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Is poverty a crime?

Just before midnight on a Friday two weeks ago, a SEPTA police officer found 2-year-old Jeremiyah wandering in LOVE Park, alone. His family remained asleep in a cardboard box.

One story in Philadelphia recently captured a lot of attention. Just before midnight on a Friday two weeks ago, a SEPTA police officer found 2-year-old Jeremiyah wandering in LOVE Park, alone. He had no shoes and no coat, despite the fact it was one of the coldest nights of the fall season thus far. The officer contacted the city Department of Human Services; a worker took Jeremiyah to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for evaluation and subsequently placed him in foster care. A few hours later his parents, Michael Jones and Angelique Roland, who had been sleeping in a cardboard box with Jeremiyah and his 4-year-old sister, Malaysia, woke up. The parents panicked when they realized Jeremiyah was missing and contacted authorities. Within a few hours, Malaysia, too, was in the city's care.

Since then, news outlets from here to Great Britain have followed the story closely, providing background about how the family came to be sleeping in a cardboard box in the park.

Yes, it was dangerous for a young child to be unaccompanied in a public park in the middle of the night. But we have to ask: Does parental poverty and homelessness constitute child neglect? One thing we know for sure: Poverty brings families scrutiny from child health and social welfare officials in ways that don't happen for middle class children.

No matter where one falls on the issue, we know another thing for sure: This is not a new question. Concerns around what to do about children whose parents were too poor to care for them so vexed our early 20th century predecessors that President Theodore Roosevelt did something that had never before happened in American history; he convened a conference to study the issue, in January 1909. More than 200 doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, clergy, and other interested reformers came together for two days for what was known as the the White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Inspired by Roosevelt's booming introductory address – it made the case that all Americans should care about (and provide a good start in life for) all children because ". . . when you take care of the children you are taking care of the nation of to-morrow" – attendees reached a fragile consensus that poverty alone was not a reason to remove a child from his parents.

What they could not agree upon was whether assistance should be public or private – and how to determine which families were and were not deserving of assistance. Nearly 107 years after the first White House Conference on Children, we are little closer to reaching consensus about this issue. Many states do not have a poverty exemption in their definition of neglect, meaning that being a homeless parent is a de facto indicator of poor parenting and child neglect.

Today in the United States there are more homeless children than there have ever been in American history. One in 30 American children does not have a regular place to call home. Research shows that homeless children suffer from hunger and get sick more often than their peers with homes. They miss more school and have higher rates of mental illness. The chronic stress caused by homelessness can cause changes to their brains that will adversely impact their health and well-being throughout their lives. And when they grow up and have their own children, the cycle can start all over again, as a series of studies of what are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – described in several previous blog posts – have shown.

Some good news: Philadelphians are talking about this issue. And the situation for Jeremiyah and his family is looking up. Individuals and organizations have stepped forward with donations of food, jobs, shelter, and other resources that most of us take for granted. This is a testament to Philadelphians' generosity.

But what about all the other children and families who struggle? Many of them also need the resources that hopefully will get Jeremiyah and his family back on track. What plans do each of the mayoral candidates have to address Philadelphia's deep poverty? How do they plan to improve coordination between local social service providers and law enforcement to make sure that removing a child, always a traumatic event for both child and parent, is really necessary? As the Inquirer reported back in September, Philadelphia remains the poorest of America's 10 largest cities. Although it is 107 years late, can we fulfill the 1909 White House Conference's promise to support families and get them the resources they need to stay together?

Cynthia Connolly, PhD, RN; Kara Finck, Esq.;
 Debra Schilling Wolfe, MEd, and Cindy W. Christian, MD, are part of the University of Pennsylvania's Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice, and Research. Connolly is also affiliated with Penn's Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing.

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