Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Senate Finance Hearing: Too Down on Group, Too Rosy on Foster Homes

On May 19 the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing entitled “No Place to Grow Up: How to Safely Reduce Reliance on Foster Care Group Homes.” The hearing was designed to demonstrate that too many foster kids are being placed in group homes for too long.This appears to be an issue on which there is agreement from both sides of the aisle, uniting liberal sensitivities against “restrictive settings” with conservative desires to save money.

As a former foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I found that the hearing failed to draw some crucial distinctions. First, residential care is not a placement but an intervention. Nobody believes that young people should be placed in institutions instead of in families. However, some young people need more intensive treatment before they can thrive in a family foster home. Without such treatment, these children often bounce from home to home until they end up pregnant or in the juvenile justice system.

One of my young clients – I’ll call him Quentin for the sake of anonymity – was in a truck which his mother repeatedly drove over her abusive husband, killing him. Quentin went through a series of foster homes, being kicked out of each one until he was finally arrested for car theft at the age of 14 and placed in a juvenile justice facility.

Upon release, he was placed in one of his previous foster homes, and that lasted just three months. Quentin had been skipping school, stealing his foster parent’s liquor and belongings, and smoking marijuana in the home. A psychological evaluation recommended a therapeutic group home to provide the structure and supervision Quentin needed.

But D.C.’s child welfare agency refused to provide a group home placement. We placed Quentin with the only foster parent available: a single parent who treated him as a boarder. He almost totally stopped attending school and was failing by the time I left my job last January.

The hearing also failed to distinguish between high-quality and lower-quality group homes. Credible research shows that smaller, well-run group homes can be more effective than therapeutic foster care in improving outcomes for foster youth with therapeutic needs. Boys Town Family Homes, for example, are run by married couples (“Teaching Parents”) who live full time in the home and care for six to eight boys.

I visited a Boys Town Home in D.C. that was sunlit and immaculate, with a wall covered with photos of former residents. The “Teaching Parents” had raised their own children in the home and their two-year-old was currently basking in the attention of all his “big brothers.”

My experience was in the District of Columbia, where less than nine percent of foster children are in group homes, as compared to 18 percent of foster children nationwide. If the federal government imposes further restrictions on group homes, other states will be in the same position as the District, where children are being placed in inappropriate family settings. We risk ending up like Australia, which eliminated over half of its residential placements, resulting in the migration of many children to the homeless and juvenile justice systems and a foster care crisis due to the loss of foster parents.

This month’s hearing also failed to differentiate between good and bad foster homes, with witnesses insisting that a family is always better than an institution. Senator Grassley said that children need to be in families so that someone will tuck them in at night. He never met “Ms. V,” a long-time foster parent who worked from 3 pm to 11 pm. She certainly was not available for tucking in “Renee,” a 14-year-old who was severely damaged by 10 years in foster care and repeated rejections by foster and potential adoptive parents.

Ms. V was supposedly a “therapeutic” foster parent and received extra training and compensation in exchange for caring for more troubled young people. But most of the “therapeutic” parents with whom I worked were no different from other foster parents. They provided nothing more than room and board, and had no contact with kids’ schools, therapists, or families. Ms. V refused to attend a meeting at school for Renee, who was failing, telling me, “I would if I cared but I don’t care.”

I am not advocating for group homes as a replacement for inadequate foster homes. But some young people need residential care as a short-term intervention. And for foster youth who can be placed with a family, we need to find loving, caring foster parents who can meet their therapeutic needs. This may require increasing compensation and training for foster parents dealing with older and more troubled youth. The Administrationhas indicated its support for this approach, and I plan to discuss possible program models in a future post.

This column first appeared in the Chronicle of Social Change on May 27, 2015.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Great Foster Parents I Have Known

In honor of Foster Care Month, I'd like to share the stories of some of the great foster parents I knew in my five years as a social worker in the District of Columbia foster care system.

Mr. and Mrs. C had grown children and grandchildren but lots of energy and love to spare. They took in three-month-old baby S when his mother abandoned him in a bout of rage. Mrs. C was retired and stayed home full-time with the baby, playing with him, talking to him, and loving him. Ms. C. brought S to every well-baby appointment even though some foster parents left this to social workers or other agency staff. When they brought S to visit his mother at the agency, Ms. C thanked her for letting them take care of S until she would be able to take him back. (Sadly, S's mother did not get him back, but he did end up going to his father.)

Ms. T was a single parent of a boy but wanted at least one girl in the household. She took in two sisters after the younger one was abused by her previous foster parent. Ms. T worked from home one day a week, allowing her to take the girls to medical appointments or see their teachers. Every weekend, she drove the children to visit their mother and picked them up at the end of the weekend. After the girls were reunified with their mother, Ms. T would often take them for the weekend at their request or their mother's. She continued to give them gifts and sometimes money when requested. Ms. T has now adopted a second set of girls whom she fostered.

