While few people doubt the devastating effects that poverty has on the well-being of families, poor teenagers in Texas are entering the foster care system at a higher rate than in the past. The New York Times recently published an article about the poor economy in Texas and its correlation on the number of children in foster care. Recent census data revealed that 1.7 million children, who make up 26% of the Texas population, are living in poverty. Another startling statistic is that the number of child abuse and neglect reports has increased 6% in the past three years. In one particularly poor county in Texas, the number of child abuse and neglect reports rose 36% in the last three years.
There is a strong correlation between the increase in poor families and the increase in child abuse and neglect reports, with no magic wand that legislators or judges can wave to make these families more affluent, or better able to care for their children. Judge Darlene Byrne, a Texas judge who hears child protective cases, said the following to a poverty-stricken young mother who was pregnant with her ninth child but hoping to reunite with her other eight children who were in various foster care homes:
“These children did not make this mess; the adults in this room made this mess. Love does not feed or shelter or clothe or take your kids to the doctor. Love’s a good thing, but it’s not enough to raise a kid.” As harsh as this statement may seem, poverty can, and does, prevent parents from adequately providing for their children’s health and well-being, especially when a ninth child is on the way when she has eight siblings whom her parents cannot care for. Often, this will lead to mandatory reporters, such as teachers and doctors, to call child protective services because a child is dirty or malnourished, among other things. Mandatory reporters are doing their jobs, and the standards don’t change just because of a bad economy.
So, while poverty is not directly causing an increase in parents abusing their children, it is causing an increase in the amount of child abuse reports given by mandatory reporters, because more and more children are living in poverty not getting the care they need. It doesn’t mean that poor parents intentionally abuse or neglect their children; it merely means that, sadly, poor parents are being charged with abuse or neglect because they can’t afford to adequately provide for their children. Higher poverty levels lead to more dirty and malnourished children, but is that enough to take those children away? What if the family’s poverty crisis stems from a parent being laid off and unable to find more work? What can lawyers do to help clients in these situations?