Reducing Congregate Care Placements: not so easy, not always good for kids

Plumfield
Image: plumfieldacademy.net

Most child welfare experts and policymakers at all levels seem to agree that our nation needs to reduce the use of group homes and other non-family placements (often called “congregate care”) for foster youth. Yet signs from around the country suggest that the drive to move foster youth quickly out of congregate care is facing some obstacles–and may be resulting in more damage to foster youth.

The child welfare establishment–including the federal Administration for Children and Families, agency leaders at the state and local level, prominent think-tanks, scholars, and foundations–is in agreement that “every kid needs a family.” These leaders acknowledge that some foster youth need a group placement to address behavioral issues that may prevent success in foster care, but such youth should be moved out of the group setting as soon as these issues are addressed.

In 2015, the California Legislature took the lead in implementing this new focus by enacting the Continuum Care Reform (CCR), which required all foster youth to be placed in families except those requiring intensive supervision and treatment for a temporary period. Such youth must be placed in Short-Term Residential Treatment Programs (SRTP’s), which must be accredited and meet rigorous standards.

Congress followed in 2018 by adopting the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA, (Title VII of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018), which imposed similar changes on the federal level, with a temporary congregate therapeutic option called Quality Residential Treatment Programs (QRTP’s) instead of SRTP’s. To receive reimbursement for a QRTP placement, a “qualified professional” must determines within 30 days of the placement  that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home. The decision must be approved by a court within 60 days and reviewed at subsequent hearings (usually every three to six months). Moreover, a child cannot remain in a QRTP for more than 12 consecutive months (or 6 months for a child under 13) without written approval from the head of the agency.

California, where CCR took effect in 2017, has been widely viewed as a harbinger of what might happen after FFPSA takes effect next October. But Golden State policymakers have been “shocked shocked” to learn that children have not been moving out of congregate care settings as fast as anticipated. The reform was expected to pay for itself due to savings from moving children from pricier congregate care settings to cheaper family homes.  However, this has not happened. The Office of the Legislative Analyst has found higher than projected state spending for one main reason: instead of moving from group homes into family foster homes, children are moving into “STRTPS,” the new congregate option offered by CCR.

Although the Legislative Analyst did not speculate about reasons for the slow transition, one does not have to look far for clues. A report from San Joaquin County indicates that the county is unable to find homes for the teens with the greatest needs, who remain in group homes. Efforts to recruit foster parents willing to take on these challenging youths have so far failed.

Another jurisdiction that started eliminating group homes long before the Family First Act was New York City. The city’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is reeling from an alarming report about the intake center where children are taken after being removed from their families. Workers described an atmosphere of chaos, violence, weapons in plain sight, feces-smeared walls, overcrowding and “a dangerous mix of babies and young children with special needs living alongside troubled teens and even adults straight out of jail.” This intake center was was meant as a place for children to wait for a few  hours until a placement could be arranged. But staff report young people with behavioral problems or medical needs living in the shelter for months because foster families cannot be found for them. One disabled teenager lived there for a year. The president of the union representing ACF workers blamed these long stays on management decisions made years ago to close group homes, based on the belief that family homes were better for children. Unfortunately, the agency has not been able to find families to take in many children with behavioral problems, mental disabilities, and histories of trauma and abuse.

In Georgia, there are more children in foster care than ever before and not enough homes for them. Wanting to address this problem, long-time foster and adoptive parents John and Kelly DeGarmo started the Never Too Late (NTL) foster home for boys. But when they applied for a license to accept youth from the foster care system, they found it was too late. Due to the Family First Act, Georgia was not going to license any new residential group homes. State administrators instead asked NTL to serve as a Transitional Living Program, (TLP), for youth ages 16-21 as the boys transition from foster care to independent living. These programs are also needed, but one can’t help but wonder about Georgia’s plan for meeting the needs of the many children who cannot find foster homes and could have thrived in atmosphere of loving care at Never Too Late. 

In my own jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, the Child and Family Services Agency is proud of the low percentage of foster youth that are in group homes, attributing it to “the agency’s success in supporting children and youth with higher needs in traditional foster homes.”  Yet, advocates are declaring a foster care placement crisis. There is a lack of appropriate foster homes for many children, particularly older teens and those with behavioral problems. As a result, according to the Children’s Law Center, foster youth experience multiple placement disruptions, with devastating consequences to their mental health. CLC also blames the placement crisis for delayed removals of children from unsafe homes, youths remaining in poorly matched placement, and youths leaving their official placements for unofficial community settings. Yet, there is no voice advocating for more therapeutic group homes, the most appropriate setting for many such youths.

