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Cooper: Government must distinguish between child neglect and poverty

Sheelagh Cooper, chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity (File photograph)

The Government must make an important distinction between aspects of child neglect and poverty within the family when determining whether foster care intervention is needed, social activist Sheelagh Cooper has warned.

Ms Cooper was speaking following a recent presentation at Hamilton Rotary Club by Selena Simons, the foster care co-ordinator for the Department of Child and Family Services, about the need for more foster parents to fill a current gap.

However, the former chairwoman and executive director for the Coalition for the Protection of Children, believes it would be cheaper and more prudent for the Government to subsidise family expenses to address poverty rather than leaning on the safety net of foster care.

She said: “The recent call for more foster parents is disturbing. The reason it is disturbing is because the majority of children removed from their homes by the Department of Child and Family Services fall into the category of neglect.

“By the department stated definition, neglect can mean homelessness or without adequate food or clothing. I am concerned that, especially in this economy, these are the signs of poverty, not necessarily neglect at all.

“Removing a child is a very blunt instrument and an ineffective way to address poverty and homelessness. However, for all intents and purposes, foster care is the only tool in the department's toolbox.”

Other reasons children end up in foster care include them falling victim to physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse.

During her presentation, Ms Simons described foster care as “a safe haven that is nestled in the warm, nurturing, loving home of a variety of families”.

Ms Cooper, now chairwoman of Habitat for Humanity, acknowledged that there is an important role to be played by the foster care system.

"Many children living in abusive situations have been saved by being removed from the home and in the care foster parents,“ she said.

“The problem lies in the mistaken characterisation of poverty as neglect.”

Ms Cooper said the “most critical” components of Bermuda’s safety net were the three pillars of the Department of Child and Family Services, the Bermuda Housing Corporation and the Department of Financial Assistance.

She said there was a disconnect between the departments and, where they fall under three different ministries, they should be under one umbrella and working closely together.

“To avoid having children being taken into care whose parents are homeless or lack the funds to properly feed and cloth their children, the obvious first line of help is housing and financial assistance.

“Attempts at what is termed ‘family preservation’ can only be successful if the fundamental issues of housing and money to buy food are addressed.

“Often these are not available because the agencies that supply them are overwhelmed and are disconnected from each other. It is in those circumstances that the blunt tool of removal of children is exercised.

“Even if one sets aside the devastating effect of separating children from their parents, the economics of the approach indicates it is far less expensive to prevent homelessness in the first place or subsidise family expenses than to pay for foster care for long periods of time.

“A long period of time it often is because when children are removed the family is told ‘here are the things you need to do to get your children back’ … one of those things will be ‘when you secure a suitable apartment and have an income that shows us that you can support your children’.

“Recent surveys have highlighted the financial impact of the pandemic.

“If poverty continues to be seen as neglect, more and more families will be impacted by this draconian, devastating, unnecessary and vastly more expensive fracture of struggling families. We can do better than this.”

The Government’s Budget allocation for foster care in 2022-23 was $2,741,000.

Last year, the Ministry of Social Development and Seniors announced an increase in the department’s monthly stipends for traditional and kinship foster parents. They received a 10 per cent increase in their monthly stipends on May 1, and another 10 per cent on May 1 this year.

The department also provides help with clothing, child care, dental and medical costs, and transportation.

Tinee Furbert, the Minister of Social Development and Seniors, said at the time of the announcement: “These are not the only means of tangible support offered and families can reach out to DCFS for additional support as needed.”

As of June this year, there were 65 children in foster care.

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Published December 16, 2022 at 7:55 am (Updated December 16, 2022 at 7:55 am)

Cooper: Government must distinguish between child neglect and poverty

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