Fall on Hard Times, Have Your Kids Taken Away? How America Treats Poor Parents Like Criminals
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Smith is not the only mother to fear having her children taken away and put into foster care due to homelessness. According to the Post, 32 other families in DC have been threatened in a similar way. And about 25 states in the country “list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect,” though some of those laws have been challenged in court. It’s yet another heartwrenching reminder of the myriad legal troubles that accompany being poor and homeless.
According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, “homeless children are at particularly high risk for being placed in foster care. 12% of homeless children are placed in foster care compared to just over 1% of other children.”
Poverty expert Kathryn Baer relayed a story she was told by a father at Washington, DC’s main intake center for homeless families. The father told her he was afraid of having his children taken away. “I think of him now because the Family Resources Center has started reporting all homeless families with no place to stay to the Child and Family Services Agency, the District’s child welfare program,” wrote Baer in May 2012. “This means that the parents can be charged with child neglect — and their children put into foster care — just because the District won’t provide them with shelter or other housing.”
Homeless advocate Diane Nilan, the founder and president of HEAR US, an advocacy organization for homeless youth, has also seen this happen firsthand. “The foster care cloud hangs over every single homeless family that is out there. They, on their own, figure out that homelessness can likely get the kids taken away. So that fear, it’s a big dark cloud,” Nilan told AlterNet.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if, instead of investigating and intimidating homeless families, we ensured they have a place to go when they fall on hard times?
Advocates have also called for a more holistic approach to solving the problem of homelessness, so that a shelter is not a way station on the way to more poverty and future homelessness once they’re out of the shelter system. Ralph da Costa Nunez, the president of Homes for the Homeless, offers some important solutions in his book A Shelter Is Not a Home...Or Is It? Lessons From Family Homelessness in New York City.
“The school district brought in big lawyers and investigators,” Nilan told AlterNet, spending a lot of money that was eventually all for nothing since the mother was innocent.
Beyond this specific case, there are other barriers to education for homeless youth. “Homelessness has a devastating impact on homeless children and youth’s educational opportunities. Residency requirements, guardianship requirements, delays in transfer of school records, lack of transportation, and lack of immunization records often prevent homeless children from enrolling in school,” according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Yet another case is that of 33-year-old Tonya McDowell, who wanted her son to go to a decent elementary school. But that desire also landed McDowell in a heap of legal trouble. Her case became a symbol of how the poor and homeless can be arrested just for trying to get their children a decent education. It also speaks to the wide gaps in educational quality between high-income and low-income areas; some poor people decide that lying to get their kid into a good school is worth the risk.
In April 2011, McDowell made nationwide headlines when she was arrested for trying to send her son to school in Norwalk, Connecticut. The problem was that McDowell did not live within the Norwalk school district area. She was homeless, and her last known address was in Bridgeport, CT. In the course of trying to get her son a decent education, she ran afoul of a system that makes no room for the homeless.
McDowell was charged with “stealing more than $15,000 for the cost of her child's education,” according to the Stamford Advocate. Her predicament sparked the ire of civil rights and anti-poverty advocates. “The NAACP doesn't like that they're trying to attack somebody who's poor and doesn't have a good support system,” said Scot Esdaile, a spokesperson with the civil rights group. In February 2012, McDowell was found guilty on charges of fraudulently enrolling her son in the wrong school district and was also found guilty of selling narcotics, which stemmed from a separate arrest. The next month, McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison. It’s also important to note that “McDowell's babysitter, Ana Rebecca Marques, was also evicted from her Roodner Court public housing apartment for providing documents to enroll the child at Brookside Elementary School,” according to the Stamford Advocate.
While cases like McDowell’s are relatively rare, they are striking examples of how low-income people are criminalized. Low-income people want the same things that every other American wants, including a decent education for their children. But sometimes, they’re treated as criminals for doing so.
The case of Kelley Williams-Bolar is another example. In January 2011, Williams-Bolar was “convicted of tampering with records to enroll her children in a better school district,” according to CNN.
“Kelley Williams-Bolar, 40, of Akron, illegally registered her two daughters at her father's address in suburban Copley Township to get them into the Copley-Fairlawn school district rather than the urban Akron district, a jury decided,” the news outlet reported. As a result of her conviction, “she had to perform 80 hours of community service and pay $800 in restitution, as well as the cost of Summit County’s prosecution against her,” according to ColorLines.
And just like there are solutions to the problem of putting homeless kids in foster care, there are solutions to prevent homeless families from getting into legal trouble because they want their children enrolled in a good school district. An immediate solution is to change the laws that fuel the harassment homeless families can experience if they try to skirt around residency requirements. Being homeless should not deny children a decent education; strict residency requirements can be made more flexible to accommodate homeless families. States should discourage their local school districts from turning to the criminal justice system to deal with a residency dispute.
Another short-term solution is to enforce the laws on the books already. “The basic solution lies in the families, the students, the youth, having information about what their legal rights are,” noted HEAR US’ Nilan. For example, under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act, school districts must enroll homeless children and must also develop policies to remove barriers to enrollment by homeless children.
Under current law, “there’s a system set up so that if the school district is trying to challenge [a homeless children’s enrollment], each state has a dispute resolution process that has been approved by the feds and is supposed to quickly solve whatever questions there are,” said Nilan. “The problem is people need to know about this.”