Home – Housing’s Critical Role in Child Welfare

Home – Housing’s Critical Role in Child Welfare


For families living in poverty, securing safe,
affordable housing is likely to be one of the biggest problems in their lives. Evictions
in New Jersey, overwhelmingly due to non-payment of rent, have been on the rise since 2006,
with over 130,000 eviction cases opened in the first three quarters of 2015. In areas
of concentrated poverty, such as Essex and Camden counties, there are just 25 to 40 affordable
and available housing units for every 100 extremely low-income families that need a
place to stay. The stress of experiencing a housing crisis also puts families at greater
risk for involvement with the Division of Child Protection and Permanency, which was
formerly called DYFS. It’s not just, you know, one family’s
situation. It’s really seeing, kind of over and over again—not just in one community
or one county, but seeing that this situation and this story is replicated from county to
county. Because these are often very poor families,
the way that they have to resolve the housing crisis includes a lot more contact with government
agencies. So, they have to go to welfare and they have to go to the housing authority and
they have to go to housing court. I called in DYFS because I was in the street
with my kids. A string of misfortunes led Jacqueline and
her family to become homeless in 2011. A lapse in SSI benefits caused her to fall behind
on her rent and her landlord filed for eviction. By the court date, Jacqueline had resolved
her SSI issue but it was too late and she lost the hearing. Homeless, she went DYFS
for help keeping her family together, but DYFS was unable to help because there was
no space in the crowded family shelters. She rented the cheapest hotel room she could find,
but her children broke out in painful rashes from a bug infestation. Friends and family
helped briefly, but it got crowded and tense, and she was asked to leave. She again turned
to the State for help. They told me that they couldn’t put me in
a family shelter because it was packed—that they was going to put me back in the hotel
where I was staying at. And, I told them I don’t want to go back to that hotel because
that hotel had a lot of bugs and everything. So they was like Ok then, and so, we going
to remove them and we going to place them until you get yourself on your feet and get
yourself together. When parents have their kids at home and they
are under a lot of economic stress and they lose their housing, or something changes about
their housing and they can’t stay there, that’s an enormous stress on the family.
If you’re presenting, like, at your worst because you’re really, really stressed out,
and you and your partner are blaming each other, or you’re all alone and you really
need your kids to kind of, act right and your kids are really stressed out, then you’re
gonna be more likely to seem like a person who’s generally unstable. And there’s
also a lot of bias against people who are living so precariously that they would lose
their housing. And so, there can be a way of looking at that family, like, you know,
that they don’t have what it takes to be parents. But if you’re only looking at the
small picture and you’re forgetting that there’s a big picture of drastic housing
shortage and instability right now, then you’re not being fair to that family. Like, I was hoping for them to help me and
put me in a family shelter—not to remove my kids. Because I think they did the wrong
thing to remove my kids. If I reached out for help, it’s for them to help me, not
remove my kids. Affordable housing, you know, across the state,
is a real issue in terms of what the supply is. And so, for our families, who tend to
reside in areas where poverty is a challenge, we see that our families will struggle with
housing instability. And so, for us, as an organization, you know, we recognize that
housing is not, and should not ever be, an indicator of a parent’s ability to be a
good parent. And so, for us, we work very hard to help supplement the parents’ income.
We work very hard to identify where we can pay for rent for a period of time and assist
the family in identifying longer-term resources to assist with housing stability. But, it
is a challenge. Parents are expected to actively resolve parenting
deficiencies by going through evaluations, treatments, therapies, educational programs,
but housing instability requires a different approach. Because of the shortage of affordable
housing in NJ, it’s unrealistic to expect families who struggle with housing issues
to resolve them without the direct provision of support. That might be back rent, or a
security deposit, or a crib. It might be helping a family to secure ongoing rental assistance
or providing transportation to move in with relatives in another state.
A direct outlay of financial resources to resolve housing problems can save the state
money by avoiding the much larger costs associated with placing children in foster care. Every time I used to go see them on Monday,
they used to sit there and cry. It was hard for them to get them back into the van to
take them back where they were staying at and everything. I used to cry—not sleep,
not eat because my kids wasn’t there for me. You know it is hard for a mother not having
her kids. If economic instability is a big factor in
why a family is facing removal, it makes sense to really deal with the economic instability,
by supporting that family temporarily and helping them get on track, to be able to eventually
pay for their needs, rather than to place a child in foster care. It’s expensive to
place kids in foster care. It’s traumatic to children to go into foster care. You create
new problems in the family by putting a kid into foster care. If there’s something you
can do to keep the child at home—especially if it’s something as simple as providing
money — then that would be the way to spend money. To help provide housing, New Jersey commenced
an experimental limited pilot program in a few counties, established in Essex and now
being extended to Monmouth and Passaic Counties. What we have developed within the department
is a program called Keeping Families Together. New York City has a similar program. And this
particular program supports these families in that there is a case management component
to it. So that they have an individual who is working with the family, who is figuring
out, kind of, what their goals are in terms of what they want to address—what they need
