Real Experts Say Keep Group Homes Open

The anti-group home juggernaut continues to roll along. The governor of California has signed legislation that aims to drastically reduce the number of foster children placed in group homes by turning them into short-term placements for up to six months.

On the federal level, Senator Orrin Hatch has announced his intention to work with other senators to develop legislation reducing reliance on group homes for youth in foster care.

In last week’s column, I wrote about the folly of restricting group homes when family foster homes are in short supply. Today, I cite the real experts—young people who have thrived in group homes, often in contrast to their foster home experience.

Below are a few examples.

Sunday Koffron Taylor, a former foster child and current foster parent, is now the vice president of the Michigan Chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America. She questions the constant call that every child should be in a family:

The reality is that there are not enough qualified or willing foster homes for older children. I am the beneficiary of the group care system and I have noticed when talking to other foster care alumni that those of us who spent the majority of our time in group settings suffered far less mental and emotional abuse than our counterparts who are placed in foster homes. …Time would be more wisely spent improving group care, rather than attempting to coerce and cajole the unwilling and unprepared foster parent into accepting the care of children whose needs they are not equipped or willing to meet.

Erik Barrus, currently a student at Brigham Young University, participated in the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI)’s summer internship program. Erik bounced from home to home until he found stability and love at an independent family group home called Open Gate Ranch, which serves up to eight boys at one time.

The family running “The Ranch” have adopted six of their residents (including Erik) over the 20 years that they have operated the home. In his policy report for CCAI, Erik proposed that family-style group homes be placed in a different category from group homes operated by shift staff and be a preferred option for older boys in foster care.

Another former CCAI intern, Thomas McRae, Jr., entered foster care at the age of 11. He lived in 22 foster homes, suffering abuse, neglect, and multiple changes of school and neighborhood. He reacted with anger and aggression, leading to further disruption as foster parents refused to keep him.

After his last altercation with a foster parent, he ended up in a Boys Town family-style group home. He was supposed to stay only a few days, but his attorney fought for a longer placement, and he ended up there for eight months. Of his house parents, Thomas states:

“They were so inspiring, so motivating. They taught me what it means to have a mother and a father. They taught me patience and kindness. Had it not been for them, I would not be the man I am today.”

Thomas is already a seasoned public speaker and will graduate from Cheyney University next spring with a degree in psychology.

These experiences illustrate that group homes are not, in and of themselves, a problem. As a sector of the child welfare continuum, however, they have come to be defined by their worst members. These are often larger and are known for their rigid “level” systems in which even the most basic “privileges” can be taken away.

The “foster home sector” could easily be viewed through the same lens, but it’s not. There are foster parents who have never been to their child’s school, never taken them to the doctor, and don’t buy them more than the minimal clothing. There are even abusive and neglectful foster parents. But nobody is talking about shutting down all foster homes, or limiting the amount of time a child can stay in a home.

Could the higher cost of group homes have something to do with this discrepancy? Group homes cost more than foster homes, although the ratio of costs varies by jurisdiction and type of home. But the higher cost of group homes might explain why some conservative legislators, like Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), are so keen on restricting group homes.

The child welfare field should take the advice of Sunday Taylor and improve group homes, rather than eliminating them or establishing arbitrary time limits. Improved standards and accountability for group homes can improve their quality.

And let’s do more research on the effectiveness of different types of group care compared to foster care for different populations. The one study that compares similar group and treatment foster homes following the same treatment model shows that family-style group homes produced better outcomes.

Let’s make sure we know what works before we make it any harder to place youth in homes that could mean the difference between a successful life and a future in prison or on the streets.

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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.

1 Comment

  1. > I’m sure you did hear a few youth stress the importance of their residential care expierences. Two points, it is likely that …

    damn, you have an actual person telling you of their experience, yet because you know better, you dismiss what they say! I think they would know better about their own life and mental & emotional state than someone else.

    sadly, there are many people who support laws pre-determining what someone else should do about their own lives (abortion, right to die).

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