Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Residential Schools: A Promising Alternative to Foster and Group Homes

In her book, Garbage Bag Suitcase, former foster youth Shenandoah Chefalo describes her childhood of abuse, followed by three years in foster care with a family that was more stable, but no more caring or supportive, than her birth family.
In her final chapter, she suggests an alternative to the standard model of foster care that is failing so many young people: boarding schools for foster youth. As an example, she cites the Crossnore School, a nonprofit residential foster care home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina that was founded in 1913.
Crossnore supports children from the ages of one to 21, and is known for accepting large sibling groups. Currently, 83 children live in 11 cottages, each supervised by professional “cottage parents,” and three new cottages are under construction, which will bring the capacity up to 110. This new “Young Children’s Village” will include a ropes-based adventure playground, which will provide a full-body workout while kids are having fun.
Crossnore residents attend the public charter school on campus along with students from the community. All students receive therapy and medical care on site. Many students receive tutoring as well. In the summer, there is a full slate of activities, including day trips, special classes like hiking and baking, and a one-week beach trip.
The school offers 19 kinds of therapy, including Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, play therapy, family therapy, group therapy and equine-assisted therapy. Each cottage has a dog, so residents can experience the therapeutic effects of nurturing a pet. A case manager for each student serves as the hub of her team, mediating between the many adults involved with the child, taking her to appointments and supervising visits with birth families.
In 2014, Crossnore adopted the Sanctuary Model, and became one of 100 certified Sanctuary Organizations worldwide. The Sanctuary Model certification process is designed to “strengthen an organization’s commitment to the maintenance of a trauma-informed culture.”
Crossnore’s quality program pays off. Nearly all of its seniors graduate every year. Of last year’s nine graduates, three are working, four are in community college and two are in four-year college. 
Crossnore is not the only residential school that also serves as a foster care placement, but there aren’t many. The Children’s Home in Winston Salem provides a similar program, and recently merged with Crossnore. The Boys and Girls Home of North Carolina is another residential school and foster placement. California’s San Pascual Academy is a residential campus for foster teens with a capacity to serve 184 youths.
The economics of Crossnore explain why there are not many more such programs. The program spent about $5.5 million in fiscal year 2015, of which only about $3.5 million came from government payments. Private donations covered the rest.
A residential school like Crossnore has multiple advantages over a foster home. Professional house parents combined with case managers give children the support they need. The size of the cottages allows large sibling groups to be placed together. Coordination between home, school and mental health services is assured. Rather than the poor schools and mental health providers that are often their lot, foster kids receive quality services tailored to their needs.
We need more programs like Crossnore, but the current climate in most states and at the federal level is not friendly to residential schools. The bias against residential placements (which provides a convenient excuse for spending less) is getting stronger and may soon be enshrined in federal law.
The current focus on preventing the need for foster care, while extremely important, has beendiverting attention from the need for healing placements for those who must be removed.
The expense of these programs is another barrier. Yet the savings from increased educational attainment and decreases in crime probably far outweigh the increased cost. It is my hope that governments and private funders will see the need for and lifesaving potential of these programs and will choose to invest in starting new ones.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on May 2, 2016.

Child Maltreatment Prevention Should Start Before Conception

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the recent report from the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) urges the nation to stop waiting for a child to be maltreated before intervening with services and supports.
But when talking about child abuse prevention, CECANF and most others miss one of the most crucial opportunities: before a child is even conceived.
Sarah Brown, founder of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, gave a lecture last December that made this point forcefully. She reports being struck by “the total absence of pregnancy planning, spacing and prevention in virtually all discussions of how to improve overall child and family well being …” As she put it, many groups concentrate on services after the child is born, but rarely do they mention the time when decisions about whether and when it should take place.
There is no lack of research on the connection between pregnancy timing and child maltreatment. There is a strong association between child maltreatment and the mother’s age at the birth of the child. California researchers Emily Putnam-Hornstein and Barbara Needell found that babies born to mothers who were under 20 were twice as likely to be reported to child protective services (CPS) by the child’s fifth birthday as those born to mothers 30 or older.
Among children referred to CPS by age five, almost 18 percent were born to a teenage mother and 50 percent were born to a mother younger than 25. Among children with no CPS contact, only 8 percent were teen births and 30 percent were born to a mother under 25.
There is also strong evidence that family size and child spacing are correlated with child maltreatment. Putnam-Hornstein and Needell found that children who fell third or higher in the birth order were more than twice as likely to be the subject of a report as first children. Moreover, a large study published in 2013 found that women who gave birth to another child within 24 months of the previous child were 80 percent more likely to have a substantiated CPS report.
And setting the research aside for a moment: Anyone who has worked for or with CPS, or in foster care, knows the prevalence of larger families with closely-spaced children in the system.
So if it is not the lack of research, why do supporters of child maltreatment prevention usually fail to include family planning and contraception in their suggestions? In part, Sarah Brown says of child advocates in general, it may be that they simply don’t think of it. But in large part, says Brown, it is because they fear getting in trouble and becoming mired in controversy. In addition to the fear of bringing abortion into the discussion, this discussion makes many people uncomfortable because of fears of conjuring up past attempts to control the population of poor or minority groups.
But family planning and contraception need to be included in the child maltreatment discussion. We know so little about what works after birth to prevent child maltreatment, but we have made great progress in teen pregnancy prevention. Many factors, including economic recession, MTV shows, and fear of HIV may have contributed to the decline in teen pregnancy and parenthood.
But public and private initiatives to provide education and availability of effective contraception have probably played a part as well. Imagine if we could expand that work to focus on young adult women as well. Imagine a public health campaign explaining the benefits of planning, spacing and timing pregnancy to prospective mothers “so that your children can be healthier and have a better chance in life.”
CECANF Commissioner Judge Patricia Martin is to be commended for including teen pregnancy prevention, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods and among youth in foster care, as one of the recommendations in her dissenting report. She stresses the inclusion of young men in these efforts. It is too bad the main report did not include this recommendation.
This column was published in the Chronicle of Social Change on April 26, 2016.