to address—and, kind of, what the time frame is to get that accomplished. And what we want
to do is take the strain of having to worry about where they’re going to live. Even when a child’s removal is unrelated
to housing, reunification of families is often delayed by housing issues. Removal of children
from the home often leads to loss of public benefits and child support. When a family
loses its home due to the reduced income, the shortage of affordable housing makes finding
any home difficult and makes finding a home large enough for the children to return exceptionally
challenging. Housing problems should be anticipated and addressed as soon as possible. A lot of the parents that I’ve worked with,
especially in the last few years, have had a long lag at the end of their case where
they’ve completed everything, the agency is, more or less, ready for the child to go
home, and the only thing left in the case is housing. And I see a couple of things.
First, the agencies don’t start the process of finding housing that’s good enough for
the whole family by, before they get to that point. So, there’s—maybe there’s the
sense that—we don’t know what’s going to happen with this family and we’ll get
all the way to the point that they’re ready to reunify and then we’ll take it seriously
that they’re going to reunify and help them look for housing. But, housing itself takes
a really long time. And so, if you’re really planning on reunification, you should be planning
on a parallel path for there to be housing ready by the time you get to the point where
you’d have maybe overnight visits. And that means really starting the housing process
much earlier. They were out of my custody for about a year
and a half. DCP&P became involved in Latifa’s family
as a result of her addiction. She had been living with family prior to her children being
removed, but was required to find her own place to live when the time came for them
to be returned. I completed the program but it still wasn’t
enough for me to get my kids back. I had to have my own residence and that’s something
I didn’t have, so that did delay the case. Like, I had the apartment, but I wasn’t
actually, like, in it yet. I had the keys, the lease, and stuff like that, but she said,
We will not do the unsupervised visits until you’re actually in the apartment.
Plus, they had to have something to sleep on, so If I was to go get the apartment, had
the place for the kids but they didn’t have nothing to sleep on, still, they couldn’t
come until I had something for them to sleep on. DCP&P eventually assisted Latifa with obtaining
some furniture for her apartment, but the problem delayed reunification by several months. I think it makes sense that, you know, the
government would want to be part of ensuring that kids are really living in spaces that
are, you know, comfortable and adequate. But, it’s more important, I think, for parents
and kids to be together—for kids to have more time with their parents and to live with
the people that love them and are going to be committed to them for the rest of their
lives than to have them be in just the right space. And sometimes the requirements are
far above how poor people really live in our country and sort of deny that reality. And
they also reflect like a really—you know, a really first world way of thinking, like
kids can’t share a bedroom with their mom— even for an overnight, you know—or that,
you know, two adults and two children can’t fit into a one-bedroom apartment for a single
night. They told me I needed a 3-bedroom apartment.
And it was hard because the only thing I was receiving was $700 dollars when the kids was
removed. So I couldn’t look for a bigger apartment. An average cost for an apartment
is about a thousand and one hundred a thousand and two hundred for three bedrooms. Assistance from the State must be tailored
with an understanding of the complex challenges faced by low-income families, including recognizing
and working with the resources available through extended family. Shared quarters with extended
family may seem uncomfortable, but for children it’s often a better option than shared space
in a shelter or removal to live with strangers. I understand. Like, I don’t blame nobody
for what I done. What I done is what I done. I own up to it. I made the mistake about it
and I’m learning from it, you know what I’m saying? So I’m gonna do what’s necessary—what
I have to do to get my kids back. But, what my deal is, and I don’t understand, why—if
I had a family member with enough space or an uncle with enough space—family member,
period, with enough space—that agreed that Ok, if your kids could come back home with
you, I would allow you to stay, which, I had not one family member, not two family member—but
three and four and five family members that cared enough to say, Ok well, yeah, your kids
could come stay here with me if that’s gonna get your kids back. But, they wasn’t having
that. Having experienced family homelessness as
a child, I know that children with housing instability live in constant fear that someone,
especially a service provider, may report the family to a child protection agency—that
the trauma of losing a home may snowball into the loss of parents and even siblings if they’re
placed in foster care. Homelessness is not itself child abuse. Children and families
who struggle with housing instability must be provided assistance to secure or maintain
housing. Jacquelyn and Latifa resolved their housing issues with the support of rental
assistance programs, other government benefits, and caseworkers providing resources, like
furniture. As soon as they came back in through that
door they started hugging me, they started giving me kisses. Oh mommy—I’m glad, I’m
glad, you—I came home! I came home! I came home! In the beginning, like, they was upset,
they was hurt because they thought that I give them up, until I sit down with them and
I explain the situation to them how, what was going on and everything. Mommy didn’t
do that. Mommy loves you. And you know, little by little, they understand. With the help
of therapy, the psychiatrists, and everything. It’s like giving birth again, you know?
It’s like really giving birth again because it’s like—when you first give birth and
you see what you created, you know? And for them to be absent of your life? And to get
them back—that’s like—it’s like a whole new, a whole new world. It’s a whole
new world.

Daniel Yohans

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