Don’t Misunderstand Lexie Gruber’s Foster Care Experience

At the Senate Finance Committee’s May 19 hearing on reducing the use of group homes in foster care, the testimony that drew the most attention was that of Lexie Gruber. Lexie, a bright and articulate young woman, was removed from her family at the age of 15 and remained in foster care until she aged out.

As a former foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I was very affected by Lexie’s testimony. But I have concerns that it could be used to justify major new restrictions on group homes.

Lexie described a group home where she received no emotional support from the staff who were ill-equipped to handle her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. The atmosphere was nothing like a home; residents could not prepare their own food and cabinets were locked to prevent their “stealing” snacks.

Lexie’s testimony was part of a hearing held for the purpose of showing how bad group homes can be for kids in foster care. But not all group homes are the same. In Youth Today, I described the amazing care provided by Boys Town group homes in Washington, D.C.

There was no ban on hugging and no locked cabinets at the home I visited. A wall full of photos documents the young men who had spent time there over the past 20 years, many of whom still come back to visit. The “Teaching “Parents” who live there have brought up their own children there along with those assigned to them by the foster care and criminal justice systems. We need to push for closing or improving bad group homes, not eliminating great ones like those operated by Boys Town.

Just as not all group homes are created equal, neither are all foster homes. The locked cabinets and lack of hugs can be seen in many foster homes. One of the saddest moments of my five years as a foster care social worker is when I had to find a new placement for a nine-year-old client who was kicked out of her foster home for disrespectful behavior. When we arrived at her new “therapeutic” home, a locksmith was busy putting a padlock on the foster parent’s bedroom door.

Perhaps the most compelling part of Lexie’s testimony was why she ended up in the care of strangers in the first place. She was initially placed with her uncle, but was removed from him after two months because he “did not have enough bedrooms to meet agency regulations.”

As a foster care social worker, I experienced the same barrier in trying to place clients with relatives. I was intent on placing a client with his sister who lived just over the border in Maryland. I rushed to complete the paperwork and walked it over to the Child and Family Services Agency. Within an hour, I got a call; the request was denied because Maryland required a separate bedroom for my client.

Lexie may have been correct in blaming a lazy social worker for not applying for a waiver in her case, but I know that no waiver was available for my client. Instead of his loving sister, my client went to a foster parent who provided no emotional support or supervision and barely met his physical needs.

At the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Joo Yeun Chang of the Children’s Bureau several times what could be done about licensing requirements that prevent foster kids being placed with family. Each time, Ms. Chang responded that the Obama Administration intends to limit congregate care.

But this is a different issue. Of course the federal government could address the licensing issue by denying IV-E funding to states that impose this type of ridiculous requirement. What a shame that, by focusing exclusively on group homes, the administration missed an opportunity to advocate for another of its priorities: keeping children with their families.

Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.

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