Supporting homelike 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.

The Family First Act: A Bad Bill that Won’t Go Away

continuing rsolution

Some bad ideas just won’t go away. The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) is rearing its ugly head yet again. The act, which failed to pass the Senate in 2016, has been incorporated into the continuing appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives on February 6.

Chapter I of the Act, billed as “Investing in Prevention and Family Services,” would allow Title IV-E funds to be used to fund services meant to keep children out of foster care, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, parent training and counseling, and kinship navigator programs.

The general idea of allowing Title IV-E funds to be used for services to prevent foster care placement makes sense. (I prefer to call these family preservation services rather than “preventive services” because true preventive services would seek to prevent maltreatment before it occurred, rather than preventing removal from the home after maltreatment has already occurred.)  But the bill limits the list of services funded to mental health, substance abuse treatment, and parent education and training. It does not include services like domestic violence prevention, peer mentoring or support groups, crisis intervention, housing assistance, and many others that could be crucial to keeping families together.

Chapter II of FFPSA is billed as “Ensuring the Necessity of a Placement that is Not in a Foster Family Home.” This chapter would forbid federal reimbursement for a placement other than a foster family home (often called “congregate care”) beyond two weeks without an “age-appropriate, evidence-based, validated functional assessment” using a tool approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services to determine that the child’s needs cannot be met “with family members or through placement in a foster family home.” Such placements must also be approved by a court within 60 days. The bill also establishes stringent requirements that must be met by agencies seeking to qualify for reimbursement, including on-site nurses, for example.

This approach is problematic for two reasons.

First, we don’t have enough foster homes. States around the country are reporting foster home shortages. Reports of children being housed in offices and hotels have come from California, Texas, Oregon, Kansas, and Georgia, Tennessee, and Washington DC. With group homes closed, this problem will only worsen.

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.

Nevertheless, the authors of the Family First Act made sure to specify that: “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.” One wonders where these children should go but perhaps the sponsors don’t care. It is the states and counties that will find a place for the children, even if the federal government does not pay a share.

Second, we don’t have enough good-quality foster homes. Anyone who works with foster children and parents knows that a minority of foster parents do a spectacular job, treating their charges like their own children. But many of the other homes barely improve upon the abusive or neglectful homes the children were removed from.

I’m talking about foster parents that never visit the child’s school or transport them to activities, insist that the social worker to take them to the doctor and therapist, refuse to meet the child’s birth family, and siphon off part of the foster care payment for their own purposes. These children need extra love, support, and enrichment, not the bare bones of room and board and nothing else.

The widespread simplistic belief that a foster family home is always better than a non-family setting has been promoted widely with heavy support from ideologically driven funders and advocates including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs. These groups employ slogans like Every Kid Needs a Family, ignoring the fact that most children entering foster care do have a family that they want to return to, and would not necessarily prefer being placed in a family of strangers rather than an educational or group setting where they can receive the enrichment they need while awaiting reunification.

Research supports the idea that quality is more important than the type of setting, and that high-quality group care can have even better outcomes than high-quality foster home care. Moreover large sibling groups can often be kept together only by placement in a non-family setting.

It is hard to understand that anyone believe that a loveless, bare-bones foster home is better than an idyllic environment like the Crossnore School in North Carolina, where foster children  (including sibling groups) benefit from dedicated cottage parents, an onsite school, and multiple forms of mental health treatment, including equine-assisted therapy. But the bare-bones foster home has one advantage over Crossnore. It is much cheaper.

Clearly, legislators want the savings from eliminating non-family options to offset the increased costs imposed by the expansion of Title IV-E to include preventive services. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the restriction on non-family placements would offset almost 70% of the costs of extending IV-E reimbursement to family preservation services, over a ten-year period.

It is not surprising that government officials in the three states with the largest foster care populations–California, New York, and Texas, have all expressed concern about or opposition to the Family First Act. Other states have expressed their opposition as well .

Aside from a pair of hearings that were orchestrated by the bill’s sponsors to support their vision for the legislation, there have been no hearings or floor debate on the Family First Act. Last year, it passed the House by voice vote, and its Senate sponsors tried to get it through without a vote before going on summer recess. They failed, thanks to courageous Senators who cared about children enough to resist pressure from the powerful coalition supporting the bill.

Lets hope that the same wise and courageous Senators make sure this dangerous legislation is not allowed to slip into law in the urgent effort to pass a continuing resolution. Lets not save money on our most vulnerable kids. Spending money on better placements now will surely reap savings down the road in crime, unemployment, and welfare receipt.

 

$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 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.