Therapeutic Group Homes: Needed Programs in Danger from Family First Act

Greenacres
Image: Greenacrehomes.org

It is a fact universally acknowledged that some children cannot thrive in foster care. This includes children whose behaviors are so challenging that most foster parents will be unable to cope. These children often go through many foster homes before they are finally placed in a more appropriate placement, usually a therapeutic group home or residential treatment program.

One of the goals of the Family First and Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), passed last year as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018), was to reduce the use of placements other than relative homes and traditional foster care. However, FFPSA recognized that some children and youth cannot thrive in foster care and allowed for placements to meet their needs. Unfortunately, the many restrictions imposed by theAct mean that many of these young people may not able to access these facilities or will be prematurely removed from them.

Many youth who are placed in foster care have serious emotional and behavioral issues. Many have endured years of trauma, including physical and sexual abuse, severe neglect, and living in dangerous and chaotic conditions. Some have cognitive or neurological issues caused by drug exposure in utero or severe neglect. Some have violent outbursts, many are verbally aggressive, and many have difficulty in making attachments. As a result of these problems, many of these hard-to-place young people have been placed in ten or more foster homes.

High-quality therapeutic group homes are more able than foster families to work with challenging youth for a number of reasons described in an excellent video from the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Commission. Their staff are trained in working with behaviorally challenging youth and often operate from a trauma-informed perspective. These facilities often have therapists and psychiatrists and other mental health personnel on staff. Good therapeutic group homes create a homelike environment, with young people living in cottages with a total of six or eight youths. Staff are dedicated and passionate about what they do. Unlike foster parents, these staff usually work shifts and thereby avoid burnout. Residents also draw strength from peers with similar issues, especially older peers who have improved and can serve as role models.

Some hard-to-place youth could thrive in the right kind of foster homes, those with training, time, and willingness to work with young people whose behavior is challenging. But many foster parents refuse to take teens or any or children with behavioral or mental health problems. Some states are trying to increase the availability of therapeutic foster homes, but funding and supply constraints mean that such efforts will be far too small to replace therapeutic group homes.

Unfortunately, the restrictions imposed by FFPSA may make it difficult to for many needed therapeutic group homes to continue operating. FFPSA allows the federal government to share the costs of treatment-based congregate care only at facilities that qualify as Qualified Residential Treatment Programs (QRTP). These programs must meet several criteria, including accreditation, a trauma-informed model, medical staff on call, and an aftercare program, among others. Accreditation especially is a long and arduous process that generally takes 12 to 18 months and some homes may not be able to accomplish it by the time the Act takes effect on October 1, 2019 (unless the state chooses to delay implementation for two years). Accreditation is a difficult and costly requirement for a smaller facility. It is important to ensure that only high-quality group homes retain state contracts, but accreditation may not be the best way to ensure quality for smaller programs.

Even more concerning are the limits on which children can be placed at these facilities and for how long. A child’s initial placement in a QRTP will not be reimbursed unless a “qualified professional” determines within 30 days of placement that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home.  This assessment must use an approved tool and be conducted by “a trained professional or licensed clinician who is not an employee of the State agency and who is not connected to, or affiliated with, any placement setting in which children are placed by the State.” The decision must be approved by a court within 60 days and must be reviewed at subsequent status hearings. 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.

There are several problems with these restrictions. It is not clear that agencies can find enough qualified professionals who are not employed by the agency or connected to any placement setting used by the state. More concerning are the time limits. Many therapeutic group home professionals believe that most children with emotional and behavioral problems cannot be in and out of therapeutic residential settings in six months. Many will need to stay a year or even longer.

Without needed therapeutic group homes, many children will experience a string of failed foster home placements, with each one leading to further damage to the child, who may end up on the streets or in jail. As a director of a facility that closed in North Dakota put it, new policies mean that “You are only going to refer kids to (residential child care facility) levels of care after you have exhausted all the other less restrictive options of care. That means putting them with their families, in foster care and repeating failed foster care placements several times before a referral to this level of care would be entertained.”

Group homes have already been closing around the country as states have adopted policies against congregate care (and also due to failure to provide adequate funding) and some states are already seen bad consequences from these closures. In Baltimore, the number of children sleeping in offices shot up from less than five per six month period in 2015 to 130 in the first half of 2018 due to a shortage of foster homes and a dramatic reduction in group home capacity. In Hillsborough County, Florida, hard-to-place foster youths have been spending the night in cars for lack of appropriate placements. In the state of Washington, group homes have been shutting down for years due the state’s failure to keep up with the increasing costs of care. This has contributed to a crisis in care for older, harder-to-serve youth, who are being put up in hotels, offices and $600-per night emergency foster homes and being sent out of state for care. In Illinois, hundreds of foster youths were being kept unnecessarily in psychiatric hospitals as of last August because of a decline in licensed residential facilities.

