Reducing the Impact of Substandard Housing on Child Welfare Involvement

Stoneleigh Fellow: Nan Feyler, 2016-2019


Nan Feyler’s Fellowship will focus on reducing the impact of parents’ substandard, inadequate, or unstable housing on families’ involvement with the child welfare system in Philadelphia.  She will work within the City’s Deputy Managing Director’s Office for Health and Human Services to implement cross-system improvements that reduce preventable out-of-home placement and delayed family reunification due to inadequate housing.

The Need

Housing challenges can contribute to a family’s involvement with the child welfare system in a number of ways:

  • A parent’s failure to secure adequate housing can result directly in a child’s removal due to neglect.
  • Lack of adequate housing can significantly delay children being reunited with their parents once they have been removed from their homes.
  • The significant stress parents face due to unstable or substandard housing can indirectly contribute to abusive behavior and/or exacerbate existing mental health and substance use issues. 

The situation in Philadelphia is particularly dire for the following reasons:

  • Deep, persistent poverty.  Philadelphia has consistently had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation: 28 percent of Philadelphians live below the federal poverty level, including 39 percent of children. 
  • Substandard housing and limited protections for renters.  Philadelphia has a dearth of affordable rental housing, and what is available is largely old and in poor condition.  Many low-income renters have little recourse to force their landlords to make repairs and lack the financial resources to move.
  • Lack of available shelter beds for families.  Child welfare-involved families can face waiting lists for available bed in area shelters.  These delays may cause children to be placed in foster care instead of keeping families together.
  • Limited subsidized housing.  Housing subsidy programs at the local level (through the Philadelphia Housing Authority) and the federal level (such as Section 8 vouchers) are not accepting new applicants due to very long waiting lists.

Fellowship Description

Comprehensively addressing the housing problems that impact families’ child welfare involvement will require a coordinated plan that spans City departments.  To that end, Nan will work closely with system leaders from multiple agencies, including the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Office of Supportive Housing (OSH).  She will also engage with local advocacy groups and legal services organizations to complete her Fellowship goals. 

The Fellowship is organized into two phases:

(1) Development of a cross-system plan to address substandard housing for families involved in the child welfare system.

Nan will lead the development of this plan by carrying out the following activities:

  • Establish an interdepartmental Child Welfare & Housing Work Group made up of leaders from DHS, OSH, other city agencies, and local advocacy and legal services organizations to set priorities and create coordinated strategies.
  • Examine existing policies, practices, and data by working with the City to analyze administrative data; investigate how housing issues are currently being addressed; and conduct interviews and focus groups to better understand family, staff, and community needs and service gaps. 
  • Research national model programs and policies to identify other successful efforts around the country Philadelphia can learn from.

(2) Implementation of sustainable practice and policy improvements outlined in the plan.

While the activities completed during the plan-development phase will determine the specific priorities for implementation, a selection of the most promising strategies currently identified are outlined below.  

Practice Changes

  • Strengthen data collection and analysis by developing new tools to improve the quality and usability of data relevant to housing issues impacting child welfare decisions.
  • Create new training modules to increase the internal housing expertise of DHS and its partners.
  • Identify new funding sources or potential new ways to use existing funding. 
  • Develop new tools that can be used by caseworkers to identify and respond to housing needs early in the process of working with child welfare-involved families. 

Policy Changes

  • Improve emergency shelter options for families by addressing the current shortage of shelter options for families involved in the child welfare system. 
  • Increase funds available for families to overcome financial hurdles to stable housing, such as short-term rental assistance and housing vouchers.
  • Coordinate supportive housing resources for particularly vulnerable families in the child welfare system.