Don’t Misunderstand Lexie Gruber’s Foster Care Experience

At the Senate Finance Committee’s May 19 hearing on reducing the use of group homes in foster care, the testimony that drew the most attention was that of Lexie Gruber. Lexie, a bright and articulate young woman, was removed from her family at the age of 15 and remained in foster care until she aged out.

As a former foster care social worker in the District of Columbia, I was very affected by Lexie’s testimony. But I have concerns that it could be used to justify major new restrictions on group homes.

Lexie described a group home where she received no emotional support from the staff who were ill-equipped to handle her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. The atmosphere was nothing like a home; residents could not prepare their own food and cabinets were locked to prevent their “stealing” snacks.

Lexie’s testimony was part of a hearing held for the purpose of showing how bad group homes can be for kids in foster care. But not all group homes are the same. In Youth Today, I described the amazing care provided by Boys Town group homes in Washington, D.C.

There was no ban on hugging and no locked cabinets at the home I visited. A wall full of photos documents the young men who had spent time there over the past 20 years, many of whom still come back to visit. The “Teaching “Parents” who live there have brought up their own children there along with those assigned to them by the foster care and criminal justice systems. We need to push for closing or improving bad group homes, not eliminating great ones like those operated by Boys Town.

Just as not all group homes are created equal, neither are all foster homes. The locked cabinets and lack of hugs can be seen in many foster homes. One of the saddest moments of my five years as a foster care social worker is when I had to find a new placement for a nine-year-old client who was kicked out of her foster home for disrespectful behavior. When we arrived at her new “therapeutic” home, a locksmith was busy putting a padlock on the foster parent’s bedroom door.

Perhaps the most compelling part of Lexie’s testimony was why she ended up in the care of strangers in the first place. She was initially placed with her uncle, but was removed from him after two months because he “did not have enough bedrooms to meet agency regulations.”

As a foster care social worker, I experienced the same barrier in trying to place clients with relatives. I was intent on placing a client with his sister who lived just over the border in Maryland. I rushed to complete the paperwork and walked it over to the Child and Family Services Agency. Within an hour, I got a call; the request was denied because Maryland required a separate bedroom for my client.

Lexie may have been correct in blaming a lazy social worker for not applying for a waiver in her case, but I know that no waiver was available for my client. Instead of his loving sister, my client went to a foster parent who provided no emotional support or supervision and barely met his physical needs.

At the hearing, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Joo Yeun Chang of the Children’s Bureau several times what could be done about licensing requirements that prevent foster kids being placed with family. Each time, Ms. Chang responded that the Obama Administration intends to limit congregate care.

But this is a different issue. Of course the federal government could address the licensing issue by denying IV-E funding to states that impose this type of ridiculous requirement. What a shame that, by focusing exclusively on group homes, the administration missed an opportunity to advocate for another of its priorities: keeping children with their families.

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.

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Marie K. Cohen
About Marie K. Cohen 68 Articles
Marie K. Cohen (MPA, MSW) is a child advocate, researcher, and policy analyst. She worked as social worker in the District of Columbia's child welfare system for five years. She is a member of the Citizen's Review Committee for the DC Child and Family Services Agency and the DC Child Fatality Review Commission and a mentor to a foster youth. Follow her blog at fosteringreform.blogspot.org, on Facebook at Fostering Reform or on Twitter@fosteringreform.

3 Comments

  1. Your post ends on exactly the right note—keeping children with their families. We think the debate here shouldn’t be about good group homes vs bad ones (although the bad ones should certainly have to improve). Instead it should be about what we can do to ensure that kids who need care have what we want for the children in our lives—a family to love them and take care of them, now and in the future.

    We know that children fare better in families. We also know that sometimes they need treatment that can best be provided in a group setting. But group placements should be made for sound therapeutic reasons, rather than because the system hasn’t properly invested in finding, preparing, and supporting family for every child.

    Too many children and youth grow up in institutions. That is why the Senate Finance Committee is looking at ways to address the issue. Research shows:
    • More than one in seven children are placed in group placements while in the child welfare system.
    • About 4 out of 10 of children in group care have no diagnosis, disability, or behavioral problem that would warrant such a placement.
    • When teens are sent to group placements, they often age out of care without ever joining a permanent family.
    • Children in group care have three times the odds of children in non-kin foster homes and six times the odd of those in kinship care of reporting not wanting their current arrangement to be permanent.
    Young people like Lexie can help us shape policies and practices. They are the experts who should drive our work. At Advocates for Families First, we are committed to making sure children and youth who need care have the opportunity to grow up and grow old in families. Isn’t that what everyone wants for the children they love?

    Kim Stevens, project director
    Advocates for Families First

  2. Did not mean to question Lexie’s story in any way and I’m sorry if it appeared that way to you. I was just questioning the way it is being used by others and particularly the failure of the witnesses to identify inappropriate state licensing requirements for kinship homes as a problem.

  3. “Lexie may have been correct in blaming a lazy social worker for not applying for a waiver in her case […]”

    It sounds like in that quote, and really throughout the entire piece, you’re questioning the validity of Lexie’s story. That’s really unfair. Lexie bravely shared her emotional experience with the committee and, like every other witness, went under oath to confirm that it was the truth.

    I understand that you have your opinion and that is fine. But to advance your own agenda by unjustly questioning the validity of a former foster youth’s experience is unprofessional and unethical.

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