Combatting Congregate Care for Foster Children: One State’s Approach

by Monica Patel

 

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Children do better with families than without.[1] This might seem obvious, but the foster care systems across our country do not necessarily operate in accordance with this fact. In the United States, about 57,000 out of 425,000 children in the welfare system are living in group placements[2]—otherwise known as “congregate care.” Those 57,000 children are being deprived of a family environment during critical, and vulnerable, years in their development.[3] The group homes for these children vary from large institutional models to small “house parent” models.[4] States often use group placements because the local agency simply has not found an appropriate family placement, and the youth’s parents are mentally or financially unequipped to take the youth back.[5] Furthermore, African-American and Latino youth in the foster care system are more likely than white youth to be in group placements.[6]

California alone has around 64,000 children in foster care, with a little over 5,000 of those youths in congregate care.[7] In California, the high school dropout rate for youth in congregate care is fourteen percent, while only four percent of foster children not in congregate care (those in relative homes, nonrelative foster family homes, pre-adoptive homes, or trial home visits) drop out of high school.[8] Researchers in 2008 found that foster youth in group placements were 2.4 times as likely to be arrested as foster youth in family placements.[9] By these measures and others, long-term congregate care does not serve our foster children well.[10]

Given the widespread use of congregate care and its negative consequences, the California legislature passed an expansive set of amendments known as the Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), which went into effect on January 1, 2017.[11] The objective of CCR is to give foster children “normalcy in development while establishing permanent life-long relationships.”[12] The California legislature adopted this reform to “increase the use of home-based family care and the provision of services and supports to home-based family care.”[13] To achieve this end, CCR dramatically limits the use of group care to Short-Term Residential Therapeutic Programs, which are residential facilities that provide specialized and intensive care, supervision, services, and treatment for youth in crisis, with the objective of quickly transitioning youths back to family-based settings.[14] The group home now becomes solely “an intervention, not a placement.”[15]

To increase the number of families available to foster children, CCR provides counties with resources to recruit, train, and support families who can take care of these children.[16] CCR also modifies how foster children access health, mental health, and education resources by creating Children and Family Teams (CFTs) that collaborate to ensure that the children are always receiving the services they need.[17] A CFT includes the child, their family, and their formal and informal support networks, such as extended family and close community members.[18] The CFT meets regularly and is involved in making decisions regarding the placement of the child with a home-based caregiver, case planning around access to resources, possible involvement in the juvenile justice system, and paths to permanency.[19] Although there will be significant initial costs associated with the implementation of CCR, the California legislature expects that the overall costs to local agencies of operating child welfare programs will drop over time.[20]

California’s approach to combatting congregate care for its foster children is still in the early stages of its implementation and its effects are not yet calculable. However, CCR appears to be a promising step in the right direction to improve the lives of these children. Hopefully the initiative in California and the handful of other states making foster care reforms[21] will successfully target prevalent issues in the child welfare system and lead the rest of the states to make similar changes.

[1] Kids Count Policy Report: Every Kid Needs a Family, Annie E. Case Found. 1 (May 19, 2015), http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/aecf-EveryKidNeedsAFamily-2015.pdf (hereinafter “Kids Count Policy Report”).

[2] Foster Care Statistics 2015, Child Welfare Info. Gateway 2 (Mar. 2017), https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/foster.pdf; Kids Count Policy Report, supra note 1, at 5.

[3] Kids Count Policy Report, supra note 1, at 1.

[4] Group Homes, Cal. Dep’t Soc. Servs., http://www.cdss.ca.gov/inforesources/Foster-Care/Group-Homes (last visited Nov. 2, 2017).

[5] Kids Count Policy Report, supra note 1, at 1-2.

[6] Id.

[7] The Promise of Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), Cal. Dep’t Soc. Servs., http://www.cdss.ca.gov/Portals/9/CCR/CCRInfographic.pdf?ver=2017-10-18-161318-400 (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).

[8] Id.

[9] Joseph P. Ryan et al., Juvenile Delinquency in Child Welfare: Investigating Group Home Effects, 30 Child. and Youth Servs. Rev. 1088, 1094 (2008).

[10] Kids Count Policy Report, supra note 1, at 7.

[11] A.B. 403, 2015 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2015).

[12] Fundamental Principles of CCR, Cal. Dep’t Soc. Servs., http://www.cdss.ca.gov/cdssweb/entres/pdf/CCR/FundamentalPrinciplesOfCCR.pdf (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).

[13] A.B. 403, supra note 11.

[14] Id.; see also CCR Implementation, Cal. Dep’t Soc. Servs., http://www.cdss.ca.gov/cdssweb/entres/pdf/CCR/CCR_Implementation.pdf (last visited Oct. 25, 2017).

[15] The Promise of Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), supra note 7.

[16] CCR Implementation, supra note 14.

[17] See Fundamental Principles of CCR, supra note 12; see also The Promise of Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), supra note 7.

[18] Child and Family Teaming, Cal. Dep’t Soc. Servs., http://www.cdss.ca.gov/ccr/res/FactSheets/ChildFamilyTeamFS.docx (last visited Nov. 2, 2017).

[19] The Promise of Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), supra note 7.

[20] A.B. 403, supra note 11.

[21] See Congregate Care, Residential Treatment and Group Home State Legislative Enactments 2009—2013, Nat’l Conf. St. Legs., http://www.ncsl.org/research/human-services/congregate-care-and-group-home-state-legislative-enactments.aspx (last visited Nov. 2, 2017).