Skip to main content.

'Punishing poverty': Is Indiana's child welfare system stacked against the poor?

Fellowship Story Showcase

'Punishing poverty': Is Indiana's child welfare system stacked against the poor?

Picture of Giles Bruce
Tears flow as Adria Trader talks about how she lost her kids to the child welfare system.
Tears flow as Adria Trader talks about how she lost her kids to the child welfare system.
John J. Watkins, The Times
The Times of Northwest Indiana
Sunday, April 28, 2019

Jules grew up in a home that often didn't have electricity, water or heat.

During her teen years, her family couldn't afford tampons, so she recalls using toilet paper she took from school.

She said her mom would eat any meat or dairy products in their house in Chesterton, saying she needed them for her ulcers. The kids would get pinto beans and rice for dinner.

Jules remembered having holes in her shoes, which made winters particularly rough.

"My feet hurt so bad. I was crying so hard and I couldn't walk," she recalled. "The bus driver would crank up the heater for me on the way to school."

As the oldest in the home, Jules would take care of her younger brothers and sister, as well as her mom's boyfriend's kids, because the adults were barely around. She said the children had so many chores to do they couldn't do their homework.

Now 49, Jules suffers from depression and anxiety as a result of the childhood neglect and accompanying abuse, she said. Many of her siblings have dealt with addiction.

Still, Jules is glad she never ended up in foster care.

"If you knew anything in this world, you knew you had your brothers and sisters, and you're dealing with that hell together," said the Valparaiso secretary, who asked to only go by her nickname because she said there's a stigma associated with being a victim of child abuse and neglect.

"I'd like to think we would have been better off ... but we would have been split up. In my heart, I couldn't see that happening."

As a child, welfare officials gave Jules' house a cursory look a few times, she said, and her mom would clean up before they got there.

But Jules believes that if this happened today, instead of the 1980s, there's a good chance she and her siblings would have been removed from the home, as the state's child protective services agency has moved to the opposite extreme.

In 2017, Indiana had the third-highest rate of investigations for child abuse and neglect in the country, with at least one investigation for every 10 kids, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' 2019 Child Maltreatment report. The state also had the second-highest rate of victims of abuse and neglect, 18.6 out of every 1,000 kids, behind only Kentucky.

But do Indiana parents now really mistreat their kids more than their counterparts just about everywhere else?

Many experts say no.

"I don't think Indiana is any different than any other state in terms of how much parents abuse or neglect their children," said Michael Moore, assistant executive director for the Indiana Public Defender Council.

"Indiana usually is more punitive than other states when it comes to just about everything."

In Indiana, courts are involved in 75.4% of child abuse and neglect cases, which is more than twice the U.S. average of 29% and the most of the 41 states that reported that data for 2017. The state also removes kids at twice the national rate, with 12 children per 1,000 in foster care in 2016, the fourth most of states, according to data reported to the federal government.

"West Virginia, Montana, Indiana, Arizona — there are too many places in this country where the rate of removal vastly exceeds the national average, and one thing these states don't have is a disproportionate number of citizens who abuse their children," said Martin Guggenheim, a professor of family law at New York University.

"What they have is a trigger-happy child welfare system."

Despite this aggressive approach, the number of deaths from abuse and neglect in Indiana grew from 34 in 2008 to 78 in 2017, when the state had the third-highest reported rate of child fatalities, the federal data shows.

Is poverty neglect?

The vast majority of child welfare cases in Indiana — nearly 90%, according to the HHS data — are for neglect.

While instances of physical and sexual abuse have declined steadily in Indiana over the years, instances of neglect have exploded, a Times analysis of state child welfare data shows.

However, the rate at which the Indiana Department of Child Services substantiated neglect actually decreased from 2008 to 2017, The Times review found. But the number of neglect investigations more than doubled in that time span.

But why?

The only risk factor for child abuse and neglect where Indiana was higher than the national rate in 2017 was the caregiver having a "financial problem," according to HHS. Indiana was below the U.S. average for domestic violence, drug abuse and alcohol abuse as risk factors.

Indiana is one of the few states that has had poverty in its definition of child neglect: "the inability ... to supply the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education or supervision.”

"That's an outlier, that being poor in and of itself is considered neglect," said Kerri Raissian, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut.

"Parents in poor communities can't even get high the way their wealthy counterparts do without being charged with child neglect." — Martin Guggenheim, a family law professor at New York University.

She recently co-authored a paper on the link between neglect and poverty. It cited research showing that increases in families' income — whether through hikes in the minimum wage or higher child support payments — reduced child abuse and neglect.

"We're now seeing evidence that poverty is not only correlated with neglect or child maltreatment, but poverty may be causally related to child maltreatment and neglect," Raissian said.

Guggenheim, the NYU professor, said there's no evidence that poor people are worse parents. Instead, he said it comes down to Americans' tendency to "pathologize poverty."

"I am a white guy who came of age in the 1960s," said Guggenheim, who co-directs NYU's Family Defense Clinic. "I've been around people who used drugs of all kinds throughout their adult life, who drink to excess, who waste a considerable sum of their income on prescription, recreational drugs and/or alcohol. And I've never seen one investigated by child welfare for it, and certainly none who lost their children because of it.

