SPARKLE Ballard had her baby home just a year when city social workers swooped in and snatched the infant away to foster care, deeming Ballard an unfit mom.
Her offense: She didn't have permanent housing.
Desperate for her daughter, Ballard did what she was told in a bid to get her back: She quit hopscotching houses and settled in a Mount Airy apartment, took parenting and GED classes and applied for jobs with more family-friendly hours.
But it wasn't enough. One year later, Ballard has seen her daughter, Christianna, only in weekly, supervised visits on the foster agency's turf.
"I think it's outrageous," said Ballard, now 19. "There are other people out there who can use their help and services, people that actually are abusing and neglecting their kids. I'm not one of those people."
Like Ballard, thousands of parents nationally have lost their children to foster care for little reason other than inadequate housing.
One fifth of foster children nationally landed in county custody - or languished there, as housing issues delayed family reunification - because of inappropriate housing, according to the Child Welfare League of America. A third of the nation's foster children have at least one homeless or "unstably housed" parent, according to the league.
Desensitized bureaucrats too often equate poverty with neglect and seize children away from biological parents whose only "offense" is hardship, critics charge.
And once kids are in the system, it can prove insurmountably difficult to get them out.
Parents petitioning to get their children back in Philadelphia typically wait five months between hearings, local parent-advocates say.
Because federal law requires social-service agencies to place foster children in permanent homes - biological or adoptive - after 15 months in county custody, biological parents might have just two or three chances to get their children back.
"There is not endless time to resolve some pretty serious problems," said Kathy Gomez, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit of Community Legal Services, who represents hundreds of parents in custody cases.
"Housing is among the single biggest factors in the use and misuse of foster care," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. "Not only is it doing enormous harm to the children, who face abuse [in foster care] and possible permanent separation from their parents. It's doing enormous harm to the taxpayers, because foster care costs more than a rent subsidy.
"It is never an excuse to take away a child because the child's family can't afford a decent place to live," Wexler added. "It is incredibly cruel to the child and it's stupid financially."
Poverty a problem
Under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, the list of reasons why children can be placed in county care is vast and varied: Physical or sexual abuse; delinquency under age 10; the death of or abandonment by parents; parental behavior such as drug abuse that endangers the child; the child's habitual disobedience or truancy; and so on.
Poverty is not on the list.
But poverty is a common denominator in many of the families whose children end up in foster care. It invites authorities' scrutiny, and snowballs into other issues that could prompt removal or delay reunification, child advocates say.
"It's easy to come under child-protection observation when you're poor," Gomez said. "And there's no room for error when you're poor: Once something goes wrong, things just tend to spiral."
Housing problems frequently result.
Parents struggling to pay rent might not have money to cover utilities or maintenance and repairs, creating living conditions that social workers might deem unsafe for children, Gomez said. Others who can't afford child care and transportation costs might miss so much work that they get fired - and without a paycheck to pay rent or a mortgage, they lose their housing, she said.
"Lack of housing is not legal grounds for removal, but homelessness, housing problems and residence in low-income neighborhoods all result in a greater likelihood of CPS [child-protective services] being involved," said Corey Shdaimah, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland who has studied the correlation between poverty, housing and child welfare issues.
Ruth White, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, agreed: "Child welfare won't say that they have actually separated a family because of housing. But it totally happens."
The remedy seems obvious: Help these families get housing.
But agencies that offer subsidized housing are overwhelmed by demand.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority, for example, has a waiting list of 43,000, spokesman David Tillman said.
Still, PHA participates in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Family Unification Program, which covers subsidized housing costs for 16,000 families nationally whose housing troubles threaten child-welfare involvement.
Since 2000, HUD has given PHA 300 vouchers under the program; 224 families in Philadelphia have benefitted, Tillman said. While 76 vouchers remain up for grabs, not everyone can use those vouchers, even if no one disputes a family's needs. HUD and PHA disqualify applicants with a history of violent crime or drug convictions.
DHS also partners with the city's Office of Supportive Housing to get 50 federally funded housing vouchers for families facing separation due to housing problems, DHS Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said.
Ambrose said that her agency doesn't track how many DHS-involved families have inadequate housing, nor how many children were removed from families living in poverty.
She insisted that her agency does not remove children solely for housing reasons. But among the more than 3,000 children in Philadelphia foster care, inadequate housing is a frequent concern, she acknowledged.
"I believe that children should, first and foremost, be with their families," Ambrose said. "We remove kids only if there is an identified safety threat. When there is a safety threat, we have a legal mandate to remove those children."
But family preservation is paramount, she added.
The agency has a $1.35 million emergency fund it uses to fix broken windows, buy beds, repair faulty plumbing, pay utility bills and solve other housing headaches that could endanger children, she said.
Because those funds are so sorely needed, DHS workers strive to ensure "housing sustainability," Ambrose added. That means that instead of passing out checks for security deposits willy-nilly, the agency wants to make sure that the families it helps can continue paying their monthly rent - and that requires a steady paycheck.
Further, the agency last July launched an "alternative response services" program, in which it identifies cases where no safety threat exists and hook up those families with in-home services to avert removal, Ambrose said.
DHS spends an average of $50 a day to provide a family in-home services under the new program, and up to $80 a day for those struggling with cognitive impairment, medical issues or sexual abuse, she said. In contrast, they pay foster parents about $24 a day per child.
"We pay double to triple to keep kids in their homes," Ambrose said. "We don't believe that children and families should be destabilized because of a housing issue."
Still, Shdaimah and others ask, why bother giving any money to foster parents? Why not just give it directly to the biological parents to fix whatever ails them and to preserve the family?
Wexler thinks that he knows the answer to those questions.
"The only reason we don't do this is it's not politically popular," he said. "It's not popular to provide help to 'bad parents.' The child-welfare system is really a parent-punishment system. But the problem is: When we take a swing at those parents, the blow almost always lands on the children."
But Ambrose disagreed.
"We're very clear about when we should remove children: It's when we can't keep them safe in their homes," Ambrose said. "I'm not sure that throwing money at them is what's going to keep them safe."
Hope for the future
Anyone with any experience in the child-welfare system knows that most cases are murkier than the waters of the Schuylkill.
In the decision to remove Ballard's daughter, Christianna, housing was an issue, Ambrose acknowledged.
But Ballard, who worked late nights as an IHOP waitress, occasionally left her daughter with a relative who was a sex offender, Ambrose said. Ballard and her baby also lived in one home where other residents had domestic-violence issues, Ambrose added. Ambrose listed other lesser problems she says delayed reunification, but Ballard denied any problems or noncompliance.
Ballard hasn't lost faith. She has a hearing scheduled for June, and she hopes that she'll get Christianna back then.
Until then, she'll visit her daughter, trying to coax the quiet girl into opening up more to mama.
"She doesn't talk - she just whispers," Ballard said. "They think she needs speech therapy. They think there's something wrong with her. But she's only 2; she doesn't understand what's happening to her. You [DHS] took her away from her mom. I wouldn't want to talk to you either."