denied because of a likely undercount could have been critical, said Lyke Thompson, director of Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies, who studies lead poisoning in Michigan.

While childhood lead poisoning in Detroit has improved in recent years, its rates still surpass those in nearby Flint. In 2016, city officials found that 8.8 percent of tested kids under the age of six were positive for lead poisoning, compared to 1.8 percent of kids in Genesee County, which encompasses Flint, according to the Detroit News. The elevated levels were higher in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, including one zip code that encompasses the Atkinson Avenue Historic District and Yates Park, in which 22 percent of 686 kids tested positive.

A lot of the city’s childhood lead poisoning problems stem from aging infrastructure that makes the water undrinkable and the city’s aging housing stock, often located in poorer neighborhoods, with lead paint-covered interior and exterior walls. Children in those neighborhoods are exposed to chippings and dust that come from the walls and breathe in exposed lead after nearby homes are demolished without following environmental remediation standards.

“$1.3 million would go a long way for [city officials] to get to the houses, to measure the blood levels in those houses and to provide case management and other services to those families. They simply lose that through this process,” Thompson said. “Detroit has some of the highest percentages of children with lead poisoning of any major city in the country so they really do need the support.”

Other cities likely experienced similar lost opportunities. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services relies on population data when distributing nearly $3 billion each year in funding and reimbursements of five of its grant programs, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a foster care program, an adoption assistance program, and a child care and development fund program, a 2018 report from George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy found.

Those researchers identified 37 states that may have lost out on millions of dollars in federal funding in fiscal year 2015 if their populations were undercounted by 1 percent during the 2010 Census. This includes Texas by $291.9 million, Pennsylvania by $221.7 million, Florida by $177.8 million, Ohio by $139 million, Illinois by $122.2 million, and Michigan by $94.2 million.

In most cases, it is impossible to tell which communities may have lost out on federal funds because of a Census undercount due to the fact that there are many overlapping programs with different complex funding formulas that take into account statistics beyond population size, such as the age and income of an area, according to another recent report from George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy.

Many Detroiters had no interest in being counted and the city never worked to convince them otherwise.
– Kurt Metzger

But what is clear is that undercounts do occur throughout the United States, disproportionately impacting the black population.

According to the Census Bureau’s own 2014 analysis, nearly 1 million children — 4.6 percent of all kids under the age of five in the U.S. — were not represented in the 2010 count. Children who are Latinx or black were undercounted at higher rates than white children. Such undercounts are due to children who have complex living situations, such as splitting time living between parents who do not live together, or who come from families that are considered hard-to-count, such as those who live in high-poverty neighborhoods or rental housing, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.

“The undercount of children under age five in the decennial census, and in surveys like the American Community Survey (ACS), is real and growing,” the 2014 Census Bureau report read. “This is not a new problem and has been present in decennial censuses for many decades. The differential undercount of this population across geography and demographics makes this a larger problem for some racial and ethnic groups and some parts of the country.”

It is reasonable to conclude that Detroit’s undercount was larger than the national average. The city’s population of children under five is higher than the national average and, according to research conducted by the City University of New York, several of its neighborhoods are considered among the hardest to count in the country.

In fact, the city’s population meets the very definition of hard-to-count: Areas in which less than 73 percent of its residents responded to the bureau’s first attempt to reach them.

Hard-to-count communities often include young children, racial and ethnic minorities, non-English speakers, low-income people, people who are disabled, people who are experiencing homelessness, and people who do not live in traditional housing, according to Ron Jarmin, deputy director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Detroit has a poverty rate of 37.9 percent, 85 percent of its population are considered ethnic minorities, more than 10 percent of its population uses a language other than English at home, and 20 percent of its population is disabled, according to Census Bureau data.

To complicate matters, one in five Detroiters is evicted each year, a problem which, according to Pulitzer Prize winning author Matthew Desmond, disproportionately impacts black women, which would also lead to an undercount.

Lastly, the 2008 economic recession, which crashed the city’s economy, may have also played a part, according to Kurt Metzger, a demographer and Michigan mayor who started the local data organization, Data Driven Detroit. In 2010, city leaders, he said, were trying to address Detroit’s high unemployment rate, foreclosure crisis, and plummeting housing values as residents were underwater on mortgages and land contracts, so they were not thinking about the Census.

Metzger expected an undercount, but the end result was much worse than he anticipated, he said.

“While I have no exact undercount in mind, I was floored when I heard the 2010 count. I knew there was going to be a significant pop loss even without an undercount, but was expecting something closer to 775,000,” Metzger said in an email.

“The undercount was the reason for not qualifying for the grant. Many Detroiters had no interest in being counted and the city never worked to convince them otherwise,” he added.

