It’s time to stop placing American foster children in institutions and other group settings, according to a new report by the national child welfare group Children’s Rights.
Continuing the practice, the report argues, unnecessarily harms children in government care.
Before offering a strategy for change, the report makes the case that taxpayers are needlessly spending millions to maintain a system that violates children’s civil and human rights. Madeleine Kinney, staff attorney with Children’s Rights, said keeping youth out of institutions is both a moral imperative and something that is achievable.
It would require doubling down on making it a priority by engaging the public, agency staff and young folks themselves, improving the quality of preventive services such as rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment for families to lessen cases of neglect or abuse.
“States like Connecticut have already made tremendous strides in reducing their foster care population through increasing preventive services and placing children with loving relatives rather than in group homes,” Kinney said in a statement. “Our report provides a path forward for other states to implement strategies to reimagine child welfare throughout the country.”
Right now, there are about 43,000 children living in these impersonal conditions, more than 10% of all kids in government-funded out-of-home care, and nearly two-thirds of them are between the ages of 14 and 17. The report concedes that time-limited care in group settings is appropriate for some of these youth, but said “these medically necessary, often lifesaving stays are meant to be physical or mental health treatments, not residential placements, and therefore are excluded from the institutional and group care settings identified as unnecessary and harmful here.”
States are under fiscal pressure to reduce the use of congregate care placements because of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which was passed in 2018 and takes effect for most states in October. Under the law, states will only be able to draw federal foster care funds to pay for group settings for two weeks, and will then have to pay for the cost of it themselves. The law has several notable exceptions written in for particularly vulnerable populations and for institutions that have an approved medical model.
Confronting poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, homelessness and substance use disorders “can help keep children and families safer without funneling children into ineffective and costly foster care systems that can too often cause more harm to children than they experienced before entering the system,” said Rafael López, a former commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
López endorsed the report’s “Declaration of Urgency,” as did other national and local child welfare advocates and thought leaders including Karen Baynes-Dunning, acting president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, several current and former child welfare directors, and more than a dozen nonprofit advocacy groups.
One of the signatories, former Connecticut child welfare director Joette Katz, oversaw a massive decline in the use of group care in her state. Katz described the effort in an op-ed for The Imprint in October of 2019. The implementation of team meetings between family members and workers, conducted before a removal into care took place, was a critical piece according to Katz.
"About 80 percent of the considered removal meetings took place prior to removal, and of those that took place prior to removal, more than 50 percent resulted in a recommendation that no removal take place," she wrote. "Of the rest, half went to relatives or kin."
This week Victor Sims, a management consultant who grew up in Florida foster care, made an impassioned plea for communities to recruit foster families that can support older youth in care.
"We don’t just need foster parents when things are easy and when it’s with the child who loves to go to school," Sims wrote, in an op-ed published by The Imprint. "We also need it for the child who is contemplating dropping out because they are so far behind no matter where they go, because they have missed so much school or have jumped lesson plans because of the amount of schools they have been to. We need foster parents for teenagers who are tough because they have been fighting for their life in a system that was supposed to be temporary. "