Curbing Congregate Plus Foster Care Shortage Equals Bad Policy

Rarely have I seen a greater disconnect between policy and reality than what is occurring in California’s foster care system.

On October 11, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that drastically reduces the number of children placed in group homes and the length of time they spend in such placements.

Four days later, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that there is an “urgent need” for foster parents in the San Fernando Valley. Yet nobody in the executive or legislative branch seems to be connecting these two facts. What is going on?

Under the new legislation, all group homes will be replaced by “Short Term Residential Treatment Centers.” These centers will be licensed only to provide short-term intensive treatment for children who are determined in need of such an intervention.

Stays at these centers will be limited to six months. Longer stays will have to be authorized by senior child welfare officials.

The new legislation is based on the increasing belief that “congregate care is detrimental to the development and well-being of youth in foster care.” Yet, as I wrote in an earlier column, the research behind this assertion is far from conclusive. Especially when it comes to older youth with more serious therapeutic needs, group care may be more appropriate. For larger sibling groups that cannot be accommodated in a single home, a group home may also be a preferable option.

A loving, caring family is of course the best option for many children. However, as I discussed in another column, many foster homes do not provide this type of nurturing environment. Some are neglectful or even abusive, and many are simply providing room and board.

There are also not enough foster homes, good, bad or in-between. So even if any foster home is better than any group home, most jurisdictions just don’t have enough foster homes.

The Daily News reported on October 15 that the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services is holding a special event to recruit “urgently needed” foster parents. Because of the shortage of foster homes, there has been a surge in the number of children admitted to the County’s welcome centers, short-term shelters for children for whom there is no foster home available.

These centers are allowed to keep children for only 24 hours but the Los Angeles Times reported that this rule was violated 800 times in the last year.

The underlying cause of the crisis is the collapse in the supply of foster homes in Los Angeles County. As reported by the Times, the number of beds in homes of foster parents who are unrelated to foster youth has dropped from 22,000 to 9,000 since the year 2000.

Social workers make up to 100 calls to place one child. What is going to happen when the closing of group homes creates an even greater demand for foster homes?

The supporters of the new California legislation understand that they will need to recruit more foster homes in order for the new regime to succeed. The new law will provide more money to recruit, retain and support foster families.

But unless this money will be enough to buy homes for foster parents in expensive areas like Los Angeles County, or to provide salaries so foster parents do not have to work outside the home, I doubt this effort will be successful.

The rush to close group homes during a foster parent shortage is not a California phenomenon. It is happening all over the country behind the child welfare establishment rallying cry, “Every child needs a family.” In the District of Columbia, children are being sent as many as 30 miles or an hour by car away from the District for lack of foster homes, while group home beds have been cut back.

When there are not enough foster homes, closing group homes does not make sense. Instead, we should create group homes that are as family-like and nurturing as possible. There are many group homes that already meet their residents’ needs for love and caring much more than many foster homes.

Next week, I will share the views of some of the real experts about group homes: young people who have lived in them.

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