Distinguishing poverty from abuse: reducing trauma for children and their families

A compassionate approach and innovative technology can help prevent unnecessary trauma, better protecting children and strengthening families without punishing poverty.

Ensuring that children and families have the support they need is crucial in building happy childhoods and a hopeful future. When communities come together to support and strengthen families, they can help keep children safe and help prevent child abuse and neglect. But it’s also important to recognize where families are struggling economically and not mistake their circumstances for neglect. Taking a compassionate approach can help prevent traumatic situations caused by unnecessary removal of children from their family homes.

Data is critical to improving child welfare outcomes, but what story does the data tell? In the U.S. in 2022, approximately 1.9 million children received prevention services from child protective services (CPS) agencies.1 Unfortunately, the well-documented overrepresentation of low-income individuals in the child welfare system2 suggests poverty is still all too often mistaken for neglect. This can cause unnecessary distress for families and lead to mistrust of social workers.

Adjusting the approach can contribute towards helping improve the lives of children, reduce trauma and strengthen their families.

Changing the narrative on poverty

Families that are struggling financially and face difficulties such as not being able to afford childcare or food for adequate daily meals, may end up under child welfare investigation. In some cases, it may escalate to a point where children are removed from the home due to parents being consistently unable to cover basic needs.

These situations need to be approached with empathy to distinguish a lack of resources from neglect. States like New York are looking at the definition of neglect,3 so that intentional child abuse and neglect are differentiated from neglect that may arise due to poverty. Ensuring that eligible families receive the economic and medical assistance that they need and may be eligible for (for example, SNAP, TANF, Medicaid) is integral to strengthening families and preventing the emotional and financial impacts related to children being unnecessarily put in out-of-home care.

Building trust and connection

In order to connect with a family and help meet their needs, social workers must build trust and help the family engage with services that may assist in bettering their lives. When struggling to meet basic needs like food and shelter, accusations of abuse or neglect can further traumatize families and create a loss of trust in the system. Social workers have a duty to not cause families unnecessary harm and need the proper tools and support to assist these families in poverty in an effective and compassionate way.

Advancing care with innovative solutions

In order to provide the best quality of care, caseworkers need tools at their disposal to help streamline their access to key data to support accurate, informed decisions that impact the lives of children and families, without causing unnecessary re-traumatization.

Innovative solutions that help to engage families, save time for caseworkers and support collaboration across teams can have a powerful impact on outcomes for children. Let’s look at some examples of how technology can support these efforts.

  1. Minimizing risk of re-traumatization

When authorities are alerted to potential child neglect from a neighbor or a school for example, an investigation may be triggered, and once the investigator has completed the initial home visit, the case could be passed to a caseworker to assist the family in accessing necessary services. With people from different roles and sometimes different organizations capturing information on the same case, valuable data can live in silos where it’s not easily accessed.

It can be emotionally distressing for children and families to discuss their situation during an investigation, particularly if they are asked by different staff to repeat their story. This is the human cost of lost data. So, when caseworkers have access to a purpose-built platform that helps them get a better understanding of family history and past engagements, they can limit their questions to gather only new, important details to fill in any gaps. If data only needs to be captured once and can be easily surfaced by the teams that need it, this can minimize the risk of re-traumatizing the child or the family members.

  1. Supporting caseworker efficiency

The state of child welfare support in the United States is reaching crisis levels, due to challenges around recruitment, retention, and service delivery. And often, legacy technology is still being used that doesn’t fit how caseworkers work today, or the scale and pace they work at.

Caseworkers need a platform that presents a timeline view of each case, in a single place. Being able to access engagement history without having to piece together information from different screens can better equip caseworkers to work efficiently. With the right tools and more time to spend engaging with families, they can provide a greater quality of service – and it could help to reduce the risks of burnout, too.

  1. Empowering team collaboration

There can be many different roles and organizations involved in a single child welfare case, including police departments, healthcare providers, and more. Timely communication between departments and specialist authorities is essential in effectively managing each case, and teams need efficient ways to share critical data and insights for effective collaboration.

In Germany, the Hamburg Authority of Labor, Family and Integration is responsible for coordinating data and information with 40 local agencies in order to safeguard children and families. Multidisciplinary collaboration is a daily part of how they protect children at risk of harm and support families in crisis. The right technology can empower stakeholders and optimize communication and collaboration across multiple agencies. With the tools to enable streamlined workflows and automated processes across departments, teams can focus on making sure children’s needs are put first.


Today’s child welfare caseworkers are challenged with determining when children are at risk of abuse or neglect, or when poverty is burdening a family who cannot meet basic needs, all while ensuring the children are protected and the family is supported.

By changing the language around neglect and abuse to disentangle those cases from poverty and utilizing innovative technology specifically built for caseworkers to create a more informed view of families, child welfare agencies can provide compassionate and effective ways to ensure positive and safe childhoods.

With the proper tools and guidance, child welfare caseworkers can get back to their critical job of promoting child welfare, keeping families together and protecting children without punishing poverty.

The team at Cúram is committed to putting technology to work for child welfare professionals, to help serve the needs of families and children around the world.

Learn more about Cúram solutions for child welfare



  1. Child Maltreatment 2022,” Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, acf.hhs.gov, 29 January 2024
  2. Separating Poverty from Neglect in Child Welfare,” Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway, childwelfare.gov, February 2023
  3. New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Suzanne Miles-Gustave, Esq., Acting Commissioner, ocfs.ny.gov, 23 June 2023