Protecting Children in  Homeless Families: Mission Impossible?

(Originally published November 2016)

Consider the following scenario which could occur in any city in Washington State: a pediatrician driving to work observed a toddler wearing nothing but a diaper and a t-shirt playing in a pile of garbage beneath a freeway underpass. There was a large cardboard box nearby which appeared to be a makeshift shelter, but no parent in sight. The temperature at the time was about 40 degrees. The cardboard box and the child were possibly 30-40 feet from the street which leads to a freeway entrance.


The pediatrician makes a CPS report but says, “I'm not sure whether what I observed constitutes neglect, but someone needs to reach out to this child and her caregiver.” After disagreement among intake staff regarding whether to screen in this report, the intake supervisor decides that an emergency response is warranted. A CPS caseworker is dispatched to find the child and her caregiver(s). In some child welfare offices, CPS reports of homeless children and families which lack clear cut allegations of neglect or abuse may be screened out and/or, depending on available information, referred to the police or to a homelessness program.  A report of child homelessness, absent information regarding parental neglect or abuse, is not grounds for a CPS investigation in Washington State. However, many CPS reports with limited information are ambiguous regarding implied neglect, and may engender a wide range of CPS responses at intake and during the investigative process.


Depending on a caseworker's competence, the training she or he has received, the supervisor's views regarding an appropriate response, workload demands and a caseworker's beliefs and attitudes regarding the responsibility to assist severely poor families, an investigative caseworker responding to the above scenario as a potential emergency might do any of the following:


  • Determine that the child has a parent willing and able to supervise the child, with at least a couple of days of food and water and adequate clothing for the child and is able to recognize and remove potential safety hazards. The caseworker would hopefully assess safety threats in the immediate vicinity. The caseworker might also refer the parent to a food bank and/or emergency shelter (if available), or to the local DSHS Economic Services Assistance (ESA) office. The caseworker might also provide the parent with supplies of disposable diapers, toilet paper, bottled water, etc.  If the caseworker decides that the child is not in immediate danger, the case might then be closed without further investigation.

  • The caseworker might expand the investigation to assess the parent's mental health status in a more comprehensive way, either by contacting agencies that have had recent contact with the parent or by referral to a mental health agency. The caseworker might look for extended family members willing to provide the child and parent with temporary housing or other supports. The caseworker might ask the parent to complete a substance abuse assessment, and have the child examined by a physician and/or screened for developmental status by a public health nurse. The caseworker might explore the parent's child care routines, observe parent-child interactions on a few occasions and follow up on housing options and/eligibility for welfare benefits. The parent might be offered regular child care services and/or parenting classes, or be connected with a parent advocate. If there is interpersonal violence in the family, a DV advocate might be asked to reach out to the parent who has been victimized.     


In summary, a CPS investigation might be narrowly focused on immediate danger to a child resulting from parental neglect or abuse, or broadly consider a wide range of risk factors and family needs during or following the investigation. However, in a large percentage of cases the family and child will continue to be homeless following completion of a CPS investigation unless the child has been placed in foster care, even if in some instances a homeless parent and child are placed temporarily (with the parent's consent) in an emergency shelter. Economic interventions and poverty related services in child protection tend to be thin on the ground (at best), superficial and time limited. In most communities, there is a severe shortage of transitional housing or permanent housing for homeless families with children. If due to  a parent's mental illness, substance abuse problem or domestic violence committed by an intimate partner, or the parent's inability to comply with TANF rules, there are difficult challenges to overcome to find a homeless family permanent housing and a dependable source of income, a CPS intervention lasting a few weeks or months will often be unable to overcome these obstacles.


Homeless families or destitute families on the verge of homelessness can be investigated by CPS multiple times without much, if anything, changing to improve their economic condition or housing status. Some percentage of caseworkers may perceive a CPS investigation of a destitute or homeless family as an opportunity to provide much needed assistance, but, in many states, it is more likely that severely poor families chronically referred to CPS will receive short term help at best, and often no help at all with their concrete needs (see Jonson-Reid, 2012). On the other hand, if a homeless parent has mental health or substance abuse problems that impair their parenting and endanger children in their care, the parent is likely to be pressured into or legally mandated to participate in a treatment program or programs in order to either retain or regain custody of her children.


Destitution and Child Welfare


The National Center for Family Homelessness estimates that there are 24,000 homeless children in Washington State. However, the state's yearly 'point in time' count of unsheltered children and adults usually arrives at an estimate of approximately 4,000  homeless children. Clearly, very different methodologies and assumptions are being used by advocacy groups and state government to estimate the size of the state's homeless population.


The statistic that best describes the rate of severe poverty among families served by Washington's child welfare system comes from a  survey (conducted by POC in 2009) of more than 700 hundred parents with open child welfare cases.  Almost half (48%) of families who responded to this survey had incomes of less than $10,000 per year, less than half the federal poverty standard for a family of 3 or 4 persons.  Almost 60% of parents with children in foster care had an annual income of less than $10,000 per year. Further, about one-fifth of parents with open cases had no income from either employment or welfare, and were not living with a person whose income exceeded $20,000 per year.


The POC study found that the rate of severe poverty for families with open child welfare cases is extremely high, even by child welfare standards.  African American, Native American and non-White Hispanic families have disproportion-ally high rates of severe poverty; ditto for single parents and parents who lack a high school degree.  It is a combination of severe poverty, economic hopelessness (resulting from low levels of educational achievement and other factors such as a history on incarceration), co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders, and (often) interpersonal violence which characterizes the challenges to child welfare families.  Severe poverty combined with various psychological afflictions exacerbates both economic deprivation and mental/emotional suffering.


