Short-Term Emergency Shelters Better Than Uncertain Alternatives

Oklahoma is closing its emergency shelters for foster children pursuant to a settlement in a class action suit. As of October 20, the Oklahoma City shelter was down to one child, and the Tulsa shelter was to be closed by the end of the calendar year.

The Oklahoma shelters were supposed to serve as emergency intake facilities for children after they had been removed from their homes. But children were reportedly spending months at these shelters when foster homes could not be found for them. As part of a major class action suit, the state agreed to close these shelters.

The move to close Oklahoma’s emergency shelters is part of a general movement to eliminate institutional settings for foster children. Emergency shelters have gone out of style as research has suggested that institutions are bad for children.

In addition, states have reported that emergency shelters worsen their performance on the “placement stability” standard, which is one of the standards by which states are measured as part of the Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) process.

Now, in many jurisdictions like the District of Columbia, children are placed immediately into foster homes, even in the middle of the night. This approach is considered the best for children. But I have my doubts.

In my last job as a foster care social worker with a private agency in the District of Columbia, one of my duties was to be on-call overnight for a week at time. The main function of an on-call social worker was to receive emergency placement calls. In my last on-call week, I was woken up four times by calls between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.

Here’s how it worked. I’d be woken by the call from the equally groggy on-call placement worker. I’d be told that a child or sibling group needed to be placed, given minimal information about them, and would then have to call all of our foster homes with vacancies. Depending on the age and sex of the children, there might be one possibility or as many as five or six.

Some of the foster parents did not answer their telephones in the middle of the night. The kids would go to the first one who did and who was willing to take them. Given the randomness of that process, my grogginess, and the very limited information provided about the children, the chance of placing the child with the best possible home was not great. Moreover, a sibling group could be split up if the one foster parent who could take them all did not answer the telephone.

I often thought, “How much better it would be if the kids could stay at an emergency shelter/assessment facility for one or two nights, while we contacted available foster parents and determined who might be the best match?” During that time, medical and mental health professionals could assess the children and determine whether they had special needs that should be taken into account. Special efforts could be made to place sibling groups together.

Emergency shelters or assessment centers should not be used as a long-term placement for children in foster care, as was apparently happening in Oklahoma. But that can be addressed by limiting the amount of time that children can stay in such facilities rather than eliminating them.

Jurisdictions should consider the value of establishing or reinstating assessment centers where children can stay up to 72 hours while they are matched with an appropriate foster home. In order to encourage states to support foster care assessment centers, the federal government should change its measure of placement stability so that placements in emergency shelters and assessment centers are not included.

Children entering foster care need a proper assessment before they can be placed in the most appropriate home. This might be the best way to avoid future displacements as children who had been placed in poorly suited homes — or without their siblings — move to a better-matched home.

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