Do Shelters Reduce the Need for Foster Care? 

 By Kendra Hurley

It's well known that unstable housing and child welfare involvement—which includes foster care placements as well as services to prevent such placements—go hand and hand. But some argue that family shelters may actually work to reduce foster care placements among homeless families. 

In the City’s family homeless shelters, about 25 percent of families have open child welfare cases, with a little over half of those families receiving services that monitor children’s safety while providing supports to their families,14 and the rest with children who have been removed to foster care. 

Some of this connection between homelessness and child welfare involvement is fueled by parents behaving in ways that may be truly harmful to kids; research has established a clear link between poverty and abuse and neglect as well as harsher parenting styles. 

Also significant, many parents who become homeless struggle with issues such as mental illness or substance abuse—issues that the stressors of homelessness and poverty no doubt exacerbate, and which have also been linked to abuse and neglect. As the adjacent chart from The Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) shows, among all New York City children in foster care, children who were taken from homeless families were nearly twice as likely to have parents who required support for issues such as mental illness compared to children who came from families where housing was not an issue. 

At the same time, homeless parents are more likely than housed parents to come in contact with mandated reporters for suspected abuse and neglect, and research suggests may be judged more harshly. “Our clients in general live their lives so much in public and under so much surveillance, and living in shelter becomes just one more access point for their behavior to be noted and reported,” says Emma Alpert, a parent attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services.

But George Nashak, executive vice president of HELP USA, one of the City’s largest homeless service providers, cautions that frequent contact with mandated reporters may be a good thing for many families. When a family is in shelter, he says, child protective workers know the children are being monitored, something that “gives [child welfare services] a little bit of confidence that they can remain together,” says Nashak. “I think paradoxically being in shelter helps families stay together.” 

Previously unpublished data analyzed by ICPH found that while nationwide, 10 percent of children in foster care were placed there in part due to housing issues such as homelessness, in New York City—where homeless families have a right to shelter—just 5 percent of children in foster care were placed there due to housing issues including homelessness.This suggests that for some homeless families, living in a shelter may, indeed, help to stave off foster care removals. 

 Source: Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, Taken Away: The Prevalence of Homeless Children in Foster Care, February 2017

Source: Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness, Taken Away: The Prevalence of Homeless Children in Foster Care, February 2017