FIJ Quarterly - Summer 2022 Edition

Reflections Expanded Conception of "Community" Needed for Families Involved with the Child Welfare System Jey Rajaraman

In March 2020, while working at Legal Services of New Jersey (LSNJ), I received a call from my client P.B., a grandmother living in Irvington, New Jersey. We represented her in a child welfare proceeding where she was seeking custody of her grandson currently in stranger foster care (where he had been for the last two years). She was on welfare and lived in public housing. I went to visit her because the local food pantry was closed due to COVID-19, and she could not access her food stamps card. She was unable to get anyone on the phone at the food pantry or at the social services building. No one was at either location to assist her. Grocery stores were closed. There was no public transportation to access resources or to get her to family or friends. My only option was to see her in person to bring her food and necessities, such as canned goods, a can opener, and a mini microwave. When the shutdown happened, food insecurity was the most critical issue affecting low- income families. My organization moved quickly to identify, coordinate, and provide relief to the immediate daily needs of the low- income families and individuals we served. Our clients, the most vulnerable and poorest families, were impacted disproportionately and in a more perilous manner than society at large. COVID-19 decimated the already weak safety nets our clients pieced together from a combination of public and private services and support. The pandemic highlighted how poverty and existing social welfare systems provided little opportunity for low-income families to prepare for a crisis. The desperate and urgent need for food brought this disparity clearly into focus. P.B., like so many others living in poverty, had neither the financial nor the physical

and logistical means to amass food supplies and other essential items to use in a crisis. 1 While Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and (Women Infant Children) WIC programs are highly successful, they only address minimal needs one month at a time. 2 They are not designed to be responsive to an emergency situation like the pandemic or the current shortage of baby formula. Low benefit amounts often fail to meet monthly needs and do not enable recipients to plan for emergencies. Access issues and rapidly rising food prices have made this even more challenging. While community food pantries try to bridge the gap, they cannot meet the ever-increasing need. Poverty Cannot Be the Basis for Separating Children from Families In addition to my concern about the pandemic’s impact on my client’s physical well-being, I was afraid that this temporary inability to access sufficient food would work against her in her child welfare case. I was also meeting with her to prepare a certification in support of a motion to the court to: ______________ 1 “Number of Families Struggling to Afford Food Rose Steeply in Pandemic and Remains High, Especially Among Children and Households of Color,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 27, 2021,www.cbpp. org/research/food-assistance/number-of-families- struggling-to-afford-food-rose-steeply-in-pandemic 2 See “Barriers That Constrain The Adequacy Of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap) Allotments” U.S.Department of Agriculture. Pre- pandemic 61% of SNAP participants reported affordability barriers even with SNAP and 20% reported transportation barriers. files/resource-files/SNAP-Barriers-Summary.pdf

118 | FIJ Quarterly | Summer 2022

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