"I see that every single day in poor communities. Parents in poor communities can't even get high the way their wealthy counterparts do without being charged with child neglect."

African-American children are over-represented in Indiana's child welfare system, the HHS data shows.

"The whole system is kind of like a setup. If you don't have money and can't hire a lawyer to fight back, then you lose." — Rachel Fowler, a 29-year-old Hammond woman who had the parental rights terminated for her daughters, who are now 6 and 8.

"I think they're punishing poverty," a former DCS subcontractor said of the state. The subcontractor, who provided in-home counseling services for families with DCS cases in Lake County, would only speak to The Times on condition of anonymity, fearing it could jeopardize future employment opportunities.

She said it goes beyond whether DCS investigates a family for being poor. A family's outcome with the system largely depends on whether they can afford a private attorney, she said.

"Once they get their hooks in you, that's when it really matters if you have the financial resources to defend yourself or not," the subcontractor said.

She gave as an example a family — "wealthier than most in this area" — accused of a physical abuse that had a child removed. She said the child begged not to be returned to the mother and father. But the parents hired "two very well-known attorneys" and regained custody of the child.

The child was later removed again from the home for physical and sexual abuse, the subcontractor said.

She said she knew other parents — usually single moms, some who were on drugs but who worked hard to get clean — who had to wait months, and in some cases years, to get their children back because they didn't have the financial means to contest the cases in court.

Rachel Fowler, of Hammond, had her kids taken away by the state for supposed child neglect. (Tony V. Martin, The Times)

"The whole system is kind of like a setup. If you don't have money and can't hire a lawyer to fight back, then you lose," said Rachel Fowler, a 29-year-old Hammond woman who had parental rights terminated for her two daughters, who are now 6 and 8.

DCS removed Fowler's children because her home was in disrepair, and her partner was violent toward her, court records show.

Fowler said she left the abusive relationship, found an apartment and a full-time job. She was appointed a public defender -- but not until DCS moved to terminate her parental rights.

The judge ultimately agreed with DCS, ruling that she hadn't provided them with a safe-enough living environment. She finally hired a private attorney for the appeals process. That effort failed.

She hasn't seen her kids since November 2017.

"It's hard," she said. "I dream about them and wake up and freak out."

A DCS spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on individual cases.

Bills could change things

Legislation on the way to the governor's desk would exclude poverty from Indiana's definition of neglect, but some are arguing the revision won't make a difference.

"In the time I've been on the bench, in 14 years, I've only encountered one case that came to the court where poverty was the sole issue, one time where I recall that ever happening," Judge Faith Graham, a juvenile court judge in Tippecanoe County, testified at a recent House committee meeting. She said poverty is "more often the symptom of the family dynamics rather than the source of the neglect or abuse."

Graham said she believes the change would lead to more litigation and "further congest already congested court dockets."

The judge didn't respond to requests from The Times for further comment beyond her House committee testimony.

 

But even if the law changes, that doesn't help Hoosier parents already caught up in the child welfare system because of the previous definition of neglect.

"Once DCS is involved, it's really hard to get them untangled," said Moore, the public defender.

Moore said he once represented a man whose estranged wife gave birth to a baby who was born dependent on drugs. DCS also removed the man's older child, who he been taking care of.

"My client was working poor and didn’t have the means to challenge DCS on their actions and wanted to get his son returned to him as quickly as possible," Moore said.

So the man agreed that the child was being neglected, even though he wasn't, Moore said. The man had to sign up for a social worker to visit his home as well as counseling — that Moore contends the man didn't need — so he could get his son back from foster care.

Moore said most of the cases he encountered were related to poverty and drug use — and that the kids often were not in immediate danger.

Instead, he said, "How DCS responds is a hammer approach in a lot of these cases."

"You feel like you're targeted because you're poor," said a single mother, 30, from Munster. Her 7-year-old son's school reported her for neglect after he showed up to school dirty. The mother would only talk to The Times on condition of anonymity because she said she feared retaliation from the state.

"They would make assumptions," she said of DCS. "They had to check your house. It was just kind of the looks they gave: 'This could be better, and this could be better.' We're trying our best.

"They criticized the size of his room, the size of all the rooms in the house, how small the bathroom was. You could only do so much with what you have."

She ultimately retained custody of her son, who has autism, after taking parenting classes and enrolling the boy in therapy.

Drugs, reporting rules contribute

Other experts contend poverty is not the only -- or even a driving -- factor in Indiana's overwhelming number of child welfare cases.

A DCS spokeswoman pointed to Indiana being a mandatory reporting state. Unlike the majority of states, everyone in Indiana who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report it. The other states — approximately 30 — limit that requirement to professionals who work with children, such as teachers, doctors and school counselors.

"Every year, awareness of our child abuse and neglect hotline — which allows anonymous reporting — grows," said Noelle Russell, the DCS spokeswoman. "This understandably results in more calls that can necessitate assessments by DCS caseworkers."

