Child Protective Services’ Safety Plans Punish Parents for Poverty

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Every day, county and state child services agencies remove children from their parents’ care. Responding to maltreatment complaints for more than seven million children, in 2016 child services agencies across the US found that four million children met initial criteria for abuse, abandonment, or neglect. At least one-fifth were removed from their parents’ care. As Elizabeth Brico reported for Talk Poverty, child protective service agencies’ use of “safety plans”—informal agreements between parents and protective agencies—often punish parents for poverty with  unintended consequences.

As Brico reported, safety plans are “widely used” in child protective services investigations to attempt to resolve “perceived threats to a child’s health and safety without judicial involvement.” Though informal, such plans are “considered binding” and it is left to the department to determine “what happens if a family violates an agreement.” In extreme cases, as Brico described in her article, a police officer shows up with a court order to remove the child.

Rachel Paletta, from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, said that “child neglect,” as pursued by protective agencies may include “inadequate housing or lack of clothing and food, and all of these things can be related to poverty.” Paletta added that “circumstances that are solely a result of poverty and not ill intent on the part of the parents should not be considered neglect or abuse.”

Brico reported that opponents of safety plans flag their coercive nature as a significant flaw. The terms presented to parents seldom seem voluntary, when the alternative is losing custody of their child. Furthermore, several legal challenges to safety plans have been made in recent years, though “attempts to curtail their use have failed,” Brico reported.

Even brief parental separation can have “devastating lifelong consequences” for children, according to Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist. “Every single time a child makes a custody transition it’s an adverse childhood experience so it’s potentially traumatic. The more of these experiences you have, the greater the risk for addiction, mental illness, and physical problems like obesity,” Szalavitz told Talk Poverty. According to one sociological study, four or more adverse childhood experiences predict a significantly increased likelihood of physical and mental health problems later in life.

Source: Elizabeth Brico, “How Child Protective Services Can Skip Due Process,” Talk Poverty, August 23, 2018,

Student Researchers: Sandra Evangelista, Alyssa Garza, Eloisa Lopez-Castro (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (Sonoma State University)