In past columns, I have spoken about the scarcity of good foster homes, and have suggested that one solution could be the provision of quality housing for foster parents in areas where housing is a barrier. This column highlights several programs around the country that have embraced that idea by creating clustered “communities” of foster homes.
SOS Children’s Villages
SOS Children’s Villages is an international organization that operates foster home communities in Florida and Illinois. At SOS-Illinois, children live with their brothers and sisters in a single family home in an SOS “Village,” with a full-time professional foster parent. There are three Illinois villages: two in Chicago and one in Lockport.
Each village has between 14 and 18 single family homes. Each home is equipped to hold up to six children. The villages offer comprehensive services, including individual and group counseling, and educational and cultural enrichment. One parent per home must refrain from working outside the home. Foster parents receive training, an annual salary, benefits, housing, including utilities, use of a vehicle, and funding for the children’s expenses.
SOS Children’s Villages also operates a community in Coconut Creek, Florida. The community consists of 12 houses, which are home to up to 75 children from Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Sibling group placement is a priority for the Florida program. On-site and visiting therapists work with the children. The program recently received a $100,000 foundation grant to support its educational initiatives, including three weekly hours of tutoring for each child, independent living training for youth 13 and over, and services for young adults graduating from high school and aging out of foster care.
Pepper’s Ranch provided group homes for abused and neglected Oklahoma boys until the state began to reduce its support for group care. After evaluating its own operation, Pepper’s Ranch dropped the group home model and became a foster care community in 2009. Pepper’s Ranch now has 13 homes, and plans to add three homes every 18 months.
Living in the homes are 111 children who are in foster care or have been adopted by their foster parents. Each child receives therapeutic art, academic tutoring, equestrian riding, cooking classes and other activities on site. Foster parents are not salaried but receive free housing and the state stipend, which is supplemented by Pepper’s Ranch.
Several foster home communities are currently in development. The Anna’s House Foundation is developing a foster home community in Luther, Okla. The community will have nine homes, each serving up to five children in foster care, primarily sibling groups.
In Hamilton, Ohio, Daryl and Roxann Gunnerson bought a property which includes a former civil war orphanage. On the site, they are building a new community for foster and adoptive families, serving up to 35 children. They hope to have it up and running by next summer.
All of these communities share several advantages. With the larger homes provided by the program, siblings can be kept together. The clustering of homes into a “village” or “neighborhood” means that foster parents can offer each other daily support and respite when necessary so that children do not have to stay with strangers. Foster parents can carpool to bring children to jobs, sports and activities. Living in close proximity also means that a foster parent who is abusive or neglectful will be noticed and reported.
Foster care communities could be established in areas where more homes are needed so that children can stay in their home jurisdictions. The Chicago villages show that this model can work in urban areas. It may seem impractical to establish foster home communities in cities where land is scarce and expensive, but rapid gentrification in many cities is actually creating some opportunities. Some nonprofits are making large sums of money by selling their buildings in rapidly gentrifying areas and building new facilities elsewhere. Governments are redeveloping parcels of land in neighborhoods that are revitalizing.
In an era of public-private partnerships, this is an opportunity for governments and nonprofits to work together toward a new vision of foster care. We all know how much large donors like to contribute to capital projects; consider a new or remodeled house, or a village community center, named after the donor.
Governments and nonprofits are going to have to think outside the box when it comes to attracting great foster parents. Establishing foster care communities is one way to achieve this goal and improve the quality of care our children are receiving.