Caseworkers and other professionals often feel overmatched by chronically referring families with combinations of economic and psychological adversities even when they have housing and a minimal income from welfare or work. Homelessness adds to the sense of hopelessness for family members, and can demoralize professionals who often lack the economic and housing services needed to reduce exposure to multiple dangers, including food insecurity, sexual exploitation and violence at the hands of acquaintances and thugs of various descriptions. How effective can child protection be in these circumstances?              


Placing Blame Where it Belongs              


It is not the fault of public child welfare agencies that housing services and economic support programs for destitute families are grossly inadequate, or that

policymakers are willing to fund any number of CPS investigations of homeless families and other destitute families, pay for months or years of foster care and/ or adoption support, fund a wide variety of costly treatment programs but will not do what's necessary to eliminate child homelessness.  In Washington State, the Department of Commerce is responsible for overseeing programs for the homeless, and DSHS administers economic assistance programs. If more and better housing services were available for homeless families, the great majority of CA caseworkers would surely help destitute families connect with these programs, especially if the alternative was foster care placement.  Social policy determines the limits and possibilities of child protection; legislators, along with federal, state and local governments determine social policy.


Washington State has made praiseworthy investments in housing programs for the homeless in recent years. The state's Department of Commerce estimates that more than $200 million dollars of public funds was spent to reduce homelessness in Washington in 2014.  Foundations and philanthropists also  have provided considerable funding for homelessness programs in the state. The Department of Commerce describes the level of state and local funding as “a moderate investment” which has helped to achieve a 29% decline in homelessness and a 74% decline in family homelessness since 2006.  This is an impressive achievement given the pressures on the state budget  during the Great Recession and (more recently) due to the State Supreme Court's dictate to increase spending on K-12 education. Nevertheless, public expenditures of more than $200 million dollars annually to reduce homelessness over a decade by almost a third suggests the magnitude of the state's homelessness crisis.


I have occasionally heard state legislators assert that “we can't build our way out of homelessness,” an opinion that probably refers to increased use of housing vouchers as well as construction of additional public housing. This perspective sounds defeatist, but it reflects the reality that when thousands of families and single adults lack a source of cash income, and are surviving on food stamps, selling blood, panhandling, prostitution or private charity, large homeless populations will continue to live on the streets of cities or in urban encampments. I rarely hear or read any discussion of the contribution of welfare reform that occurred in the 1990s to the size of state's or nation's homelessness population. Less than half of families with open child welfare cases in Washington State receive TANF, in part because parents who need to be on welfare due to mental health conditions and/or substance abuse have difficulty meeting stringent program requirements. TANF requirements “weed out” a large percentage of severely poor parents.  Furthermore, the large increase in rents in Seattle and other cities on the I-5 corridor has created risk of homelessness for low income workers and their families.  Even with part or full time work, parents with incomes of less than $1000-$1500 per month may not be able to find stable affordable housing. It is understandable that policymakers may feel that their hands are tied in coping with powerful economic forces, long term revenue shortfalls, demands from all sides to improve public services and public pressure to “do something” about large groups of the homeless who interfere with local businesses and create a sense of insecurity among citizens in some neighborhoods.    


As serious and challenging as the combination of destitute families, low wage employment in expensive housing markets, and mental health and substance abuse problems in a large percentage of homeless persons, it has become apparent that policymakers and philanthropists have the tools and strategies to greatly reduce or eliminate homelessness, especially for families with children. What is lacking in Washington State and nation-wide is the public will to do whatever is necessary, even if governments have to create another dedicated funding stream for homeless housing programs, and revise TANF rules to serve parents with the most challenging mental health and interpersonal problems. If a majority of voters persistently demand an end to homelessness and demonstrate a willingness to pay increased taxes for this purpose, legislators and governments will find a way.


Absent the public will to greatly reduce or eliminate destitution and child homelessness, child welfare systems will continue to be faced with protecting children in homeless families and other destitute families without the economic interventions needed to change these conditions.  A child welfare system faced with this challenge can do several things to improve its services:


  • In large offices, add a specialist position whose role is to assist parents with open child welfare cases to overcome obstacles to eligibility for welfare benefits and to access housing programs operated by private agencies.

  • Develop collaborative relationships with ESA, Vocational Rehabilitation and homelessness programs.

  • Add a cadre of mental health liaisons whose role is to assure access of children and parents with open cases to public mental health services.


None of these steps would be cost free, but neither would they have a prohibitive cost. In the meantime, advocates and policymakers should moderate their criticism of the state's child welfare system which is being used as a scapegoat for multiple public policy failures. 



Homelessness in Washington State: 2015 Annual Report on the Homeless Grant Programs, Washington State Department of Commerce, January, 2016.


Homelessness in Washington State: Annual Report on the Homeless Grant Programs, Washington State Department of Commerce, December, 2013. 


Jonson-Reid, M., Emery, C., Drake, B., & Stahlschmidt, M., “Understanding Chronically Reported Families,” Child Maltreatment, 15(4), 2010.


Marcenko, M., Lyons, S. & Courtney, M., “Mother's experiences, resources and needs: The context for reunification,” Children and Youth Services Review, 33(3), March, 2011.


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