The state of Washington has about 100 youths in out-of-state facilities due to a lack of in-state beds. A scathing report recently described abusive restraint practices and other problems at an Iowa facility where Washington was sending some of its foster youth. In a letter to the legislature, Ross Hunter, director of the Department of Children Youth and Families, acknowledged that the agency has an insufficient array of therapeutic group homes and residential facilities for children with severe behavioral problems that make it impossible to maintain them in foster homes. Among the consequences of this shortage, Hunter cites the following: (1) children being repeatedly placed in homes that can’t handle them, resulting in damage to the children and loss of foster parents to the system; (2) over 2000 office and hotel stays for children last year; and (3) use of expensive one-night placements “at extraordinary cost and detriment to the child,” in addition to the out-of-state placements. Hunter proposes to bring all of Washington’s children home and eliminate office and hotel stays by expanding the number of therapeutic group home beds, as well as increasing the quality of existing congregate placements.

Oregon is also reeling from reports of abusive out-of-state placements. After being sued for housing foster kids in hotels, it stopped that practice but sent more high-needs children out of state. Reports of a nine-year-old being injected with Benadryl to control her behavior have led to a public outcry that over 80 Oregon foster kids are in out-of-state facilities, many of them troubled for-profits, because the state lacks residential programs to provide the treatment they need.

Washington and Oregon are among the states with the highest proportions of foster children placed in families, according to federal data cited in a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that drew extensive press coverage.  The report provided state-by-state numbers, generating media coverage (but not in Washington and Oregon) that praised those jurisdictions with lower group home percentages and chastising those with higher rates. But nowhere did the authors mention the fact that eliminating too many congregate placements may lead to foster youth staying in offices, hotels, emergency placements, and abusive out-of-state facilities.

We are not taking this opportunity to argue that many group homes (especially those using the house parent model) are more family-like than many foster homes–which we have argued elsewhere. Even if we accept the premise that no young person should be in a group home one minute longer than necessary once ready to function well in a foster home, there are several problems with implementing this premise in the real world.

  • We don’t have a diagnostic instrument capable of determining in advance who “needs” a congregate placement and who does not. As of now, it is a subjective determination, making it difficult to project a specific decline in congregate care placement. There is concern that the FFA may make it too difficult for children to gain access to the therapeutic placements they need.
  • Whether a child is “ready” for family life depends upon the families available. Some very gifted, well trained and dedicated foster parents can nurture high-needs youth who would not thrive in the average foster home. But when such a parent is not available, a child might be better off in a high-quality therapeutic group placement.
  • Often a family simply cannot be found that is willing to accept a teen with troubling behaviors or a history of residential treatment or delinquency. The most ridiculous sentence in FFPSA is this one: “A shortage or lack of foster family homes shall not be an acceptable reason for determining that the needs of the child cannot be met in a foster family home. ” What should be done then with a child that has no place to go?
  • A year (or six months for a preteen) may not be enough time for a troubled child to become “family-ready.”. Many children and teens in foster care have suffered years of trauma in their homes, and perhaps multiple placements in foster care. The time required is more likely measured in years than in months.
  • It may be difficult for smaller, high quality group homes to meet the criteria for QRTP’s.

There is no doubt that many congregate care facilities are of poor quality–witness the horrors suffered by Washington and Oregon youths who were shipped out of state. The framers of FFPSA were right in wanting to ensure that these facilities entrusted with our most fragile youth are up to the task, although they  adopted a blunt instrument for doing this. Let’s hope that other states follow Washington’s plan and respond to FFPSA by ensuring that therapeutic group homes are adequate in quality and quantity rather than eliminating them.

 

4 thoughts on “Reducing Congregate Care Placements: not so easy, not always good for kids

  1. This is a thorough and well-reasoned analysis of why the drive to reduce group homes and residential treatment isn’t always good for children. Sweeping, top-down legislation and policy directions like this are essentially political statements based on how the authors think things should but don’t reflect the realities that children and local agencies have to deal with.

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  2. Since children can’t vote, they are being victimized again and again by politicians and many child organizations for monetary gain and feel good photo op moments. There are not enough good foster homes, there never have been and there never will be. That is a fact that lawmakers need to accept or these children will continue to suffer. The author mentions California’s Continuum of Care Reform. Well, implementation struggles have caused the price of that reform to soar by an estimated $101 million, according to a recent analysis from the California State Legislature. In a report released last month, the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office CCR was expected to pay for itself in under five years. It appears that it’s not only not paying for itself but it’s doubling the cost.

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  3. Thoughtful article. Top down child welfare legislation often misses the mark, overregulates, and burdens child welfare professionals with inordinate reporting and paperwork requirements. The emphasis should be on developing assessment tools that properly address children’s placement needs.

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