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Want to Keep Kids Out of Foster Care? Vote for Gentler Criminal Justice Laws

A new study finds associations between states’ criminal justice and welfare laws.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Craig Willford/Flickr)

It’s well-established that a prison sentence doesn’t just impact the individual sent behind bars; it affects the family too. Now, a new study hints at yet another path through which harsh criminal justice laws, including policies that send many to prison, hurt families and kids. Children living in states that have “extensive and punitive criminal justice systems” are more likely to be placed in foster care, the study finds. Children living in states that have “broad and generous welfare programs,” on the other hand, are less likely to be removed from their homes.

The study underscores how wide-ranging the effects of criminal justice and welfare policies can be. While nobody votes for criminal-penalty laws thinking about the kids who will be taken from their families, that’s exactly what ends up happening, according to the study, published yesterday in the journal American Sociological Review. And considering the fact that an estimated six percent of American kids go into foster care at some point, including 12 percent of black kids and 15 percent of American Indians, these laws can clearly affect a lot of people.

Even after controlling for other factors, including families’ poverty and education levels, University of Washington sociologist Frank Edwards found that policies play some role in the sometimes-dramatic differences between states’ foster care rates. Iowan children, for example, are 4.5 times more likely to go to foster care than kids in neighboring Illinois.

An estimated six percent of American kids go into foster care at some point.

What does it mean to live in a state with punitive criminal justice or generous welfare? For the study, Edwards measured states’ criminal-justice climates by tallying their incarceration rates, the number of police officers they employed, and how many death sentences courts issued. To measure states’ generosity, Edwards considered the maximum assistance a family could get, adjusted for cost of living; how many qualified residents were enrolled in programs such as Medicaid and food stamps; and how many workers welfare departments employed. He then compared those numbers to states’ foster-care rates.

Why do punitive laws increase foster care, and generous welfare reduce it? Edwards found a few possible explanations based on previous studies. Welfare may help poor parents who have trouble balancing their work hours and parenting duties. Welfare may also give social workers more options when they see a family neglecting their kids; otherwise, federal money is only available when kids are in foster care. In other words, without the support of generous benefits, “child protection workers frequently face a perverse incentive to remove children to trigger funding for needed services,” Edwards writes.

Meanwhile, having a parent go to prison makes it much harder for a family to care for the kids.