Public Policy, Social Work Researchers: Antipoverty Programs Can Help Reduce Child Neglect

Breaking down policy 'silos' would provide significant benefit to children and families.

A small child pushes a shopping cart full of groceries at a food pantry.

Coordinated effort among antipoverty programs can positively affect child neglect, according to UConn researchers (Getty Images).

Antipoverty programs in the U.S. have a critical role to play in reducing childhood neglect, according to a new paper published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science by UConn public policy and social work researchers, who propose a coordinated, synergistic response among anti-poverty programs to help families achieve safe and consistent care for children.

“Because U.S. antipoverty programs operate independently of one another, our siloed policy structure misses opportunities for the alleviation of child maltreatment and, worse, creates negative and unintended consequences in child welfare,” the researchers say. “We present a model for change: systems synergy for the promotion of safe and consistent care that makes [the] reduction of child maltreatment the responsibility of every social service program in the United States.”

The paper, “The Social Welfare Policy Landscape and Child Protective Services Opportunities for and Barriers to Creating Systems Synergy,” is co-authored by Kerri Raissian, an associate professor of public policy in UConn’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences; Megan Feely, an assistant professor in UConn’s School of Social Work; William Schneider, an associate professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne; and Lindsey Rose Bullinger, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgia. All are Doris Duke Fellows for the Promotion of Child Well-Being.

Raissian says previous research shows dramatic declines in child physical and sexual abuse rates over the past three decades. However, child neglect rates remain high and continue to account for 70-75% of child maltreatment reports each year. She notes the paper specifies that while child abuse and neglect may overlap, they are distinct from each other. Child neglect is the result of a failure to act, e.g. proper supervision did not occur or food was not provided, while child abuse is the perpetration of an overt act of harm to a youngster. Safe and consistent care is the antidote to neglect, but many families need more resources in order to be able to provide for and protect their children.

“Much of child neglect is linked to poverty, a complex issue that in a family can include substance abuse, unemployment, and factors such as criminal history and poor education,” Raissian says. “What neglect requires is an antipoverty response. That’s outside the purview of our current Child Protective Services system. It [CPS] is a response agency, not a preventive agency.”

Systems synergy would place safe and consistent care of children as the focus of all federal antipoverty programs. These programs are designed to address financial hardship, and are well positioned to help families provide safe and consistent care:

• Cash Assistance (child tax credit, unemployment insurance)
• Food support (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, National School Lunch, Women Infants Children)
• Housing (Low Income Housing Tax Credit, Energy Assistance)
• Education (Head Start)
• Medical assistance (Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance)
• Family Support (Child Support Enforcement, Family Leave)

The paper begins with a story relayed by a former Child Protective Services caseworker at conference in 2019 who described a case from early in his career. He removed children from a dirty, unsafe home after following agency guidelines for assessing the situation. The condition of the home was largely due to landlord neglect, which he could not remedy. The father of the children could not keep a job due to his substance abuse. The caseworker was able to initiate treatment for the father’s substance abuse, but had no ability to assist with employment options. He did not ask the mother of the children to assist him in explaining why the children were being separated from their parents, which was not considered a “best practice” under agency procedures. He said he had followed procedures but has “always felt like the system let ‘Brittany’ and her family down.”

Raissian says coordinating a synergistic approach to improve the safety and welfare of children does not always require legislation, including sharing information. COVID-19 has highlighted gaps is social service response and the need for synergy between agencies, but the researchers identify how parts of the COVID-19 response, for example coordinated distribution of laptop computers and food delivery to low-income children when schools were shutdown, demonstrated how systems synergy can be implemented in our current environment – without additional legislation.

“We figured out how to get kids meals, get them laptops and how to expand daycare,” she says. “We came up with some solutions. There are many things the federal government can do absent legislation just to make the system work better and create systems of data-sharing because so many fields are naturally linked.” Systems synergy simply harnesses these natural linkages, and the researchers argue this philosophy shift would better serve children.