Congress appears to be on the right track with child welfare reform, as evidenced by a summary of the new Families First Act, which may soon be marked up by the Senate Finance Committee. The centerpiece of the legislation is the expansion of Title IV-E to provide preventive services to assist children in danger of being placed in foster care.
With the passage of this legislation, federal funding will support keeping children at home as much as it does foster care. It is a change that almost everyone seems to support.
The other major part of the legislation, however, is not without controversy. That is the part that seeks to eliminate most federal support for foster care group homes.
The legislation eliminates funding for placements that are not foster family homes after two weeks, with three exceptions: Qualified Residential Treatment Programs (QRTPs), facilities for pregnant and parenting teens, and independent living arrangements.
The definition of QRTP has not been released, but it appears that Congress has in mind the types of arrangements that are currently known as residential treatment programs, which are large institutions where clients attend school and receive mental health treatment.
I have several concerns with this provision.
First, the bill fails to recognize the need for a continuum of care depending on the child’s needs. Such a continuum should include family foster care, therapeutic foster care, therapeutic community group homes and residential treatment centers. A child who leaves residential treatment is not necessarily ready for a foster family, and a child who can’t function in a family may not need a residential treatment program. What’s missing from the options provided by the new bill are therapeutic group homes, such as those operated by Boys Town, using the evidence-based Teaching Family model.
Secondly, the bill contains no provisions to increase the supply of high-quality foster care to meet the needs of all the children who will need to be accommodated when group homes close down. Today, there is a critical foster care shortage around the country, with children staying in offices, hotels and emergency shelters because foster homes are not available to them.
To make matters worse, many existing foster homes provide care that is neglectful or even abusive. As a former social worker with District of Columbia foster children, I have written about neglectful foster parents. There was the foster parent who hadn’t been to her foster child’s school in more than a year, and refused to pick her up even when she was vomiting. There was the foster parent who refused to go to a meeting at her foster child’s school, saying, “If I cared I would go, but I don’t care.”
I asked my agency to close these homes, but the request was not granted. With the shortage of foster homes, agencies are reluctant to close homes that are anything short of abusive. And even in the case of abusive homes, we have all heard the stories of children who have been killed or injured in foster care.
Sometimes, as in the case of two-year-old Laila Marie Daniel in Georgia, it turns out that agency staff disregarded multiple reports of trouble in the home. I’m sure that the critical shortage of foster parents is part of the explanation.
Abusive and neglectful foster homes need to be closed, but they must be replaced and added to with a new source of high quality foster homes. How can this be done? The only way is to pay foster parents enough so that one foster parent in each home can stay home with the children, thus attracting a completely new source of foster parents.
In an earlier column, I wrote about the SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida. They not only pay foster parents a salary but provide houses large enough for six children. The provision of housing is particularly important in order to attract foster parents to cities with high housing costs, where many foster kids live.
Paying foster parents a full-time salary is an expensive proposition. But this expense can be offset by recruiting foster couples (either married couples or two single people living together as house parents) to care for five or six children. By locating them in communities like those provided by SOS Children’s Villages or the Mockingbird Society, foster parents can be empowered to help each other, and services to the children can be provided on site.
It would be irresponsible for Congress to pass the Families First Act without provisions for a therapeutic option between foster homes and residential treatment and for increasing the supply of quality foster care. The Senate Finance Committee should modify its bill by adding a provision for short-term therapeutic group homes and by providing new funding and incentives to encourage states to improve the quantity and quality of their foster homes.