Child advocates have long warned that in the coming decades the US will experience a sharp rise in the number of children who are living in homes without a roof over their heads.
And as more states adopt measures to restrict or close down shelters and child care facilities, they are also pushing to raise the minimum age to 18 from the current 15, a step that many advocates say will lead to a surge in children living in unsanitary conditions.
But as the crisis intensifies, a new generation of advocates is pushing to reduce the number and severity of such facilities, which they say are fueling an epidemic of child abuse and neglect in a nation where the number is far below its peak in the 1970s.
Nowhere is this debate more pressing than in the rural parts of the country, where the most visible sign of the worsening situation is the number, and increasing, of children living with no roof over the heads of their parents.
The problem is so severe that a study published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in 2017 there were more than 2.5 million cases of children in unsheltered, unregulated, child-care facilities.
“We’ve got more than 1 million kids in this country who have not been able to see their parents, so that’s a big problem,” said David Schleicher, the director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Minnesota.
The Minnesota report also found that almost three-quarters of the children in facilities in the state were living with their mothers or fathers who are either working outside the home or not providing enough care for their children.
“The majority of the homes are run by people who are not trained to care for kids,” said Schleacher, who is based in Minneapolis.
“And so, as we’ve seen in other places around the country with housing crises and child abuse, they tend to leave.
And then they just disappear.”
A key issue for child advocates is whether or not to cut funding for the states that have the most un-licensed child care centers, and in what order.
In many cases, those facilities are run largely by religious-based organizations that rely on a few volunteers, Schleecher said.
He said that in many cases these programs don’t work, and that many of the facilities are simply unsafe, unsanitized and unprofessional.
In some cases, child advocates say, the facilities simply are not adequately equipped to handle children, including in the case of a facility that was built without proper health codes.
The child advocacy group, Families in Need of Child Care, has filed a lawsuit in state court seeking to compel the states to reinstate all of their child care programs and shut down unlicensed facilities.
In Minnesota, the group is also pursuing legislation that would require the state to pay for the cost of maintaining these facilities.
The bill has yet to be filed, but Schleiche said the state is considering filing a lawsuit.
“This is the last thing we need in the country right now,” Schleich said.
“When you have so many kids living in these facilities that are not being cared for properly, that’s not a problem for the parents or the children.”
In Minnesota’s case, the most recent numbers from the Minnesota Department of Human Services show that more than half of all child care homes in the United States are run as licensed facilities, but that the number has not yet surpassed 50% of all homes, according to the report.
Schleick said he’s concerned that the growing number of unlicensed child-caring facilities is contributing to a significant increase in the overall number of child deaths and injuries in Minnesota, and it’s only a matter of time before the state sees a significant number of these unlicensed children killed or injured in accidents.
“There is a real crisis,” he said.