On August 5, The Chronicle highlighted the recommendations of Eric Barrus, one of 12 former foster youths participating in the Foster Youth Internship Program of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Barrus agrees with many experts that large group homes or institutions should not be used as long-term placements for foster youth. However, he proposes that small group homes run by families should be a preferred option for older, harder-to-place foster youth.
Barrus’s position is based on his personal experience. He was in foster care from age 16 through 19, and was initially placed in large group homes of up to 30 children where it was “next to impossible” to build the relationships with staff and peers that are important to healthy adolescent development. Finally, he was placed in an independent family group home in Montana called Open Gate Ranch. Eric thrived there, and was eventually adopted by the family that runs the home.
“The Ranch,” as it is affectionately known, is an independent family group home that houses up to eight boys at a time. Barrus stresses the family-like nature of the Ranch. “The parents live in the home 24/7, which creates a loving and accepting environment, where there are opportunities to develop trust, build relationships and be part of the family. They also…[make] every kid feel special by attending their extracurricular activities; …helping them attain a driver’s license; and celebrating birthdays, graduations, and other milestones.”
Residents of the home also enjoy weekly family nights, family vacations, theme park trips, and holiday celebrations, he wrote.
As a former foster care social worker, I know this is significantly more than I saw most foster parents do for their wards.
The Ranch is not alone in the provision of excellent family-based group care. In an earlier column, I described my visit to a Boys Town family group home in Washington, D.C. The dining room wall is covered with photos of former residents many of whom come back often to see the home’s “Teaching Parents,” who have been doing this for 20 years. Both the sparkling interior and the loving, dedicated full-time parents were in sharp contrast to many of the dark, dingy, loveless foster homes I have observed.
Group home opponents often cite research purportedly showing that foster care produces better outcomes than group care. But Dr. Bethany Lee, one of the nation’s leading experts on group care, questions the quality of this research. In an introduction to her own study, she notes several methodological problems with previous comparative studies between group care and foster care.
In their study, she and her co-author, Dr. Ronald Thompson, tried to minimize these limitations. Comparing youth who received foster care through Boys Town with youth who participated in Boys Town family-style group homes, they found that the youth in group care were more likely to be favorably discharged, more likely to return home and less likely to experience a subsequent formal placement than the foster care youth.
No differences were found in subsequent legal involvement or the likelihood of living in a homelike setting six months after discharge.
As Eric points out, family-style group homes are particularly needed in light of the foster parent shortages around the country, which can result in a prevalence of poor-quality foster homes. Agencies with a foster parent shortage are often reluctant to screen out or dismiss people who go into foster care for the money and provide nothing more than room and board. I described the results in an earlier column about bad foster homes.
Group home opponents often cite their expense, which is considerably greater than that of family foster care. Eric points out that some youth in foster care, especially older boys who have experienced trauma and failed in multiple family placements, simply cannot function in a foster home. The higher cost of group care for these youth might be a bargain if it enables the taxpayers to avoid future expenses on public assistance, homelessness, substance abuse, and incarceration.
Eric recommends that family group homes be made “a preferred placement option over non-family group home and institutional placements for “hard-to-place” teen boys.” He also suggests that “family group homes” should be considered a separate category between foster home care and group care.
Unfortunately, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has expressed his intention to restrict funding for group homes. It’s not clear whether Senator Hatch recognizes the distinction between large institutional group homes and smaller, family-style homes. As The Chronicle suggests in the article about Eric’s recommendations, we need more research into the outcomes of different types of group homes for different types of youth before Congress places restrictions on their funding.
Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.