Placing Foster Children with Relatives May Help Prevent Congregate Care

A University of Southern California study found that foster children placed with relatives are less likely to end up in congregate care than those placed with non-related caregivers. Photo: 123rf.

California foster youth placed with relatives are less likely to spend time in group homes or institutional placements, and black children are more likely than their white counterparts to do so, according to new research.

According to the study, which looked at six years’ worth of data on 12- to 14-year-olds in California foster care, about one in five children in foster care (17 percent) moved from a family-based foster placement into congregate care.

But an initial foster care placement with a non-related caregiver “was a significant predictor of movement into congregate care,” according to the study, which was led by Lindsey Palmer of University of Southern California’s Children’s Data Network. Children placed in these foster homes at the start of a foster care episode were 1.7 times more likely to end up in congregate care than those who began their time in care with a relative or extended family member.

The study’s population mirrored California’s foster care system: more than 50 percent of youth were Latino, nearly 25 percent were white and about 20 percent were black. But black and white children in foster care saw much different trajectories over the course of the study.

Black children are moved into congregate care at a rate 1.7 times that of their white peers. (By comparison, Latino children headed to congregate care at a rate of 1.15 times that of white children.) This trend couldn’t be explained “simply by their emotional and behavioral health symptoms,” according to the study.

According to Tyrone Howard, director of the Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families at the University of California-Los Angeles, understanding the reasons behind the unsettling disparity between black and white children is “the million dollar question.”

“With implicit bias, study after study has shown the ways in which black youth are oftentimes seen less favorably, treated more harshly and receive less empathy from social workers,” Howard said.

While research on the impact of congregate care stays on youth in care is limited, some studies point to a higher likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system and lower educational achievement for youth in congregate care when compared with other foster youth.

In recent years, both California and the federal government have taken steps to reduce the number of youth in congregate care by restricting financial support for those options. 

The finding that foster youth with relatives are less likely to enter congregate care rings true for Allison Staulcup Becwar and Dynell Garron of Lincoln, an Oakland-based provider of kinship services to relative caregivers both formally involved with the child welfare system and those doing so outside of it.

According to Garron, children who are placed into foster care are already reeling from a traumatic event. But that experience is compounded when young people end up with foster parents they don’t know or alone in a group home.

“When you lose your parents, you don’t just lose your parents,” said Garron, Lincoln’s community-based services program director. “A lot of times, you lose your immediate community, your school connections. You lose a lot of people who are rooting for you and have greater context with you than what’s going to be on a referral sheet.”

The ability to preserve that continuity and connection to culture is why many children do better with relatives, said Lincoln CEO Bechwar. But she also pointed to the way many family members may be more invested in children related to them than non-related foster parent counterparts, especially when trauma-related behaviors come out at home.

“We see time and time again [that] kin caregivers will stay in it,” she said. “They deserve to get the support around doing that, and they often don’t in the system now. But they will stay in it a lot longer [than some foster parents].”

Tackling the racial disparity in congregate care placements will require making frontline workers — and their supervisors — much more conscious about the impacts of systemic racism, Howard said.

“We have to do a better job in the training of social worker managers to help them understand how bias is real,” he said. “This is a systemic issue, but there are smaller individual acts we can make to train social workers about how they assess children, assess families and how we can be much more racially conscious in decision making.”

The study also found that “the overwhelming majority of youth” who move into congregate care had a significant history of mental and behavioral health issues. And youth who had reached age 14 before they entered care were also more likely to enter group care. 

Researchers from the Children’s Data Network used state child welfare data to track all children ages 12 to 14 who entered California’s foster care system in 2012. The study will appear in the March issue of Children and Youth Services Review.

This story has been updated to note a comment was made by Dynell Garron of Lincoln.

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