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.

 

Despite DHS Statement, Little Change Apparent in Oregon Child Protection Practice Since Hart Case

Policies and Procedures binders in the office. Stationery on a wooden shelf
Image: Oregon.gov

In a cover letter accompanying the records of its interactions with the Hart family–the six children and their adoptive parents who are all presumed dead after their van drove off a cliff on –the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) tacitly acknowledged that it botched an opportunity to rescue the six children from years of suffering and a tragic death. DHS also suggested that such a catastrophic error would not happen today because policy and practice have changed. But available evidence raises questions about whether vulnerable children are any safer in Oregon today than they were in 2013.

The released records show that DHS knew that Jennifer and Sarah Hart had been reported for child abuse six times in Minnesota and two of these reports had been confirmed. Sarah Hart had even pleaded guilty to misdemeanor abuse charges and was placed on probation. At least two women who knew the family reported the Hart withheld food from their children and used excessively harsh punishments. Nevertheless, DHS closed its investigation after concluding it was unable to determine that there was abuse in the home.

Since the time of the Harts’ assessment, according to the cover letter, “DHS has shifted practice from incident-based investigations to comprehensive safety assessments” and Oregon has “greatly increased efforts to provide ongoing training…on Oregon’s Safety Model (OSM).” A quick search showed that OSM, in comparison with the previous practice model, indeed was a step toward protecting vulnerable children. Instead of being dependent on confirming the specific allegations of abuse, the decision to act would now be based on the present safety of the children.

But the recent audit of child welfare in Oregon reveals that the OSM was actually rolled out in 2006–and was in place long before the Hart investigation. Unfortunately, it was never fully implemented because of inadequate training and opposition from administrators and staff. There seems to have been a new push to implement the model fully at about the same time as the Harts were being investigated in 2013. But statewide effort to retrain workers in the model was halted in 2014 and the resources reallocated to training in a new model, Differential Response. That model was in turn dropped but training in the OSM never resumed. Managers were still resistant it in 2017, when the audit was conducted.

Moreover, the DHS website shows that the new push to train staff in the Oregon safety model is still in its early stages. In a description of a project called Fidelity to the Oregon Safety Model Part 2, DHS states that “Some caseworkers and supervisors know and use the model well but other caseworkers and supervisors do not.” The website goes on to say that while online training is available, the agency needs more trainings, as well as coaching and quality assurance, to make sure the model is used “consistently.” (And this is a model that has been on the books since 2006!) The project aims to “create new training so that all staff understand and use the Oregon Safety Model and use it correctly.”

The timeline for the Fidelity to the Oregon Safety Model Project Part 2 is dated April 2018. According to the timeline, the project began in “March – May 2017” with the hiring of a project manager. In the intervening year, according to the timeline, the agency has created a work team, developed a project scope, held a kickoff meeting, developed a project plan, developed a scope of work for a consultant, finalized deliverables, assigned tasks and set timelines. It looks like the “active work” begins in August 2018 and the training will not begin until February 2019! So Oregon’s new statewide effort to train staff in the Oregon Safety model does not appear to have begun. Who knows whether this effort too will be dropped before it is implemented, and how effective the training will be if it is actually put into place?

But one part of the OSM seems to have been in use already, despite DHS’s claim that it was not. The DHS letter claimed that things would be different today because “case workers are trained to assess factors that contribute to a child’s vulnerability such as isolation (sic). Children who have no outsiders observing them are considered ‘highly vulnerable’ under the [Oregon Safety] Model and this factor must be considered…when making child safety decisions.” The Hart records show that DHS investigators were already assessing for vulnerability. In a section called “Vulnerability,” the investigator reported that “The children are completely dependent on their caregivers and do not have contact with any mandatory reporters, as they are home schooled.” Despite this understanding, the investigators opted to close the case without protective action.

DHS appears to be manipulating its reporting of the facts in order to suggest that its child welfare system has been reformed to prevent future catastrophic errors. But the recent audit and the case files themselves suggests this is not the case. The subtitle of the audit, “chronic management failures and high caseloads jeopardize the safety of some of the state’s most vulnerable children,” provides further reasons to doubt the capacity of DHS to protect the state’s most vulnerable children.