$600 for overnight foster care? Time to consider the alternatives

Washington State’s Children’s Administration (CA) is desperate. In order to avoid lodging abused and neglected children in hotel rooms or agency offices, it has increased to $600 per night the amount it is willing to pay foster parents to keep children in their homes for one night in emergency short-term situations, according to the independent news organization InvestigateWest.

Washington’s placement crisis is being driven by a large decrease in the number of available foster homes combined with an increase in the foster care population that coincides with a ballooning heroin and opioid addiction epidemic.

But even $600 overnight fees cannot generate an adequate supply of beds for Washington’s foster children. The state reported a total of 236 hotel stays in August 2017, at the remarkable cost of about $2,100 per night including the cost of paying two social workers and sometimes a security guard to supervise the children.

Washington may be an unique in paying $600 per night, but the same combination of increasing foster care caseloads and decreasing or stagnant supply of foster parents can be found in most parts of the country. Governing Magazine reports that 35 states saw an increase in their foster care caseloads between 2012 and 2015.

Reports of children being housed in offices and hotels have come from California, Texas, Oregon, Kansas, and Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington DC. Children newly entering the system, and those with behavioral issues who are repeatedly kicked out of foster homes, seem to bear the ones most affected.

In addition to the incredible waste of government funds, the warehousing of already traumatized young people in temporary and non-therapeutic environments is the antithesis of the therapeutic care they need.

Another casualty of the desperate need for foster parents may be the reluctance to revoke the licenses of neglectful foster parents. In my five years as a social worker, I begged my agency not to renew the licenses of foster parents who refused to take their children to the doctor, never met their therapists and never visited their schools, even to pick them up when they were sick. I never got my way.

The recent congressional investigation of the for-profit MENTOR foster care agency illustrates the worst-case scenario of foster parents who killed the children who had been entrusted to their care. While severe maltreatment by foster parents is extremely rare, the continued licensing of unacceptable foster parents reflects in part the desperate need for their services.

We cannot rely on traditional foster care to solve a placement crisis of this magnitude. Alternatives must be considered, particularly for new entrants to the system and older and more challenging youths.

For children who have just been removed from their homes, the answer is clear. Temporary assessment centers need to be reinstated as the first step for children entering foster care. In the last few decades, many states closed their emergency shelters and assessment centers in the belief that institutional settings are bad for children.

The elimination of shelters and assessment centers resulted in the phenomenon of middle-of-the night placements that I described in a previous column. This system results in an almost random assignment of child to home based on who answers the phone at 3:00 AM. This is no way to match a child with the most appropriate placement.

For children older than elementary school age, particularly those with more challenging behaviors, we need to consider an array of alternatives to traditional foster care. Some of these options are on the border of family foster care and group care.

On the family side, these include programs in which professional parents receive a salary for caring for foster kids. To make professional foster care economically feasible, foster homes must be larger and serve anywhere between four and eight children. I have written about several such programs. These include Neighbor to Family, which provides professional foster care to sibling groups in the same home.

Some of these programs provide housing to foster parents in “foster care communities” which provide the added benefit of community support and programmatic  resources on site. These include SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida, and  Pepper’s Ranch in Oklahoma.

On the other side of the artificial foster home/group home divide are group homes that are structured like families, with live-in houseparents. These include Boys Town, homes following the Teaching Family model, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches, and many others.

Residential schools, such as the Crossnore School in North Carolina or San Pasqual Academy in Escondido, CA, also have many advantages. Students live in cottages run by house parents and benefit from enriched educational opportunities, extracurricular activities, and medical and mental health services.

All of these programs have the added benefit of keeping larger sibling groups together, a major and often unrealized goal in child welfare. San Pasqual Academy, which provides only high school on campus, will even accept middle-school-age siblings to live in its residences and attend community schools until they are promoted to high school.

Child welfare leaders at all levels need to begin a conversation about alternatives to standard family foster care. Many of these models are more expensive than traditional foster care. But considering the short-term and long-term costs of temporarily housing foster children in offices and hotels for days or weeks at a time, the money would be well-spent.

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