No Foster Home … Then What?

Is there a shortage of foster homes in the United States? If so, is the shortage widespread or localized? To find answers to these questions, I looked at federal data, research by the Casey Foundation, information from state program directors and evidence from hundreds of recent news reports documenting critical local shortages throughout our nation.

The overwhelming message is that we have fewer foster homes than in the past and recruitment is becoming quite difficult. The foster home shortage is obfuscated by a lack of centralized data.

We remove children from abusive and neglectful homes to protect them. Then what? Here are some unpleasant consequences of our foster home shortfall that were repeated many times in the news articles I reviewed.

Temporary placements following removal from the birth home tended to drag on and on, with some becoming semi-permanent. There were reports of children left in institutions and hospitals. Other reports of children placed in hotels. Some children had to be left sleeping in welfare and government offices for lack of anything better.

In May of 2015, nearly one in seven foster youths lived in a group home or other congregate care setting. Approximately 23,000 of these children have no medical disability or behavioral problem that might warrant such a restrictive and expensive placement. If foster homes were available, these children might be more appropriately placed with families.

Although general shortages tended to vary by state and by county, foster homes for special populations were in universal demand. Homes were needed for teens, sibling groups, minority groups of blacks and Hispanics, and for health-challenged children. Homes within the child’s social and cultural milieu were rare. Too often, the child had to be placed so far from the birth parent that reunification became geographically difficult.

Another serious consequence was the misuse of those foster homes that were available. Foster homes in some areas were dangerously overcrowded. There were several reports of foster parents being allowed to skip required training and violate policies. A Kansas legislator proposed the creation of foster homes with fewer restrictions.

Adding to the problem, foster care shortages were said to be a major cause of high staff turnover. Caseworkers are already overworked. Examples were given of caseloads of 90 clients where the CW was still required to handle emergencies for two additional uncovered caseloads.

This heavy responsibility is compounded by having to spend an inordinate amount of time searching for a proper foster home for a newly removed child. Annual caseworker turnover has been reported as high as 35 percent.

The foster home shortage has led to increased costs for systems in the following ways:

  1. A group home is seven to ten times more expensive than a foster home (Casey Foundation).
  2. The continuing need to recruit and retain foster homes is costly.
  3. The turnover of caseworkers and the need to recruit and rehire new staff is expensive both in financial costs and in continuing efficiency.
  4. Privatization may raise the price tag. Because of the insufficiency of foster homes, states have increasingly contracted with private agencies to provide services.

The lack of centralized data has allowed us to neglect what is clearly a serious problem that is not going away. We have a significant and widespread shortage of appropriate foster homes. This has led to lengthening the time of “temporary” placements, an overuse of group homes, misuse of some foster homes, high staff turnover and a dramatic increase in costs.

Why are we facing a foster home shortage today? I will tackle that in my next blog.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.