The news is full of stories about our overburdened foster-care system, the dire need for more adoptions and foster families, and the abuse and neglect that leads to more than 400,000 children living in U.S. foster care on any given day.
Sadly, all that is true. But there’s something crucial missing from the headlines. Something I saw day in and day out in my years as a child-welfare case manager, and later as the director of a foster-care agency: Too often children end up in state care not due to physical abuse or the irreparable breakdown of the family, but instead due to what might be temporary problems exacerbated by unemployment, poverty and the breakdown of relationships that nourish and support the family.
By finding parents meaningful work and mending those vital relationships—with family and friends, neighbors and employers, faith and community groups—we can protect more children from neglect and abuse while keeping more families together and easing the burden on our foster-care system. The numbers are staggering. More than a third (37%) of children in the U.S. undergo an investigation from child protective services for referrals for child abuse or neglect before their 18th birthday. More than 8 in 10 (85%) families investigated have an income below 200% of the federal poverty line.
While a growing percentage of that abuse and neglect is due to substance abuse and mental illness, the root cause in many cases is the stress on homelife that accompanies joblessness, poverty, and eventually hopelessness.
Poverty, I’ve learned, isn’t just a lack of money but a lack of relationships. When you’re in a crisis and you’re poor, you don’t have the luxury of calling a babysitter when you’re searching for work, driving to interviews, or called in at the last minute for temporary work. Moreover, poverty often leads to isolation from your peers, family members, and community, sparking a chain reaction that lands your children in foster care.
I know this because I experienced it growing up. When my father went to prison for stealing to support his opioid addiction, my siblings and I may have ended up in foster care if not for the determination of my mother and the help of our family, local community, and faith leaders. We needed a helping hand not a handout—and that’s exactly what they offered us with much-needed emotional and moral support, childcare, acceptance, understanding, and a job when my dad got out of prison.
When I worked as a child-welfare case manager, I saw it again and again: families without those key relationships usually lost their children; those with them didn’t. As director of a foster-care agency, I saw something similar. Foster families with those meaningful relationships provided safe and stable homes; while those without them struggled to create a nurturing, foster-care environment. At Better Together, the Florida-based nonprofit I’ve headed since 2015, we provide community-based support and job training to help prevent the poverty, neglect, and abuse that may result in a child being taken into state custody.
Over 60% of the families we serve are introduced to us by law enforcement and child investigators. Better Together focuses on dedicating more resources to families upstream—before children are removed from their birth families—as an effective and humane way to keep the foster-care system from overload.
Our “families-helping-families” approach helps couples succeed as spouses and parents, and single parents thrive. When a crisis occurs, the families we serve typically have no one to call for help. Our volunteers step in, caring for their children in their homes while helping parents find work, housing, counseling, or treatment for substance abuse.
This approach has proven successful in our home state of Florida. Since 2015, we’ve served 9,000 children and 42,000 job seekers through two programs: Better Families and Better Jobs. Nearly all (98%) of the families we serve have no further involvement with child services.
If you have children, reflect on your own parenting experience and the relationships you depend on. How many times have you reached out to others—friends, relatives, coworkers, your faith community—for help in a pinch or full-blown crisis?
We should all be blessed with such relationships, especially when it means keeping a family together in a safe and loving home.
Megan Rose is founder and CEO of Better Together, a Florida-based nonprofit that supports struggling parents by helping them work to build a better life, keep children out of foster care, and ultimately reunite families.