Jamal* is a teenager in foster care whom I met through an organization pairing Washington D.C. foster youth with volunteer mentors..
He is a spirited young man who bounced through five foster homes in less than a year due to his defiant behavior. When I met him, Jamal had ended up at a Boys Town family-style group home and was finally happy, stable and doing well.
If the supporters of the Family First Prevention Services Act have their way, the option of a supportive group home will no longer be available to most young people in foster care who cannot thrive in a family setting. Federal dollars will not be available to help states pay for group home placements beyond two weeks without a special assessment and court hearing, and the facility must be accredited by a specified agency and meet other criteria that may be burdensome and expensive.
The bill’s sponsors and supporters often cite a belief that most children do best in family settings.
Yet, this is not always the case. Jamal is not the only young person who needed a group home to find the support and nurturing he needed.
Lorenzo Mauldin, a linebacker with the New York Jets, was shuttled from home to home due to his mood swings and violent behavior, the legacy of a traumatic childhood. He credits the house parents from his Atlanta group home for the fact that he is playing football and not on the streets or in prison today like his mother.
Thomas McCrae 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. Thomas finally ended up in family-style group home, where he stayed eight months with the intercession of his attorney to let him stay longer. Thomas credits his house parents for his becoming “the man I am today.” He went on to college and a summer internship in the U.S. Congress.
As a social worker in the District of Columbia, I saw older youth boomerang from home to home after being ejected from each home due to behavioral problems. With few group homes available, the only choice was to find yet another foster home that they had not yet been expelled from. Unfortunately, many of these homes were little more than boarding houses, providing barely adequate food and shelter and no nurturing or emotional support.
Even if the bill’s authors were correct that all group homes should be closed, closing them before appropriate foster homes exist to take their place is foolhardy at best. States around the country are reporting foster home shortages, with children having to stay in offices until they can be placed. The hardest to place are older youth with behavioral problems. With group homes closed, this problem will only worsen.
The attempt to close group homes without providing an alternative is eerily reminiscent of the closure of institutions for the mentally ill in the 1960s. These hospitals were supposed to be replaced with community health services that were never funded. We are still reaping the consequences with the abundance of mentally ill people sleeping on the streets of America’s cities.
It is clear that there is something else behind the draconian prohibition on group settings beyond a concern about children. Legislators want the savings from eliminating these options to offset the increased costs imposed by the expansion of Title IV-E to include preventive services. As a matter of fact, they did such a good job of cutting costs that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the Family First Act will actually save money.
The two states with the largest numbers of children in foster care – New York and California – oppose the Family First Act. Together, these states represent 19 percent of the children in foster care in the United States. The State of Washington has expressed its opposition to the bill as well. The head of Texas’ child welfare agency said the Family First Act could worsen the state’s “already worrisome shortage of foster care beds” in an article in The Dallas Morning News.
The Family First Act is on the right track with its other major provision in allowing foster care funds to be spent on preventive services to keep families together, although there are concerns about the way the act does this. But this important reform should not be achieved at the expense of a life-saving option for some of our most wounded children.
Moreover, the Family First Act does not address the aspect of foster care financing that most needs reform—the so-called AFDC “lookback” for children in foster care. Currently the federal government pays a share of foster care costs only for those children who would have qualified for the defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (cash welfare) program, which was replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in 1996. This ridiculous standard requires states to spend millions of dollars annually determining eligibility for a defunct program — money they could spend helping children.
Aside from a pair of hearings that were orchestrated by the bill’s sponsors to support their vision for the legislation, there have been no hearings or floor debate on the Family First Act. It passed the House by voice vote, and its Senate sponsors tried to get it through without a vote before going on summer recess. They failed, thanks to courageous Senators who cared about children enough to resist pressure from the powerful coalition supporting the bill.
The Senate will be considering the bill again this September and now has a chance to get it right by amending the bill to ensure that we will not be leaving our most traumatized youth out in the cold.
* The young man’s name was changed to protect his anonymity.
Marie Cohen is a Research Associate at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, a member of the District of Columbia Citizen Review Panel for the Child and Family Services Agency, and a volunteer mentor to a foster youth. She served as a social worker in the District of Columbia’s child welfare system from 2010 to 2015.