The Trump administration is going to make this bad situation worse. It tried to include a citizenship question in the Census, a move that would have caused an undercount of at least 9 million people, since non-citizens and households or families with non-citizen members would fear retribution from the government if they answered. The Supreme Court ruled that the Trump administration could not include the question unless it changed its justification for adding it, which they claimed was to better enforce the Voting Rights Act.

The Trump administration shortly after dropped the question, but is still providing an inadequate supply of resources needed to ensure an accurate count. The NAACP filed a lawsuit last year against the Census Bureau and the Trump administration, claiming that their lack of preparedness for the 2020 Census violated the U.S. Constitution, since the government is required to conduct a full head count of everyone living in the country.

The civil rights organization claimed the Census Bureau was under-funded and under-prepared, hiring fewer people to knock on doors and count people that did not self-respond, and opening half the number of field offices throughout the country. Those cuts are being made while the Census Bureau rolls out, for the first time, an Internet-based survey response system.

There are widespread cybersecurity concerns related to allowing people to respond to the survey digitally, and such techniques could affect responses from communities with limited Internet access, which are often areas with a high population of people of color who are considered hard-to-count.

The Census Bureau in a statement defended its 2020 count efforts. According to the bureau, the agency is planning the most robust marketing and outreach plan in the agency’s history: It will spend $500 million on marketing, up from $376 million in 2010, advertise in “many different languages,” and is designing a “robust” outreach plan and hiring locally to engage with communities and reach hard-to-count populations.

The bureau also said that households in areas where Internet is unreliable will receive a paper questionnaire on the first mailing and all households that do not respond, regardless of the area, will receive a paper questionnaire on the fourth mailing. It added that people can respond in 12 different languages other than English over the phone or through the Internet, and enumerators will have 59 different non-English language guides among other ways of reaching out to non-English speakers.

But such threats to the accuracy of the count are real, according to Kelly Percival, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program.

“The 2020 Census is facing a lot of threats. A lot we have seen in past Censuses and a lot is unique for 2020,” said Percival.

“These are having a snowball effect and they could lead to an undercount in certain communities,” Percival added. “This will translate into less political power and less funding for those that need it… I think it’s an attempt to politicize the census which is not what the census is about.”

A relatively small lead prevention grant can go a long way and help a lot of children. According to Detroit officials, the 2017 grant would have enabled the city to increase the number of children under six years old who are tested for lead by 20 percent, allowed the city to collect better data so it could identify higher-risk populations, improved lead exposure outreach and education for those higher-risk populations, and better identified kids who have been exposed so they could be connected with services. It would have also provided new training for public health professionals, the lead prevention workforce, and other stakeholders who are on the front lines of the fight.

Ask the city, though, and losing out on the grant was no big deal. While, “Federal dollars will certainly assist the Department in coordinating lead related activities,” the city is doing just fine addressing the problem without it, according to city spokesperson Tamekia Nixon.

“After we didn’t receive the 2017 grant, the Detroit Health Department pursued other funding streams to allow us to provide the same scope of service intended in the grant, albeit to a somewhat lesser degree. However, at this time we are not able to quantify the exact difference in numbers,” Nixon wrote in a statement.

The 2020 Census is facing a lot of threats.
– Kelly Percival

Last week, the city received a $9.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assess 120 housing units and address lead hazards in 450 homes throughout the city for low-income families with young children, among other functions.

However, the primary function of the grant is for lead abatement, not surveillance of lead poisoning, like the CDC grant would have provided, and it will not solve the issue, said Thompson. Federal funds for such prevention efforts is crucial, he said.

“It’s really hard for the Health Department to get to even a fraction of the houses and really work with the families and they lost support to do that,” Thompson said.

Members of Detroit’s Health Department spoke to TalkPoverty on background but referred questions to the city’s communications department before going on the record. The city’s communications department gave TalkPoverty basic information about its lead program after more than a week of requests, but gave vague answers about whether losing out on the CDC funds hurt the city’s lead prevention efforts in any way. At times, Nixon told TalkPoverty to “file a FOIA” (Freedom of Information Act request) for such information.

It is unclear why the city downplayed the importance of missing out on the federal grant. However, after being denied the CDC grant, the city’s former Health Department Executive Director, Joneigh Khaldun, in a July 10, 2017 appeal of the federal agency’s decision, characterized the federal funds as a “severe need.”

“Addressing lead exposure remains a critical need given the history of Detroit as a large industrial community and the subsequent ubiquity and permeation of lead in our neighborhoods,” Khaldun said.

As American cities like Detroit scrap for federal funding to address very important issues facing their communities and their residents, an accurate count in 2020 is crucial.