Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) recently held Senate hearings on group home foster care placements. He is quoted as saying, “No one would support allowing states to use federal taxpayer dollars to buy cigarettes for foster youth. …Continuing to use these scarce taxpayer dollars to fund long-term placements in group homes is ultimately just as destructive.”
According to the report Every Kid Needs a Family issued by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in May 2015, one in seven children in foster care is placed in a group setting. Worse, about one in three teenaged foster youth are placed in a group home. More than 40% of the foster children in group homes have no documented clinical or behavioral need that would justify that placement. In other words, these are children who could and should be placed with either relatives or foster parents in a family setting.
In 2013, the latest year for which statistics are available, almost 7000 foster children in California were in group home placements. This is despite federal and state laws requiring agencies to place foster children in the least restrictive, most homelike setting possible. Recent state legislation has attempted to curb the length of time a child may spend in a group home but it is too early to tell whether that legislation will achieve the intended result.
As the Casey report points out, there is a lot of evidence that family placements, whether it be with relatives or foster parents, are better for kids and are more likely to promote the child’s long and short-term emotional health. Research shows that children who are placed in with relatives or in foster family homes have better educational outcomes, are more likely to be employed, and are more likely to succeed later on in life.
It is time to stop warehousing kids in group homes because we have failed to make a real effort to find and approve appropriate relative placements as soon as the child is detained. Although the law requiring county agencies to identify, locate, and notify relatives within the first 30 days of a case has been on the books since 2010, very few counties have taken steps to implement these requirements. Child welfare workers have not been trained on how to do this and have not been given the tools to do it. There is no one else in the agency whose job it is.
In addition, many child welfare workers do not make timely relative searches because they are overwhelmed by large caseloads that make it impossible for them to do all that needs to be done. The agencies for whom they work have not sought or considered creative ways to solve the problem. One possible solution would be to assign the task of locating relatives to other staff whose sole jobs would be to do relative searches. They would soon become experts on finding relatives, would take some of the burden off the child welfare worker, and their efforts would result in more timely placements with relatives at the beginning of the case as the law requires. Timely relative placements would save money and free up foster family homes for children who have no appropriate relatives who are available or willing to provide the child with a home.
It is time to stop warehousing kids in group homes because we have failed to recruit, train, and retain enough qualified foster parents to meet the need for family placements. Many teenaged foster youth end up in group homes because there are too few foster parents who are willing parent teenagers. This is a challenge for all parents but if we recruited and trained families specifically to care for teenagers and we provided those families with extra support and assistance when issues arise, as they inevitably will, more foster youth would have a “normal” adolescence and a better chance at a “normal” life when they are no longer in foster care.
Another, and perhaps bigger, reason why there are an insufficient number of foster families is how badly foster parents are treated by the foster care system despite the fact that there can be no foster care system if there are no foster homes. Too often, foster parents are treated like glorified babysitters who have nothing valuable to contribute and they suffer retaliation if they dare to question the wisdom of an agency decision that seems to present a risk of harm to the child. Far too many foster parents say they will never take another foster child after their first experience as a foster parent because they were treated so disrespectfully by the agency or the juvenile court. Treating foster parents as part of the team working to help the child and the child’s family will go a long way toward helping to recruit and retain good foster homes.
The Casey report concludes: “Kids can’t wait. By definition, the young people who come into our child welfare systems already have suffered the trauma of family disruption. It is the legal and moral responsibility of our child welfare systems to provide temporary care that is safe and attentive to the well-being of the child — rather than compound the insidious harm of being separated from home. Restoring family or creating family anew means significant hope for a child’s future. Without family, children are ill equipped to beat the odds stacked against them.”