Light Paper: Poverty Versus Neglect In North Carolina

by Institute for Family | Nov 8, 2023

Examining the interplay between poverty, neglect definitions, and disproportionate impacts.


This Light Paper will delve into a question that child welfare professionals across the country have begun to examine critically: how do we differentiate and disentangle poverty from child neglect in the field of child welfare? Instead of removing children from their legal guardians because of poverty, agencies and organizations can explore opportunities to connect families to resources that address the root of the problem, i.e., affordable housing opportunities and food assistance programs.

The definition of child neglect in North Carolina comes from the “North Carolina School Health Program Manual” and states the following:

In North Carolina, a neglected juvenile is one who:   

  • Does not receive proper care, supervision, or discipline from the parent, guardian, or caretaker;  
  • Has been abandoned;  
  • Has not been provided necessary medical care;  
  • Lives in an environment injurious to their welfare; or   
  • Has been placed for adoption or care in violation of the law.

This definition does not distinguish between a case due to willful neglect and a case due to financial inability being the basis for failure to care for the child/children. The inability to differentiate between the two has many adverse implications. For starters, Child Protective Services (CPS) and child welfare professionals must ensure the safety and well-being of children. However, the removal of a child or children based on poverty alone can have more traumatic effects than favorable for the family. Additionally, BIPOC people experience higher rates of poverty due to many factors, including the ongoing impacts of systemic racism in housing, education, and employment. People of color are also overly represented in child maltreatment and neglect cases. This paper will explore what scholars have concluded: The connection between the disproportion of those living in poverty and the overrepresentation of groups of people in child welfare cannot be denied and must be addressed if we want to serve families.

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This Light Paper offers vital actionable items

1. Recommendation for comprehensive training for mandated reporters so, when appropriate, we can prioritize referrals to resources over referrals to CPS.

2. An improved North Carolina definition of neglect which specifies financial ability alone is not grounds for a neglect case.

3. State-specific poverty measures. 

4. Data management in child welfare in NC.

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