I was sad to read in the Chicago Tribune that yet another well-respected institution is closing its doors to foster children as a consequence of the current belief that a loveless foster family is better than a caring residential placement. This time, the casualty is Maryville Academy, which has been serving children and families since 1882. About 70 boys and girls will be moved out of Maryville facilities into foster care by June 30.
Currently, Maryville provides homelike residential settings for boys and girls aged 13 to 20 on one campus in Chicago, and two in nearby suburbs. All of of the campuses serve boys or girls with a history of childhood trauma and mental illness. In some of the homes, clients must have an intellectual disability as well. There is one home that serves pregnant teens.
There are 35 reviews on Maryville’s Facebook page, all or most from former clients, with an average of 4.5 out of 5.0 stars. According to one former resident:
I think MVA was the best thing that happen[ed] to me….I became the man most of my staff thought I would be.
Reports Dennis, from the class of ’65:
I spent 3rd grade through 8th grade there. It was, more than likely, a life-saver.
These two reviews are typical of the testimonials to be found on Facebook.
So why close such a lifesaving program? Child welfare is a business marked by trend. Right now, residential care is out and family foster care is in. Maryville’s executive director reported in a recent statement that Illinois’ Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) has decided to reduce funding for residential care by $23 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
Maryville has been picking up an increasing share of the costs of residential care as DCFS has reduced its subsidy, and the agency has decided to eliminate these programs.
The problem is that states all over the country, including Illinois, are reporting foster parent shortages. And, as I have written before, many existing foster families are not providing the love, nurturing and supervision that these youth need.
It’s hard to believe that Illinois, like other states, is moving to close residential programs before recruiting the quality foster homes needed to accommodate the children who will be left homeless. But the common belief that residential care is more expensive than foster care makes closing residential care an irresistible option for both sides of the aisle.
Yet it is not clear that all residential care is more expensive than foster care. DCFS’ draft implementation plan, mandated by the court in its ongoing class action lawsuit, calls for a pilot Therapeutic Foster Care (TFC) program as an alternative for children now being served in programs like Maryville.
At least one parent in each TFC home would not be allowed to work outside the home, and no more than two children can be placed in each home. There is no information about costs, but providing a payment to foster parents who care for two or fewer children may not be any cheaper than residential care.
Moreover, many programs like Maryville have a large base of private donors. During the last 10 years, Maryville reports that it has invested $33 million in donated funds in its residential programs because of declining government funding. By losing Maryville, Illinois is losing access to these funds, which enriched services for foster youth.
The DCFS plan calls for a “minimum of 40 youth” to be placed in contracted TFC homes in three counties by the end of the first year of operation (which has not started yet). But the closure of Maryville alone will leave about 70 boys and girls (all qualified for TFC) homeless by June 30. There is something wrong with this picture.
The Illinois story is being repeated all over the country. Residential facilities are closing nationwide with no notion of where the children will go. Many will probably bounce in and out of foster families that are not trained or willing to keep traumatized youth with behavioral problems.
And now Congress is considering following suit by restricting residential care. A nation that failed to learn from the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill population in the 1960s may be on its way to creating a new class of foster youth with no place to go.