Children Need More Than Residential Schools Can Give

We are always pleased to see public attention to the needs of children who cannot remain with their birth families. But when such attention also promotes childhood-long institutionalization – as does the recent column “Residential Schools: A Promising Alternative to Foster and Group Homes” –  our pleasure quickly turns to pain.

Children should not have to choose between educational achievement and family; they deserve both. For children — including infants as young as one year old — to be placed by the state in an institution for their whole childhood is unacceptable.

Some residential programs play an important role in providing treatment that is short-term, outcome-focused, and uses a strong family engagement model. But all children deserve parents who love and care for them, forever.

Families teach children how to trust, share, and give and receive love. Parents advocate for their children, care for them when they are sick, and guide them into adulthood. Moms, dads, grandparents, and other caring relatives cheer at basketball games and shed tears at graduations.

But parenting doesn’t stop when children turn 18. As Jessica, a young woman who aged out of a group home, put it:

The scary part was when I turned 18. I had nowhere to go. They told me, ‘When you turn 18, basically, you’re done.’ When I left, I was unprepared to be on my own.

Young adults return to their families with good news — promotions, marriages, and parenthood — as well as in times of crisis and need. A family means people to turn to and return to for life, and children should not be denied this basic right.

Children do have challenges in foster families, but finding stability in an expensive institutional placement rather than a family is not the solution. If only a portion of the money needed to maintain a residential school was invested in better supporting birth families, relatives, and foster or adoptive families, children would be able to achieve their maximum potential and have a family of their own.

Children deserve families, and they deserve supports and services to help them thrive. Don’t make them choose.

Mary Boo is executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Donna Butts is executive director of Generations United. Irene Clements is executive director of the National Foster Parent Association.

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