During the past twenty years, developmental psychologists have learned a great deal about the brain mechanisms that link the minds of small children to their mothers—or to the mind of whoever is primarily responsible for caring for them.15 Through the exchange of smiles, games, gestures, and cries in this crucial early relationship, children come to understand the feelings of other people, control their own emotions, and develop the confidence to explore, learn, and play. While it’s conceivable that a child might eventually bond equally well with a foster parent, such placements are often temporary, and relationships are often fraught.16

In other Western countries such as Germany and France, the primary goal of the child protection system is to help poor families care for their own children, not split them up.17 In France, for example, home visiting nurses offer advice and counseling to all mothers after the birth of each child, and those who need help with housing, drug problems, mental illness, or domestic violence receive services, sometimes for years. Children are removed from home only as a last resort. Unlike the US, these nations also guarantee paid family leave upon the birth of a child, free or inexpensive day care, nursery schools, and a system of public education that is, by and large, vastly superior to our own. In other words, these countries do what the Child Welfare Fund and like-minded organizations in this country have long advocated. But only the American government can make these investments on a scale that would have lasting impact.

Unfortunately, this is not a direction US policymakers are currently taking. Across the country poor families have suffered more than any other group from budget cuts in recent years. In New York alone, thousands of subsidized daycare, preschool, and after-school programs have been eliminated, along with treatment programs for parents with drug and mental health problems and emergency financial assistance to help struggling families.18 Meanwhile, welfare rolls have shrunk, even as poverty has risen.19 Although the GOP professes to support family values, congressional Republicans now propose—with Mitt Romney’s approval—to save $261 billion by cutting food stamps, school lunches, children’s health insurance, child abuse prevention, and other programs, while preserving defense spending and low taxes for high-income earners.