Mr. and Mrs. F took in a ten-year-old girl and her four-year-old brother. Ms. F. worked part-time so that she could spend most of her time being a foster parent. She drove the children daily to their previous school so that they did not have to put up with a long van ride. When the older child was in fifth grade, the F's researched and visited charter schools in order to find a more challenging placement. They were able to get her into one of the most highly thought-of charter schools in the District .

Two siblings, K and M, were placed together in the home of a couple, but they soon expelled K due to her disrespectful behavior. Luckily, K ended up in the home of Ms. W, who saw the wounded child behind the defiance and let her know that there was nothing she could do to get herself kicked out. K's behavior improved in response. Ms. W was so anxious for K and M to see each other that she hosted sleepovers as often as M's foster parent would allow, picking M up and dropping him off. She also picked up their mother from her nursing home so that they could see her as well.

These great foster parents shared two important things—motivation and time. They all became foster parents because they wanted children in their lives and to make a difference in the lives of children. Secondly, they all had the time to devote to their foster children. Two of these foster families consisted of two-parent families in which one parent worked part-time or not at all. The two single mothers worked, but both had jobs with flexibility that allowed them to do things for their children on weekdays.

In five years of work in DC's foster care system, families like the C's, the F's, Ms. T. and Ms. W have been a minority of foster parents I've met, particularly among the foster parents caring for older, more troubled youth. I wrote in an earlier post and column for Youth Today about some foster parents who are providing nothing but room and board—if that. How can we attract more foster parents like the C's, the F's, Ms. T. and Ms. W? If we paid foster parents a salary, this would open up a new supply of potential foster parents—people who want to have a career helping our most vulnerable youth. This would of course increase costs greatly unless we asked foster parents to take more children. Until recently, one private agency in the District of Columbia contractepaid foster parents as employees to care for four children each. Such a model might merit a closer look. Or we might even want to redefine foster care to include agency-owned homes for 6-8 children such as those provided by Boys Town. These are considered group homes, but they actually have a greater resemblance to foster homes—operated by loving, dedicated married couples who have the time to provide the parenting their charges need.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Foster Parent Licensing for Relatives:An Unnecessary Barrier to Permanency

One of my happiest days as social worker in the District of Columbia's foster care system was the day I was able to place an 18-year-old client with her older brother under the District's emergency kinship licensing process, which allows a foster child to be placed with kin through an expedited “emergency licensing” process. My client's brother now had six months (which could be extended to nine) to obtain his permanent foster parent license. During that time, he had to complete extensive paperwork and take a 30-hour foster parent training class –meaning six hours per week for five weeks. And this turned out to be a big obstacle. The class he was offered was from 6:00 to 9:00 at night. My client's brother could not make it at that time because he was often needed to pick up his own two children from school and supervise them until their mother came home from work. As I frantically searched for a foster parent class, I began to wonder why he needed 30 hours of training in order to care for his 18-year-old sister.

This was not the first case where foster parent training requirements posed a barrier to placing clients with family. In another case, a ten-year-old who had been mostly brought up by grandparents in Tennessee was unable to be returned to them because they were unwilling to undergo 30 hours of training. Of course one might question their commitment to the children if they were unwilling to take the time to attend training, but the fact remains that they brought her up for most of her life and she wanted to be with them.

I had another client, aged 14, who had been in and out of the foster care system for ten years. He had been ejected from one foster home and was in another where he got no attention or emotional support. His older half-sister, with whom he was very close, was willing to take him. But her application was denied because she lived in Maryland, and Maryland required that their be a separate bedroom for my client. He was not allowed to sleep on a sofabed in the living room and I was told that the license would not be granted even if he slept in the bedroom and his sister slept on the sofabed. In this case, if the sister had lived in the District, the license could have been granted. She was willing to seek out a bigger apartment but was locked into her lease for 18 months. So my client remained in his grim, neglectful foster home.

Situations like those described above would not occur in all states. The District of Columbia and 19 states require relative caregivers to become licensed as foster parents, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. The other states do not require relative caregivers to be licensed, although they may have to meet similar standards, as in California.

The District and other states that require licensing for relative caregivers should consider eliminating licensing for relatives or establishing a more liberal set of requirements for relatives. There should be some standards, whether for a license or for a parallel process as in California. Relatives need to have their criminal and child abuse records checked and need to be assessed for their ability to care for a child. Their residences need to be assessed for safety. But additional requirements that are not necessary for health, safety and good care should be eliminated for relative caregivers.

All over the nation, there is a big push to keep children out of foster care with strangers and place them with relatives. This policy stems from the knowledge that it is best for children to be with family and also from the increasing shortage of qualified foster parents. Unnecessary requirements should not interfere with the interest of the state in placing children with their families.

This column was published at on May 4, 2015.