Once the parent get into a stable housing, the process to reunite the family is cumbersome, filled with delays and red-tape, and can take many months.
From the Philadelphia Daily News, writer Dana DiFilippo exposes this problem.
One fifth of foster children nationally landed in county custody - or languished there, as housing issues delayed family reunification - because of inappropriate housing, according to the Child Welfare League of America. A third of the nation's foster children have at least one homeless or "unstably housed" parent, according to the league.
Desensitized bureaucrats too often equate poverty with neglect and seize children away from biological parents whose only "offense" is hardship, critics charge.
And once kids are in the system, it can prove insurmountably difficult to get them out.
Parents petitioning to get their children back in Philadelphia typically wait five months between hearings, local parent-advocates say.
Because federal law requires social-service agencies to place foster children in permanent homes - biological or adoptive - after 15 months in county custody, biological parents might have just two or three chances to get their children back.
"There is not endless time to resolve some pretty serious problems," said Kathy Gomez, managing attorney of the Family Advocacy Unit of Community Legal Services, who represents hundreds of parents in custody cases.
Under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, the list of reasons why children can be placed in county care is vast and varied: Physical or sexual abuse; delinquency under age 10; the death of or abandonment by parents; parental behavior such as drug abuse that endangers the child; the child's habitual disobedience or truancy; and so on.
Poverty is not on the list.
But poverty is a common denominator in many of the families whose children end up in foster care. It invites authorities' scrutiny, and snowballs into other issues that could prompt removal or delay reunification, child advocates say.
"It's easy to come under child-protection observation when you're poor," Gomez said. "And there's no room for error when you're poor: Once something goes wrong, things just tend to spiral."
Housing problems frequently result.
Parents struggling to pay rent might not have money to cover utilities or maintenance and repairs, creating living conditions that social workers might deem unsafe for children, Gomez said. Others who can't afford child care and transportation costs might miss so much work that they get fired - and without a paycheck to pay rent or a mortgage, they lose their housing, she said.
"Lack of housing is not legal grounds for removal, but homelessness, housing problems and residence in low-income neighborhoods all result in a greater likelihood of CPS [child-protective services] being involved," said Corey Shdaimah, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Maryland who has studied the correlation between poverty, housing and child welfare issues.
Ruth White, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, agreed: "Child welfare won't say that they have actually separated a family because of housing. But it totally happens."