The Real Lesson from the Fall of R.I.S.E.: Group Homes Don’t Work

The great filmmaker Costa Gavras, known for making “political films” such as “Z” and “The Confession,” once said: “The issues in politics are not complex, even though politicians tell us so in order to convince us of the politicians’ importance … and to keep us from criticizing them.”

It works the same way in child welfare. The bloviations of assorted “providers” concerning the complexity of this or that problem usually are rhetorical fog, created to obscure the simple fact that whatever it is the providers are providing has failed.

Case in point: a story in The Chronicle about the closing of the Residential Intervention for the Sexually Exploited (R.I.S.E.) group home for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC – yes, there’s already a dehumanizing acronym) in Redwood City, Calif. The story goes on and on about how the closing illustrates the “complexities faced by the entities engaged in serving and protecting [such] children,” how the group home ran up against “complicated” protocols, etc.

But the real story is simple:

  1. Group homes are almost always a bad idea.
  2. Someone opened a group home.
  3. It failed.
  4. It was forced to close.

Only item four on the list is unusual. Indeed, given what the San Jose Mercury News exposed about group homes and institutions California allows to remain open, you have to wonder about a place authorities found so bad they shut it down after only two years with the owner agreeing never to open a group home in Redwood City again.

But The Chronicle of Social Change does not wonder. It does not dig into the details about the failures at R.I.S.E. that led to the closure. Perhaps that’s understandable. Two years ago, The Chronicle did a 2,000 word encomium to R.I.S.E. featuring gushy paragraphs like this:

The interior walls of the yellow craftsman style home … are all painted bright colors and dusted with empowering quotes; the aesthetics a small indication of the lengths to which Annie Corbett … and her staff have gone to ensure that this home is a safe place …

Right. Because if the walls look pretty and the quotes are “empowering” what could possibly go wrong?

I’m sure Corbett meant well. But in that story, she already is portraying herself as a child welfare Gulliver, always at risk of being tied down by the Lilliputians of licensing who can, she says, “inflict torment any way they want.” As for actually helping these young people by placing them with families: Corbett says foster parents “don’t want these kids.” Needless to say birth parents are not even mentioned.

Layers of Faux Complexity

Now that the program has shut down, The Chronicle buries the basics in layers of faux “complexity.”

The most recent story begins:

In foster care most of her life, 17-year-old Amber [not her real name] finally found a little stability at R.I.S.E. House. After cycling through 35 foster and group homes, she developed relationships at R.I.S.E. and was poised to graduate from high school.

Normally in a news story a claim such as this would be followed by something to back it up – at least a quote from Amber herself. But no evidence, and no quote, is offered. Apparently, the reporter just took someone’s word for it. (In fact neither Chronicle story quotes any current or former resident of R.I.S.E.)

Only toward the very end of the story do we learn that, notwithstanding the claims about “stability” and “relationships,” Amber had run away from R.I.S.E. not once, but five times.

The story does quote from a report by the California Child Welfare Council – but selectively. The story notes the report’s call for “stable housing and specialized placement options.” But the report also says:

CSEC survivors who have successfully left their exploitative relationship often point to the emotional connections and trusting relationships they built with caring adults as significant factors in their recovery. In contrast, CSEC survivors identify significant difficulties with living in group homes. For example, in those placements, no one caregiver looks out for their well-being. CSEC may also pose risks to the other children in the home. Group home placement can even exacerbate CSEC victimization, because pimps use such facilities as recruiting grounds.

Pattern Seen All Over the Country

That’s exactly what has happened over and over, all over the country. Yet despite the mountain of evidence that group homes and institutions are a failure for all populations, the group home industry persists in pushing institutionalization for this especially vulnerable group.

And when it all goes wrong, it’s everyone else’s fault. The licensers are “harassing and intimidating us,” Corbett says.  The police put her program “in a vice grip.”  And, of course, only she really cares about the children. In a comment reminiscent of Donald Trump’s declaration that “I alone can fix it,” Corbett says she is working “with a population everyone else gets rid of.”  Shutting down her group home, she says, is just another example of “the marginalization and discrimination against these vulnerable and traumatized kids.”

In her telling, the problem isn’t that, as authorities said, there was no therapeutic program, issues with the staff-child ratio, poor school attendance, and trouble with staff training (which is odd since the earlier Chronicle story assured readers that staff already were specifically trained to deal with this population).

No, Corbett says, those awful police and licensing people were at the home so often there just wasn’t time to run a worthwhile program.

Here’s another possibility: They were there so often because R.I.S.E was a bad idea, badly executed.

There is nothing a group home can do that can’t be done better by providing wraparound services to children living either with their own families or with foster families. You can find foster families to accept “these kids” if they know they will have the intensive support they need to help them.

Indeed, the California Child Welfare Council report recommends that the state “create a CSEC subspecialty within Wraparound programs that will ensure caregivers have the knowledge and resources needed to care for CSEC victims.”

Some things in child welfare are complicated, such as funding formulas. But the issues in child welfare are not complex, even though providers tell us so in order to convince us of the providers’ importance. And to keep us from criticizing them.

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Richard Wexler
About Richard Wexler 51 Articles
Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org. His interest in child welfare grew out of 19 years of work as a reporter for newspapers, public radio and public television. During that time, he won more than two dozen awards, many of them for stories about child abuse and foster care. He is the author of Wounded Innocents: The Real Victims of the War Against Child Abuse (Prometheus Books: 1990, 1995).