Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts, #3: Strengthening Investment in Family-Run Group Homes

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, with support from the Sara Start Fund. Each of the FYI participants crafted a carefully researched policy recommendation during their time in Washington.

Today we highlight the recommendation of Eric Barrus, a student at Brigham Young University.

The Proposal

Establish “family group homes” as a unique placement option, and make it a priority placement for older foster youth, particularly those who are likely to age out of foster care without returning to their birth families or getting adopted.

The Argument

Family group homes are defined by their management (the home’s owner lives there with the youths) and their size (generally more than five but fewer than 10 youths).

About 23,000 foster youths live in group homes each year, and there is a growing consensus on Capitol Hill that the number should be far lower. There is no segmentation of that population into types of group homes, Barrus writes, and thus no good information about whether they produce better results than provider-based residential care.

From his own experience, Barrus hypothesizes that research would bear out that family group homes are a supportive and effective option for teens headed toward aging out. After entering foster care at age 15, Barrus bounced around traditional group homes he described as “overwhelming, unwelcoming, harsh and institutional.”

At Open Gate Ranch, a family group home for teen boys, he thrived in a setting that never included more than eight teens at a time. The family has since adopted him.

In His Own Words

Erik Barrus

“Congress should continue its efforts to reduce group home placements by further restricting federal child welfare funding for group homes and institutions, while making a meaningful exception for family group homes as a family-based placement option. Older youth, including hard-to-place teen boys in group homes or institutions, should be able to experience family group homes as they make the difficult transition to becoming independent adults.”

The Chronicle’s Take

As Barrus’ argument concedes, there is very little knowledge base about the impact of family-run group homes in general, or as compared to other group care settings. It is unlikely Congress would make it a priority in any way until there was some evidence that family-run group homes were a cut above the rest.

Having said that, this might be the most important proposal from this year, for two reasons. First, Congress is moving pretty quickly toward taking steps to limit the federal investment in group homes; we might even see legislation introduced this summer or in early fall.

Second, Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, a law passed last year, eliminates long-term foster care as a permanency option for any foster youth below the age of 16. While efforts to find permanent homes for older teens must continue, the bill sort of codifies the expectation that older teens will age out of foster care.

If family group homes are the hidden gems that Barrus suggests from his experience, we ought to know that. The first steps, it would seem, would be to fund some basic research and perhaps initiate a pilot project on replication of Open Gate Ranch, which Barrus said is batting a thousand in getting its kids to graduate high school.

Click here to read Barrus’ entire proposal and those of his fellow FYI participants.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at