You’ve probably heard about the school-to-prison pipeline, and if you’re in a child welfare space, you know of the many factors that can cause foster youth to become incarcerated at some point in their lives. One discussion that hasn’t gotten much attention, however, is the link between placing foster youth in group homes and the adverse effects of the juvenile justice system that often follow.
According to the Juvenile Law Center, youth placed in group homes are 2.5 times more likely to get involved with the juvenile justice system than those placed with foster families. Now more than ever, I believe that many of the foster youth I lived with throughout group home care should have never been there in the first place — including me. I also believe that it may have been a catalyst for many of the youth I lived with to become easily acquainted with the juvenile justice system. They often entered the group home with a social worker and left months later with a probation officer.
My introduction to group home care was fast. In 2011, I had spent two weeks in juvenile hall based on a false accusation by my mother, who wanted me off her hands. I had gotten kicked out of one hyper-religious foster home for lack of a “cultural fit.” This is all it took to be deemed unworthy of placement into another foster family for the next two years. After these incidents, I spent three months living in a children’s shelter until my thirteenth birthday when I moved into a group home.
Group home life was scary at first, and the added adversity molded me into somebody more institutionalized than I ever thought I could become. Being mixed in with 16- through 18-year-olds on probation made me grow up fast and exposed me to drugs, fighting, negative influences and an overall way of thinking akin to being on probation. It also forced my teenage angst and rebellion to translate into “illegal” activities. Being out later than allowed for an activity with my school band was considered being “AWOL,” with serious consequences and unwanted encounters with police.
In many ways, my group home experience was the catalyst of my rebellion later on in my teen years that caused me to engage in delinquent behaviors. It made me feel as if I would never be able to break the institutionalized mindset from living in facilities for two of my most formative years. There is a valid case to be made that no youth in the foster care or the juvenile justice system should be placed into long-term congregate care. However, I think everybody can agree that when foster youth are placed in these spaces, it sends a message that we are criminals — simply for surviving and making human mistakes.
Fast forward to 2021, and many child welfare professionals are realizing the injustices and flaws of a system that could so easily welcome a 13-year-old Black boy into long-term institutionalized living close to a decade ago. Since my experience, there have been different policy shifts within states to make it harder for foster youth to get caught up in congregate care, such as the Continuum of Care Reform in California.
The most prevalent example of these efforts is the work being done with the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which became federal law in 2018. In addition to more services for foster care prevention, and increasing support for adoption, one of the major components is having states opt out of traditional congregate care. In practice, this would ultimately be achieved through prevention programs — developing an adequate pool of foster parents, and transitioning any current group homes into Qualified Residential Treatment Programs.
According to The Imprint, nearly 40 states plan to implement FFPSA, and the practice shift behind it, by this year. It is an exciting opportunity in many ways. Through its provisions, FFPSA ensures that youth living in congregate care go through a review of admission within 60 days, as well as monthly check-ins to assess if there is still a need for more structured placement. The law also encourages agencies to increase their efforts in foster parent and kinship recruitment and retention. However, the most exciting prospect is knowing that youth will have more advocates at the table that care about placement into loving family environments instead of restrictive group home care.
This is a call to action to leaders in every state. Whether your state is planning to opt into FFPSA, actively drafting a plan, currently implementing one or has foregone opting in altogether — it is your time to be an advocate for youth who face potential institutionalization. No foster youth should be able to slip through the cracks in the most important aspect of their lives: where they live. Being in foster care is not a crime and it should never feel that way. So the next time you are around youth in group home care or at-risk of institutionalization, please think of what you can do to support them. And if you choose to advocate against institutionalization for a youth in care — you won’t be a lone voice, you’ll have a system behind you.