Too Poor to Parent?

When a recurrent plumbing problem in an upstairs unit caused raw sewage to seep into her New York City apartment, 22-year-old Lisa called social services for help. She had repeatedly asked her landlord to fix the problem, but he had been unresponsive. Now the smell was unbearable, and Lisa feared for the health and safety of her two young children.

When the caseworker arrived, she observed that the apartment had no lights and that food was spoiling in the refrigerator. Lisa explained that she did not have the money to pay her electric bill that month, but would have the money in a few weeks. She asked whether the caseworker could help get them into a family shelter. The caseworker promised she would help–but left Lisa in the apartment and took the children, who were then placed in foster care.

Months later, the apartment is cleaned up. Lisa still does not have her children.

It is probably fair to say that most women with children worry about their ability as mothers. Are they spending enough time with them? Are they disciplining them correctly? Are they feeding them properly? When should they take them to the doctor, and when is something not that serious? But one thing most women in the United States do not worry about is the possibility of the state removing children from their care. For a sizable subset of women, though–especially poor black mothers such as Lisa–that possibility is very real.

Black children are the most overrepresented demographic in foster care nationwide. According to the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), blacks make up 34 percent of the foster-care population, but only 15 percent of the general child population. In 2004, black children were twice as likely to enter foster care as white children. Even among other minority groups, black mothers are more likely to lose their children to the state than Hispanics or Asians-groups that are slightly underrepresented in foster care.

The reason for this disparity? Study after study reviewed by Stanford University law professor Dorothy Roberts in her book Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books/Perseus, 2002) concludes that poverty is the leading cause of children landing in foster care. One study, for example, showed that poor families are up to 22 times more likely to be involved in the child-welfare system than wealthier families. And nationwide, blacks are four times more likely than other groups to live in poverty.

But when state child-welfare workers come to remove children from black mothers’ homes, they rarely cite poverty as the factor putting a child at risk. Instead, these mothers are told that they neglected their children by failing to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, education or medical care. The failure is always personal, and these mothers and children are almost always made to suffer individually for the consequences of one of the United States’ most pressing social problems.

The legal system often provides no haven for these parents. Based on even the flimsiest allegations, they are essentially presumed guilty and pressured to participate in various cookie-cutter services that often do not directly address the concerns that brought them to court. For example, after her children went into foster care, Lisa was asked to attend parenting classes, undergo a mental health evaluation, seek therapy and submit to random drug testing before her children could be returned. But child-welfare authorities did not assist her in repairing her home or finding a new apartment, nor have they gone after her landlord for allowing deplorable conditions.

Race and poverty should not be a barrier to raising one’s children. But in order to prevent the entry of poor children into the foster care system, state and federal government must confront poverty-related issues. Until this country comes to terms with its culpability in allowing widespread poverty to exist, poor black mothers will continue to lose their children to the state. And we will continue to label these women "bad mothers" to assuage our own guilt.

The full text of this article appears in the Spring issue of Ms. magazine, available on newsstands and by subscription from

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  • invalid-0

    This is not a race issue–my daughter who is very white had a similiar situation. She and ex have split up and got back together too many times as she keeps hoping things will change esp since she gets NO help from any social agency(he makes good money when he works and he pays bills when they are togehter). the last time he left he promised to pay the utility bills (he does not pay support)The water was turned off when he did not pay and she went to Social services to ask for help–not only did they not help they sent a worker to investigate and blamed her for not having water! The worker asked why she was not going after ex for support and she said she is–but there is a 3 month back load for support cases at social services–yet they had someone out for the water issue that very day! She had already called her Father to ask for help and had made arrangements to stay with a friend until the water could be turned back on but if she had no back up system they would have been taken away from her. Maybe the black women don’t have enough family and friends to help is why they lose their children but please don’t make it a race issue. We need social service reform that puts the needs of all women and children first. It seems this is a state issue as each state has different rules so I don’t know where to even begin–our US or state representatives ?

  • invalid-0

    It is so clear and obvious that this is also a race issue. Indeed it is an issue of class inequality, race inequality, and gender inequality. Yes, there are many white men and women living in poverty too. Thus, it is a class issue as well. But, nationwide, blacks are several times poorer than whites. Thus, it is a race issue too. I am white myself but I shall not be blind to that fact. The assumption of the person who made the first comment is not correct. I’m sure s/he writing with a goodwill and honesty, though.
    S/he suggested that maybe blacks have less family and community supports to help them deal with poverty. Indeed, the numbers show that blacks have even more family/community support, but even this cannot balance the disaster effect of poverty and the implicit or explicit racial discrimination in the US… People of America, white, black, hispanic, native, we all need proper social policies and suffer from their lack thereof.