Senate Finance Hearing: Too Down on Group, Too Rosy on Foster Parents

On May 19, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “No Place to Grow Up: How to Safely Reduce Reliance on Foster Care Group Homes.” The hearing was designed to demonstrate that too many foster kids are being placed in group homes for too long.

This appears to be an issue on which there is agreement from both sides of the aisle, uniting liberal sensitivities against “restrictive settings” with conservative desires to save money.

As a former foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I found that the hearing failed to draw some crucial distinctions. First, residential care is not a placement but an intervention. Nobody believes that young people should be placed in institutions instead of in families. However, some young people need more intensive treatment before they can thrive in a family foster home. Without such treatment, these children often bounce from home to home until they end up pregnant or in the juvenile justice system.

One of my young clients – I’ll call him Quentin for the sake of anonymity – was in a truck which his mother repeatedly drove over her abusive husband, killing him. Quentin went through a series of foster homes, being kicked out of each one until he was finally arrested for car theft at the age of 14 and placed in a juvenile justice facility.

Upon release, he was placed in one of his previous foster homes, and that lasted just three months. Quentin had been skipping school, stealing his foster parent’s liquor and belongings, and smoking marijuana in the home. A psychological evaluation recommended a therapeutic group home to provide the structure and supervision Quentin needed.

But D.C.’s child welfare agency refused to provide a group home placement. We placed Quentin with the only foster parent available: a single parent who treated him as a boarder. He almost totally stopped attending school and was failing by the time I left my job last January.

The hearing also failed to distinguish between high-quality and lower-quality group homes. Credible research shows that smaller, well-run group homes can be more effective than therapeutic foster care in improving outcomes for foster youth with therapeutic needs. Boys Town Family Homes, for example, are run by married couples (“Teaching Parents”) who live full time in the home and care for six to eight boys.

I visited a Boys Town Home in D.C. that was sunlit and immaculate, with a wall covered with photos of former residents. The “Teaching Parents” had raised their own children in the home and their two-year-old was currently basking in the attention of all his “big brothers.”

My experience was in the District of Columbia, where less than nine percent of foster children are in group homes, as compared to 18 percent of foster children nationwide. If the federal government imposes further restrictions on group homes, other states will be in the same position as the District, where children are being placed in inappropriate family settings. We risk ending up like Australia, which eliminated over half of its residential placements, resulting in the migration of many children to the homeless and juvenile justice systems and a foster care crisis due to the loss of foster parents.

This month’s hearing also failed to differentiate between good and bad foster homes, with witnesses insisting that a family is always better than an institution. Senator Grassley said that children need to be in families so that someone will tuck them in at night. He never met “Ms. V,” a long-time foster parent who worked from 3 pm to 11 pm. She certainly was not available for tucking in “Renee,” a 14-year-old who was severely damaged by 10 years in foster care and repeated rejections by foster and potential adoptive parents.

Ms. V was supposedly a “therapeutic” foster parent and received extra training and compensation in exchange for caring for more troubled young people. But most of the “therapeutic” parents with whom I worked were no different from other foster parents. They provided nothing more than room and board, and had no contact with kids’ schools, therapists, or families. Ms. V refused to attend a meeting at school for Renee, who was failing, telling me, “I would if I cared but I don’t care.”

I am not advocating for group homes as a replacement for inadequate foster homes. But some young people need residential care as a short-term intervention. And for foster youth who can be placed with a family, we need to find loving, caring foster parents who can meet their therapeutic needs. This may require increasing compensation and training for foster parents dealing with older and more troubled youth. The Administration has indicated its support for this approach, and I plan to discuss possible program models in a future post.

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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