Since then Smith has spent her days looking over her shoulder and her nights worrying about her family’s uncertain future. Could Child Protective Services investigators find her and her two kids at a cousin’s apartment in Southeast, where they often stay? Would they sweep in and take Da’Quan and Da’Layah from their elementary school one afternoon? The fear haunts her.
“I was afraid that my kids would be taken from me just because I can’t afford to live in D.C.,” Smith, 25, a hairdresser, said recently. “It’s not like I’m abusive or none of that. I ran into a situation where I don’t have no place to go.”
Family homelessness in the District has risen 74 percent since the downturn, an increase that’s left the city’s main homeless shelter brimming with 800 adults and children. Dozens more families have been temporarily sent to live in hotels along New York Avenue at a cost of $3 million.
With no where to put families seeking help, intake workers began warning parents over the winter that if they really had no where to go they would be reported to child welfare authorities, and risk losing their kids to foster care.
“It’s a slippery slope and it’s not what we want to do,” said David A. Berns, the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. “But when we get down to the situation we have been in and we have no resources to place the families ... we involve all the partners we can to keep the kids safe.”
Advocates for the homeless say that such a blatant warning is virtually unheard of and that the city is creating a climate of fear among families who need help.
“It is an outrage that it’s happening,” said Patty Mullahy Fugere, the executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where attorneys have accused the city of placing parents in a “heart-wrenching Catch-22.”
Mindy Good, the spokesman for CFSA, notes that while homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect — apart from lack of housing — or gave them referrals to other community groups for help.
So far, 32 families have been reported to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care, she said. But the fear persists.
“I’m sorry that people view the child welfare system as a threat rather a safety net,” Good said. “But yes, this is a reality.”
Ruth Anne White, the executive director for the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, said that about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect, but some of these laws have successfully been challenged in court. The District’s definition does include shelter but makes an exception for lack of financial means.