The attempt to close congregate care facilities without providing an alternative is eerily reminiscent of the closure of institutions for the mentally ill in the 1960s. These hospitals were supposed to be replaced with community health services that were never funded. We are still reaping the consequences with the abundance of mentally ill people sleeping on the streets of America’s cities.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, FFPSA’s group home restrictions were not based on ideology alone. The cost savings from reducing federal reimbursement for group homes were necessary to offset the increased cost of funding services to prevent children’s placement in foster care. But penny-wise is often pound-foolish and the future costs of eliminating therapeutic residential options for foster youth may be much greater than the present savings.

It is not too late for Congress to amend the Family First Act to reduce restrictions on therapeutic group care. Until we have an abundance of qualified therapeutic foster parents willing and able to take the hardest to place youth, cutting down on therapeutic group homes is irresponsible, short-sighted, and a recipe for possible disaster.

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Supporting home-like residential settings: a needed correction to the Family First Act

CrossnoreWith the passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, much attention has been paid to Part I, which allows jurisdictions to use federal foster care money to pay for services to a family to to prevent a child’s entry into foster care. Part IV of the Act, which drastically restricts federal reimbursement for placements other than relative homes and traditional foster care, has received less coverage.

Placements that are not in the homes of relatives or foster families are often described as “congregate care.” The term is generally used to include group homes, residential treatment, maternity homes, and other placements that are not a family home. As these placements have fallen out of favor, this label has taken on a pejorative tone.

The Administration on Children and Families stated in 2015, that

Although there is an appropriate role for congregate care placements in the continuum of foster care settings, there is consensus across multiple stakeholders that most children and youth, but especially young children, are best served in a family setting. Congregate care should be a temporary placement for young people with behavioral or mental health issues who need therapeutic services in order to become stable enough to return to a family setting.

FFPSA enshrines this view by denying federal funding for placement in congregate care settings beyond two weeks, unless the setting meets criteria for a Qualified Residential Treatment Program (QRTP) as defined by the Act. These include accreditation, a trauma-informed model, medical staff on call, and an aftercare program, among others.

Moreover, a child’s initial placement in a QRTP will not be reimbursed unless a qualified professional determines within 30 days of placement that the child needs to be placed in such a setting rather than a relative or foster family home.  This assessment must use an “age–appropriate, evidence-based, validated, functional assessment tool approved by the Secretary”  and the conclusion must be approved by a court within 60 days and must be reviewed at subsequent status hearings. A child cannot remain in such a setting for more than 12 consecutive months (or 6 months for a child under 13) without written approval from the head of the agency.

Keeping all but the most troubled children out of congregate care would make sense in a world with enough great foster homes to accommodate all children, including large sibling groups. But we are far from having such a world. In most states there are not enough foster homes, even including bad and indifferent ones, to accommodate all the children in need. And that means some children staying in congregate care, some in hotels, and others bouncing from one unsuitable home to another.

The shortage of foster homes is no secret, which is why foster home recruitment has been such a big topic in child welfare circles. Unfortunately, there is no sign that any of the highly-touted and often-expensive new efforts taking place around the country will make a dent in the gap between demand and supply. Society is changing in many ways, including the influx of women into the workforce,  and there are simply not enough people who are willing and able to provide foster care in the same areas where it is needed.

Yet there is another model of foster care that has not drawn sufficient attention and is in great danger from the implementation of FFPSA. These are residential homes and boarding schools providing “residential (home-like) non-treatment related services to children living away from their families,” according to the Coalition of Residential Excellence (CORE), which represents such programs. These programs often consist of one or more cottage-style homes with live-in cottage parents, with or without an onsite school.  Some of the well-known examples are the Crossnore School and Children’s Home in North Carolina, the Connie Maxwell Children’s Home in South Carolina, the San Pascual Academy in San Diego, A Kid’s Place in Tampa Bay and the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches.

Like QRTP’s, these residential programs are generally accredited, seek to involve families, and provide aftercare services, and they often have a trauma-informed model of care. But because these programs are not designed for children with severe behavioral problems who could not flourish in foster care, they cannot receive reimbursement under FFPSA.

So what is the problem? Couldn’t the children in these programs do equally well in traditional foster care?  There are numerous reasons why that may not be the case.

  1. There are simply not enough foster homes. If cottage-based residential facilities can no longer take children, that will worsen the situation and will lead to more stays in hotels, offices, sibling separations, and foster homes that are not well-matched to children’s needs. Unfortunately, FFPSA specifically says that “a shortage…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.”
  2. Due to the scarcity of foster families, few jurisdictions can afford to be choosy enough about whom they accept and retain. And that is why we never stop hearing stories of abusive foster homes that were not closed despite numerous complaints. And that is why every foster care social worker (and former workers like myself) can tell you multiple stories about foster parents who simply don’t care. They may not be abusive or neglectful, but they won’t lift a finger to take the doctor, visit their schools, or drive them to and from extracurricular activities. Of course there are many great foster parents, who treat their charges as their own children but these are a minority. Many foster homes are only slightly less deprived or chaotic than the homes from which the children were removed. When you contrast these homes to the enriched environments of a place like Crossnore (with its house pets, rope-based adventure playground, on-site school, medical care, and 19 kinds of therapy (including equine assisted therapy), it is hard to imagine anyone preferring an indifferent foster home.
  3. Many children must be separated from their siblings because most foster homes cannot take larger sibling groups. Many residential cottage-based programs like Crossnore, the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches,  and A Kid’s Place in Florida pride themselves on taking large sibling groups.
  4. Even the best foster parents can have trouble making sure the children’s needs are met in school and coordinating the wide variety of educational, mental health and medical services the child may need. Many of these residential facilities, benefiting from private donations, provide high-quality mental health services  and extracurricular activities on site. Those that have schools provide a seamless integration of home and school and education tailored to children’s needs and saving transportation time and funds.

