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Fall on Hard Times, Have Your Kids Taken Away? How America Treats Poor Parents Like Criminals

Instead of investigating and intimidating families without a permanent home, what if we gave them a place to go?
 
 
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The following article is part of an AlterNet series, Hard Times, USA, which shines a light on poverty in America. Click here for other stories in the series. 
 
Shakieta Smith needed a place to go. The homeless mother of two called a Washington, DC shelter hotline last year, but was told there were no available spaces. Then the intake worker told her that “if she and her kids had nowhere safe to sleep, she’d be reported to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency for a possible investigation into abuse and neglect,” the Washington Post reported.

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.

“These people are simply walking in the door for assistance and people don’t have shelter and they’re saying, ‘We’re calling [Child Protective Services] on you?' It’s ridiculous,” homeless advocate Ruth Anne White told the Post.

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.” 

 
The center also notes that “placement in foster care” is a “risk factor” that predicts family homelessness during adulthood.

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.”

 
This is despite the fact that DC law stipulates that “deprivation” due to lack of financial means is not considered neglect.

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?

 
As the story of Shakieta Smith shows, a core problem driving this process is that there are not enough shelters for all the homeless families. Cities should spend more money on building more shelters and expanding already existing shelters. And federal housing vouchers for homeless families could be expanded to get families into real, permanent housing. As the National Alliance to End Homelessness states, “Housing vouchers are successful in helping families exit homelessness and can protect poor families from becoming homeless.”

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.

 
“Shelters should include education and GED preparation, mentoring and skill building, and job internships and actual employment, both on-site and in the community,” he writes. And as an alternative to children spending time in the foster care system, Nunez advocates for “shelter crisis nurseries, which provide twenty-four hour, seven-day a week temporary placements for children at risk of abuse or neglect. Parents deal with emergencies and sort out stressful situations that put their child at risk, and a whole new way of handling crises is learned. Through after-care and support services, crisis nursery staff work with each family to ensure their long-term stability, keeping families together in a safe nurturing environment.” 
 
And Nunez also points out that these “shelter crisis nurseries” would benefit the public. “a foster care placement can cost up to $40,000 per child annually, while the annual cost of the shelters’ crisis service is approximately $750 per child.”
 
Going to Jail for an Education 
 
Having their kids taken away is not the only punitive measure homeless parents face as they struggle to find housing. One of the most difficult things about not having a permanent place to live is ensuring that their kids continue going to school. Some districts have chosen to make this even tougher. 
Homeless expert Diane Nilan has seen firsthand how homeless mothers are threatened with having their children taken away if they try to enroll their kids in the wrong school district. In one case in the Chicago suburbs, Nilan advocated for a homeless mother the local school district suspected of lying in regards to where she lived. The district hired a private investigator and brought in lawyers to prove their suspicion, but they ended up being wrong about the homeless mother. “In an affluent district, this was their first-ever homeless student. I think they were quite shocked that they had one and didn’t want to tarnish their record,” explained Nilan.

“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.

 
“Here’s a parent trying to find a place to live, has a lot of other things going on, and to have a school district breathe fire at them, it really can set off a negative attitude towards authority and school districts. It doesn’t do anyone any good...The residency cops that are out there can really scare a parent.”

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.”
 

At the root of the problem is America's vastly inequitable education system. School districts in poor areas are routinely shortchanged--and that’s even according to the U.S. Department of Education.
 
“Schools serving low-income students are being shortchanged because school districts across the country are inequitably distributing their state and local funds,” reads a press release put out by the department highlighting a report on the topic. A more equitable education system would go a long way toward relieving the pressure on all low-income families who know they’re sending their children to schools that don’t have the proper resources. And it would be especially helpful to homeless families who reject that because they’re homeless, their kids' education should be circumscribed.
 

Alex Kane is AlterNet's New York-based World editor, and an assistant editor for Mondoweiss. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

 
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