Foster care has finally made it to the front page of the Washington Post, and a sad story it is. The story highlights the growing crisis in many states due to the increase in drug addiction bringing in its wake a cascade of child removals into foster care, outstripping the supply of foster homes and other placement. The problems outlined in the article are real and urgent, but the analysis and prescriptions offered in the article and subsequent editorial reveal the authors’ lack of understanding of the issues, which results in the repetition of false narratives and common misleading tropes.
The Post‘s front-page article focused on a growing crisis caused by increased drug addiction among parents, especially the opioid crisis. The author, Emily Wax Thibodeaux, zeroed in on West Virginia, one of the epicenters of the crisis. She introduced us to Arther Yoho, a young man who spent more than two years in a detention center because there was no foster parent available to take him in. Locked up with 27 juveniles with criminal convictions, Arther was failed by the system that was supposed to protect him.
Thibodeaux reports that other desperate states are using emergency shelters, hotels and out-of-state institutions to house youth for whom there is no foster family home available. This is tragic and true, and I wrote about it in a recent post, although the placement of foster youth in detention centers along with criminally charged youth may be unique to West Virginia with its cataclysmic foster care crisis. Thibodeaux reports Oregon’s use of refurbished detention centers to house foster youth, which is certainly not ideal but is quite different from housing them with juvenile offenders. In any case, Thibodeaux is right to point out that many young people in foster care are being placed in inappropriate (and often harmful) placements because appropriate ones are not available.
However, Thibodeaux takes an unwarranted conceptual leap by linking the placement of children in inappropriate facilities to states’ use of congregate care, a term used to connote placements that are not families. These include what are generally known as group homes, as well as residential treatment centers, which are part of the accepted continuum of care for foster youth. While detention centers are never appropriate for foster youth who have not been charged with a crime, group homes and residential treatment centers may be the appropriate placement, often for a limited time, for some youths in foster care. These are the young people who cannot be maintained in a regular foster home because of their defiant, violent, or self-destructive behavior. Many of these children might be able to “step down” to foster care after spending time at a therapeutic residential facility. It is possible that some of these young people could be helped in a professional therapeutic foster home staffed by salaried and trained foster parents, an approach that is gaining increasing interest, but programs so far are few and small and not likely to meet the need for therapeutic placements.
Thibodeaux cites the common trope that “Compared with foster children living with families, those housed in congregate care settings are more likely to drop out of high school, commit crimes and develop mental health problems.” That is very true. But it is a matter of correlation, not causation. It is the younger and less damaged children who end up in foster homes in the first place. Not surprisingly, they are likely to have better outcomes. Concluding that congregate care causes the negative outcomes may well be akin to concluding that fire trucks cause fire damage since buildings that have been visited by fire trucks are far more likely than typical buildings to have sustained fire damage. We don’t have a body of research on what happens to children with similar risk factors who spend time in foster homes compared to those who spend the same amount of time in group homes.
Thibodeaux appears to be unaware that some of the states with the lowest proportions of children in congregate care are those that are struggling the most with inappropriate placements. Washington and Oregon are among the states with the highest proportions of foster children placed in families as opposed to congregate care facilities, according to federal data cited in a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Both states have been the subject of disturbing media reports that foster youth are staying in hotels, offices and substandard and abusive out-of-state facilities. That’s not surprising, since appropriate options are not available. In Washington, ten years of group home closures led to the current crisis. The director of Washington’s child welfare agency has requested funding to expand the capacity of therapeutic group home beds to accommodate the children who are now staying in hotels and offices. The director of Oregon’s agency has cited a reduced number of treatment beds as a cause of children being sent to substandard and abusive out-of-state facilities.
By implying that all congregate care placements are inappropriate, Thibodeaux lays the groundwork for false conclusions about policy. Rather than saying that states need to beef up their therapeutic options, whether they are professionally-trained therapeutic foster parents or therapeutic group homes or residential treatment centers, Thibodeaux suggests that the new Family First Prevention Services Act, which makes it more difficult to obtain federal reimbursement for congregate care stays, may solve the problem.
Actually, the Family First Act may well make things worse. By making it harder to license therapeutic group homes, there is reason to fear that Family First will exacerbate the placement crisis. This has already happened when group homes closed in in jurisdictions like Oregon, Washington, New York City, and Baltimore. In California, the closure of group homes due to their Continuum of Care “reform” (a predecessor of the Family First Act) has resulted in, according to one veteran service provider, “fewer kids in group homes, but only because there are fewer group homes and counties have inappropriately been pushing challenging, difficult-to-manage youth into lower levels of care.”
The Washington Post followed Thibodeaux’ article with an editorial, “The Crisis in Foster Care,” which repeated and further distorted some of Thibodeaux’s questionable statements. Where Thibodeaux reported that 71% of foster children aged 12 to 17 are in congregate care placements in West Virginia (a high number to be sure), the editorial page erroneously stated that seven in ten of all foster children are in such foster care placements. That is a huge difference as older children are much more likely to be in such placements.
The opinion writers go on to repeat Thibodeaux’ misleading statement from the Casey Foundation about children in group homes doing worse than those in foster homes. However, they also cite discouraging outcome data about children growing up with foster parents. Because both options seem bad, the opinion writers suggest that “the least-bad option for many children” may be staying or reuniting with their parents, “unless there is abuse in the home. “They go on to cite one of the most persistent tropes of all that child protective services workers “often remove minors from neglectful parents who, while a far cry from being good caregivers, may still be better than group homes.”
The trope that child neglect is “less than ideal parenting” is belied by some of the stories that have come out of West Virginia and other states in the throes of the opioid crisis. We’ve all heard the stories: infants born addicted to drugs to mothers unable to care for them, children who lost their parents and even their extended families due to opioid overdoses, children abandoned at home without food while parents seek drugs, children strapped in cars while their parents get high, babies and toddlers who ingest heroin, alcohol or meth; children whose parents are incarcerated due to substance abuse or dealing; and more. This is not “imperfect parenting” but something much worse. Living with an addicted parent is has a host of negative consequences that may be lifelong and is in itself considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).
One article from the Seattle Times documents the impact of the drastic increase in infants born addicted to drugs when they reach school age. “[The lives of children who grow up with drug-abusing parents are marked frequently by the presence of police, the constant fear of a mother or father’s incarceration and the likelihood of sudden death by overdose — all traumas shown to impede brain development and learning.”
To add insult to injury, the Post did not even seek to find out what is happening in its own back yard. Only two weeks before Thibodeaux’s article, a hearing was held in the 30-year-old LaShawn class action case to discuss the current placement crisis in the District of Columbia. The Judge referred to a letter from the court monitor that 31 children, including seven children between eight and ten years old, experienced a total of 60 overnight stays at the Child and Family Services Agency between April and November of 2019. All of these children had challenging behaviors that excluded them from existing placements. The agency director acknowledged that the District needs more therapeutic placements (either in family or group settings) for these children. The District is in the process of developing a new group home and “a couple of” professional foster parents. The District is a small jurisdiction and its crisis is dwarfed by that of West Virginia, but its 60 office stays deserved a mention in our hometown paper.
The Washington Post‘s treatment of foster care illustrates the consequences of letting reporting and editorial staff without subject matter expertise tackle a complex subject like foster care. Repeating false narratives and tropes from alleged authorities is easy and saves time. But it does not help readers to understand what is wrong and what is needed and on the contrary leads them to look for “solutions” that may make things worse.