Richard McKenzie, a professor of economics who grew up in an orphanage in the 1950’s, responded to the contention that children always do best in loving and responsible families as follows: “Well, duh! Clearly, families are the bedrock of all societies. The basic problem in child welfare is that many parents, biological and foster, are far from loving and responsible. Indeed, many are derelict in their duties.” (His article, The Success Story of Orphanages, is well worth a read.)

So why is Congress, along with other federal and state policymakers, so oblivious to the benefits of family-like residential settings? It is clear that the high cost of residential care contributed to Congress’ eagerness to restrict it. Savings from Part IV of FFPSA were needed to offset the cost of adding services under Part I. But cost comparisons are often deceptive and short-sighted.  Residential home-like programs provide therapists, case managers, after-school activities, and more. Moreover, they bring in substantial private funding in addition to state support. And the future savings that come from providing high-quality, trauma-informed care and education will doubtless reduce future expenditures caused by dropout, crime, and drug abuse.

CORE supports amending FFPSA to treat residential programs that use a house parent model as foster homes for the purpose of federal reimbursement. It is essential that Congress make this improvement this year before the provisions of FFPSA take effect in October. (A state can delay implementation for two years, which means it foregoes receipt of TItle IV-E funds for in-home services for the same period).

Cutbacks on residential programs have already resulted in sibling separations in states like California. From 2006 to 2015, Sonoma County Children’s Village was a haven for 24 foster children who lived in four homes, with surrogate grandparents living on campus. But after California began to limit group home placements to children requiring high levels of care, the village had to close.  Sixteen children, including a group of seven siblings, had to leave. Let us hope that Congress will have the compassion to prevent such senseless actions from taking place on a national scale.

Family First: A “Reform” that Isn’t

Family FirstBy now most readers will know that Congress passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) as part of the continuing resolution to fund the government until March 23. The passage of this major legislation as part of a continuing resolution marks the final victory of an ideological agenda that has taken over the child welfare advocacy community.

FFPSA was drafted in secret without feedback from stakeholders such as state and county child welfare administrators, many of whom expressed opposition to the bill or at least concern about its consequences.  After several failed attempts to pass the bill over a two-year period, it was finally passed as part of a continuing resolution that was urgently needed to fund the entire government and avert a shutdown.

If we had a more pluralistic intellectual landscape in child welfare, FFPSA might have looked very different. Any bill calling itself “child welfare finance reform” should have started by addressing the most egregious flaw in child welfare financing–the linkage between Title IV-E eligibility and eligibility for the long-defunct AFDC program, which was terminated in 1996.

As a result of this linkage, fewer children are eligible for Title IV-E assistance every year, and states spend millions of dollars on the useless exercise of verifying eligibility for every child entering the system, as described by Sean Hughes in the Chronicle of Social Change. Yet, the advocacy community, in its single-minded quest to reduce the foster care rolls, gave up the fight to de-link foster care from AFDC.

Instead, the goal of “finance reform” became expanding the use of Title IV-E funds to included what the Act calls “prevention services.” These are not services to prevent abuse and neglect, but rather to prevent a child’s entry into foster care once that abuse or neglect has already occurred. FFPSA allows the use of these funds to fund parenting education, drug treatment and mental health services for parents.

Most of these “prevention” services logically belong to other systems, such as drug treatment and mental health, and are also funded by Medicaid. But prevailing ideology favors diverting foster care funds to other purposes, ostensibly to encourage prevention. In the most recent display of this ideology, the President and CEO of Casey Family Programs testified last week that “for every $7 the Federal government spends on foster care, only $1 is spent on prevention.”

No footnote was provided, but it appears that Bell was restating a common refrain that compares Title IV-E foster care expenditures with spending under Title IV-B, that is used mostly for in-home services. This comparison fails to take into account all the services provided by other programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Social Services Block Grant, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, Medicaid, the Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program and the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. Most of these programs are insufficiently funded, but it makes sense to increase their funding rather than divert funds that were designed to help good Samaritans meet the needs of the children they have volunteered to care for temporarily.

This view that a foster home is always better than a congregate (non-family) placement is another part of the prevailing ideology in child welfare. Congregate placements also happen to be more expensive, making restrictions on congregate care a perfect offset to FFPSA’s increased costs. It’s very convenient when ideological correctness coincides with saving money! Unfortunately, restrictions on congregate care may be harmful to children when there is a foster home shortage and so many of today’s foster homes are inadequate, as I described in my last column.

The lack of robust conversation and debate in the child welfare advocacy community has resulted in a “reform” that will create more problems than it solves. Our most vulnerable children deserved a better outcome.