For all of the parents out there, imagine having to decide whether to split up your family to live in different shelters versus keeping the family together and living in your car.

During these tough economic times, these are the heartbreaking decisions that some families have to make every day. National attention was brought over the summer to the story of the Prince and Charlomane Leonard in Houston, TX, after their six children were taken away from their parents by Child Protective Services when their family was found living in a storage unit. The unit was 10,000 square feet and had beds, a microwave, refrigerator, air conditioning as well as fresh water brought in everyday by Mr. Leonard for bathing, cooking, and a compost toilet.

Mrs. Leonard claimed her family had everything required under the Texas Family Code, even if they weren’t living in a traditional setting. Luckily, the story has a happy ending -the children have since been returned to their parents after activists helped them find a rental home.

Federal law defines child abuse and neglect as “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” Most states recognize four forms of maltreatment, including both physical and emotional neglect. Physical neglect is often defined as failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s latest National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, from 2005 to 2006 children in households with low socioeconomic status experienced maltreatment 5 times the rate of other children, and were seven times as likely to be neglected. Rates of neglect for children with an unemployed parent were 2 to 3 times higher than children with employed parents.

Incidents of child abuse and neglect are not unique to low-income families. However, these families do have unique stressors, such as job loss, housing instability, and more limited access to goods and services. These stressors can hinder a parent’s ability to provide sufficient psychological as well as material support to their children.

Stories like the Leonard family are becoming all too common. As more families find themselves struggling- according to the latest Census data, more than 37% of families with children are living in poverty- state child welfare agencies are facing tough decisions about what conditions rise to the level of neglect. There is no easy answer to this. However, separating a family should be the last resort. Instead of trying to decide whether a family living in a storage unit or their car constitutes neglect, states need to focus on ensuring that when families hit tough times, there is a safety net in place to help them stay in their home and provide necessities for themselves and their children.

We need to help these struggling families by supporting programs that keep children and their families in their homes and out of poverty. As families continue to have to spend higher percentages of their income on rent, additional investments in affordable housing, including Section 8 vouchers and the National Housing Trust Fund, are needed and would provide options for families facing homelessness.

In addition to housing needs, recent changes to the primary cash assistance program for low-income families with children, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), have proved worrisome for the families it is intended to support. Although TANF was recently extended for three months, the extension continued the flat rate of funding for the overall block grant, but did not continue funding for the Supplemental Grants or the Contingency fund. The Supplemental Grants assist 17 states with particularly high-need populations, and the grant funds were often for child welfare programs. Without these vital funding streams, states lack the money to maintain the same level of services for families — though the need for these services remains high. When Congress takes up a longer extension of the TANF program, or full reauthorization, they should restore these Supplemental Grants as well as the Contingency fund in order to help families and children in need.

Another important support for low-income families with children is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which — as the largest poverty reduction program in the U.S. — helped keep 3 million children out of poverty in 2010 by decreasing taxes on low-wage workers, thereby allowing families with a parent working for minimum wage to rise above the poverty line. Under ARRA, EITC expanded to include larger families. Congress must act, however, to make these improvements permanent before their expiration at the end of 2012.

Finally, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) funds community-based child abuse prevention programs, which provide a range of services designed to strengthen families. Unfortunately, it continues to be underfunded and these community-based organizations often have to rely on charitable donations. CAPTA needs to be adequately funded in order to effectively protect vulnerable children by supporting parents experiencing job loss and financial stress.

These recommendations are for all families, so we can prevent others from ever having to face poverty and make the tough choices that the Leonard family had to make.