In 2017, Indiana had the fifth-highest rate of allegations of child abuse and neglect of the 45 states that reported that data (107.4 per 1,000 kids).

 

Another common explanation is the opioid epidemic. In 2017, Indiana had the nation's 14th-highest drug overdose rate, which more than doubled from a decade earlier, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation review of federal data.

In 2017, parents used drugs in more than half the cases (55.6%) in which kids were removed from the home, up from 39.1% three years earlier, according to a recent evaluation of DCS by an outside consulting group.

"Some issues really overwhelm a (child welfare) system, and substance abuse is one of those issues," said Deborah Daro, a child-abuse expert and senior research fellow at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall.

Daro noted that several of the other states that top the drug overdose rankings also investigate families for child abuse and neglect at high rates. She also points to DCS' practice of prioritizing cases involving young children.

In July 2016, DCS began automatically investigating every allegation involving kids younger than 3. (The agency stopped doing so in January 2018, a spokeswoman said.) In 2017, Indiana had the second-highest rate of substantiated abuse and neglect victims who are infants, 1- 2- and 3-year-olds, according to HHS.

Effects of drugs

But while the national rate of drug deaths grew by 82.3% from 2008 to 2017, the U.S. neglect rate actually decreased in that time, according to the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. Indiana's neglect rate exploded during that 10-year period.

The top two recommendations in the recent DCS evaluation were for the state to increase substance abuse and mental health treatment.

In fiscal year 2017, the report noted, DCS spent more than five times as much money on drug testing ($24.9 million) as it did on drug treatment ($4.5 million).

State Sen. Erin Houchin, a Republican from Milltown, believes changes to Indiana's criminal code in 2014, when penalties were reduced for nonviolent drug offenders, have driven the rise in child abuse and neglect cases.

"We are seeing disastrous effects on communities across Indiana, and it is affecting our most vulnerable at increasing rates as offenders enter the revolving door of our criminal justice system," she said.

Houchin also noted DCS has added more caseworkers. The total number of caseworkers increased from 1,309 in December 2012 to 2,172 six years later, according to DCS, a 65.9% increase. Substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect rose 69.8% in that time.

"This has certainly helped reduce caseload weights, but it also results in more eyes on these issues," she said. "There are a high number of cases, but we cannot neglect to investigate any credible reports."

She said she doesn't believe changing the definition of neglect will reduce the number of kids in the child welfare court system in Indiana.

Experts say it's not always fair to compare states because they have different definitions of abuse and neglect.

"It's not apples to apples," said Sharon Pierce, president and CEO of The Villages, a statewide nonprofit that provides foster care, adoption services and other resources for families in the child welfare system.

She said that unlike Indiana, some states don't include cases in which babies are born with drugs in their system in the child abuse and neglect totals.

Some states have categories for psychological abuse and medical neglect.

Others use more lax definitions overall. Utah, for instance, has a so-called "free-range parenting law," in which children can walk or play alone, or wait in the car without an adult.

"Something I've heard, for example, is that there may be certain states that pretty much categorically don't remove kids if the case is, let's say, the parents smoking marijuana," said Julie Whitman, executive director of Indiana's Commission on Improving the Status of Children.

"In some states, it's even legal. Whereas here we at least investigate. Those kinds of things can make a difference."

The DCS evaluation noted that DCS seemed to treat marijuana use more harshly than alcohol abuse.

"We've got problems in our own state I think we need to handle," said Katherine Meger Kelsey, director of the Children's Law Center for Kids' Voice of Indiana, an advocacy organization.

"Comparing ourselves to other states — while it's good to be aware — it's not going to solve the problem. We need to figure out what works and move on with it."

'It's love that raises a family'

But some Indiana parents wonder if they'd have their children right now if they weren't poor.

Adria Trader lives in a three-bedroom bungalow in one of the most poverty-stricken cities in America: Gary, Indiana.

The potholes in the street in front of her house might be better described as craters.

"This is my daughter's room," Trader said on a recent day, motioning toward a room that contained nothing but a twin bed. "It's pretty empty. I'm waiting for her stuff to come here."

She also showed her son's room. There were a few toys strewn on the floor.

Trader's 13-year-old son, who has autism, visits from his group home on the weekends; her 15-year-old daughter, who stays with a relative, was only there on Thanksgiving.

Trader doesn't see any reason her children shouldn't reside with her full time. She grew up poor, she said, but wouldn't have changed her childhood.

"It's not material things that raise a family," the 39-year-old said. "It's love that raises a family."

Trader was living with her in-laws in January 2017 when DCS removed all the children in the home because her husband was under investigation for sexual abuse, she said. He killed himself the next day (she claims he was innocent). Trader got kicked out of the house.

She was homeless for a while — she is on disability because of congestive heart failure — until landing a good deal for the place in Gary.

But she's still fighting to get her kids back.

"I just want them home. I miss them," she said, tearfully. Her house was sparsely furnished and decorated; a TV rested on a chair, hand-drawn pictures hung on a wall.

"If there was one thing I was good at, it's being a mom."

[This story was originally published by nwi.com.]