The Chronicle’s series on out-of-county placements for foster youth provided excellent examples of the problems caused by placing foster children out of county or far away from home. In the District of Columbia, where I worked as a social worker with foster children, over half of foster youth are placed in the Maryland suburbs.
California seems to be unique in having data about out-of-county placements. However, while nationwide data are not available, this is likely a national issue. As far back as 1999, child welfare scholar Mark Testa discussed the lack of foster homes in the cities and the placement of urban children in suburban foster homes.
Working with D.C. children who lived with Maryland foster families, I saw firsthand the problems with having foster youth in another jurisdiction. Child welfare agencies are now required to keep children in their home school unless it is not in their interests to do so. As I discussed in an earlier column, these young people are often forced to use special van services, which means that they cannot participate in extracurricular activities since drivers are not available after normal school hours.
Moreover, travel times are often lengthy as drivers might have several children in different jurisdictions on one route. Faraway schools means that it is difficult for children to see friends after school or participate in evening or weekend activities.
Long distances from children’s families also cause big problems. Young people usually visit with their families weekly, and this means lots of time in the car for kids and staff– a waste of everybody’s time. Overwhelmed social workers often have to do the driving, detracting from other important duties.
I was confused by Judge Henry’s column asserting that the burden is on parents to travel long distances to visits. In the jurisdictions with which I am familiar, visitation takes place at the agency, the parent’s home, or in the community at a location convenient to the parent.
Finding mental health services in another jurisdiction can also be problematic, as The Chronicle series points out. Because the District has so many children in the Maryland suburbs, mental health services are available there, but frequent moves mean that children have to change therapists or endure commutes of more than an hour each way to mental health services.
Long commutes to school, family visits and therapy are major inconveniences for kids, who should be using the time for schoolwork, activities and fun. Along with long drives for social workers to required home visits, they also impose a financial cost on agencies, which must pay for transportation. And having master’s degree-holding social workers spending hours every week driving hardly seems a good use of taxpayers’ money.
The Chronicle’s series raises the question of how to address the out-of-county placement dilemma. As I argued in a previous post, we need to move kids back to their jurisdictions. But it is unrealistic to expect that a new supply of foster parents will miraculously appear without some redefinition of the foster care concept.
Agencies might consider a model of the government owning the home and paying foster parents as employees to live there and provide full-time care to the children. As I stated in an earlier column, we need to pay foster parents as professionals in order to solve the foster parent shortage and attract the kind of nurturing families that are required for this demanding job.
For teenagers, we might consider family-style group homes of up to eight children such as those endorsed by foster care alumnus and congressional intern Eric Barrus. Due to the high cost of land in many cities, agencies might have to acquire land or facilities for this purpose or help nonprofits like Boys Town to do so.
In addition to bringing children back to their own jurisdiction, these models would have the virtue of making it possible for one member of a two-parent family to be a full-time foster parent. As both the foster parent and the CASA Director interviewed by The Chronicle in Part Five of the series stated, foster parenting should be a full-time job in view of the intense needs of most foster children, not just those labeled as “therapeutic.”
These solutions sound expensive. However, let’s not forget the costs of transporting children to schools, family visits, court hearings and therapists out of county, as well as the cost of masters-level social workers driving hours to get to home visits and doing some of the client transportation.
Compared with these current costs, providing professional foster care in county may not be so expensive. And the benefits to children would be great.