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The common thread in child removal – neglect not abuse

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October 27, 2022

The common thread in child removal – neglect not abuse

When children are separated from their families and placed into foster care, there’s a common thread that runs through the reasons why: parents are experiencing some sort of distress. Just like in any family, often multiple intersectional factors are at play in a family’s dynamic. The factors have nothing to do with parents’ love for their children or their desire to see them thrive. In families with child welfare involvement, the stressors on parents have usually become so great that they are affecting parents’ ability to care for their children, which can lead to removal.

What are the primary drivers of child-family separation?

A common misconception is that physical and sexual abuse are the primary drivers of child welfare involvement. These serious forms of abuse factor into a smaller portion of cases – 13% of removals were associated with physical abuse; 4% with sexual abuse. It is estimated that 30-60% of all children in foster care have witnessed domestic violence (also referred to as intimate partner violence or IPV). Parental drug abuse is partly responsible for 35% percent of child removals, while alcohol abuse played a role in 6% of child removals.

Neglect is the most common reason why children enter the child welfare system. In 64% of cases where a child is removed from their home, neglect is cited as the cause. Issues related to unsafe or substandard housing were associated with 9% percent of child removals.

Neglect can take different forms and definitions depending on state statutes. It can range from not meeting standards for medical care, to truancy from school or failure to meet a child’s emotional needs. Often neglect is a proxy for poverty – the struggle of families to meet their children’s basic needs due to insufficient financial resources.

As we recognize National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and National Substance Abuse Prevention Month in October, we must consider how both of these issues undeniably intersect with child welfare cases and cause trauma. Their impact on children can be grave. Children who witness and experience domestic violence are at an increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, aggressive behavior, anxiety, impaired development, difficulty interacting with peers, academic problems, and may have a higher incidence of substance abuse. Parental substance use itself is a major risk factor for child development, heightening the risk of drug problems in adolescence and young adulthood, and exposing children to several types of traumatic events.

Yet neglect and its root cause poverty require our vigilance every month to recognize that we can achieve better outcomes for children by building on – and building up – the strengths of their families. In this way, we remove the risk and not the child.