A recent New York Times series, “Invisible Child,” follows 12-year-old Dasani and her family for one year as they navigate life in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn. Their story is heartbreaking and shocking, but their situation is all too familiar to CFR.
Throughout the series, the threat of separation by the child welfare system looms over the family. While they are intact today, their lack of housing, chronic poverty, and history with the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) makes their staying together increasingly precarious. Unfortunately, more than 12,000 other homeless families face similar prospects—many of these are CFR’s clients.
Every day, we meet parents who are fighting to keep their families together in the face of tremendous adversity. Like Dasani’s parents, many are dealing with challenges like mental health diagnoses or substance addiction. While some are unemployed, many work full or part time jobs, but often for minimum wage and without health insurance or job security. Even with public assistance, finding the funds to afford an apartment to safely accommodate their family can be next to impossible.
For CFR families, obtaining permanent housing may mean the difference between children coming home or staying in foster care—and to breaking the cycles of foster care and poverty. Children in foster care in New York City already spend a median of 6.8 months in foster care—with limited access to housing for poor families, this could increase. The new City administration has an opportunity to address this crisis by restoring vouchers and priority housing for families at risk of separation, or who are already separated by foster care.
In addition, the Times series illustrated the critical need to improve the quality of the City’s homeless shelters. If families must reside in shelters while they await permanent housing, the City needs to provide safe and appropriate living conditions for children. The incredible stress of shelter harms child development, and can result in problems in educational performance and behavior, possibly leading to further involvement with the child welfare system.
But foster care is not a solution to deplorable shelter conditions. Research repeatedly demonstrates that outcomes for children are better when they can safely remain with parents who are engaged in appropriate services. In cases like Dasani’s, it is imperative to keep families together in safe conditions, provide them with supportive and stabilizing services, and swiftly move them from a shelter into stable housing.
CFR is hopeful that the new City administration will make broad and necessary changes to the City’s housing and social service policies to help families like ours stay together safely—and keep children like Dasani out of foster care.