Research Centers Offer Congregate-Care Policy Recommendations for States

As the federal government considers legislation that would reduce federal spending on congregate care, researchers from two prominent research and policy centers suggest that states will have to better understand patterns of congregate-care placements in order to best support youth and families.

“Using Evidence to Accelerate the Safe and Effective Reduction of Congregate Care for Youth Involved with Child Welfare,”a policy brief jointly released today by Chapin Hall and the Chadwick Center for Children and Families, examines data to better understand congregate-care populations, recent state trends around the use of congregate and strategies to best support these youth during their transition out of these placements.

Congress is currently working on the Families First Act, an ambitious and yet-to-be-drafted bill organized by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that could mandate strict limits to stays in congregate care. Several states are already changing the way they incorporate congregate care into their child welfare systems, including the reforms spelled out in California’s recently approved Assembly Bill 403.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 1.42.12 PMBolstered by research that spells out the detrimental impact of outcomes associated with long-term stays in congregate care and the high cost of providing these services, the push to curtail congregate care will have far-ranging consequences.

The purpose of the brief is to provide state and federal leadership with data-driven perspectives on recent experiences with congregate care.

“Our goal is to use the best available data and research to help child welfare policy makers understand the relationship between the needs of youth in congregate care and goal of caring for youth in family-based care,” said Bryan Samuels, executive director of Chapin Hall.

According to Charles Wilson of the Chadwick Center, part of the reason the two centers were drawn to collaborate on congregate care was to avoid the troubling experiences of jurisdictions the last time the nation experienced a sharp turn in the way mental-health services were delivered.

About a generation ago, the prevailing winds in care shifted away from serving those with high needs in institutions and toward other forms of care. A lack of understanding about the impact of those decisions has had significant unintended consequences.

“Looking back on that period, we didn’t really do a good job of creating community resources to catch them,” Wilson said. “So now we’ve turned the jails into the new psychiatric hospitals and [we see them] among the homeless.”

Despite the well-intentioned goal of moving youth into family-like settings as much as possible, congregate care reforms without careful calibration could pose considerable challenges as well, Wilson said.

“So if politically we move in the direction of reducing the reliance of congregate care without having assets available in the community, we run the risk of moving kids into foster homes who are not able to care for them, therefore increasing the number of kids who are blowing out of foster homes, moving from home to home or ending up in the juvenile justice system,” he said.

Use of congregate care has been already been declining in recent years. Using data from National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being and the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive, researchers saw a 20 percent decrease in congregate care nationwide. In some states, the report noted, congregate placement rates varied widely from county to county.

One key finding reflects the different ways congregate care has been utilized in the country and the need to tailor reform to the unique experiences of each state.

Some states rely heavily on congregate care for first placements, such as emergency shelters. For those states, creating emergency foster homes and initial home-based placements may be a better strategy for lowering reliance on congregate care.

For other states where congregate care is used primarily for the clinical needs of higher-level children who have failed other placements, creating shelters and building capacity for more foster homes will be less important than services and supports for home-based caregivers.

“You need to tailor the response to the unique understanding of each state,” Wilson said.

Researchers from Chapin Hall and the Chadwick Center identified the following recommendations for policymakers and other child-welfare leaders:

  • Customize strategies for reductions in the use of congregate care.
  • Differentiate intensity of treatment from restrictiveness of placement.
  • Incentivize increasing capacity for skilled and/or specialized home-based placement.
  • Support access to evidence-based interventions designed to help stabilize placements and/or enhance clinical outcomes for youth in foster and kin placements.
  • Provide both direct and indirect resources for the implementation of evidence-based approaches to deflect youth from congregate care settings.
  • Enhance access for child welfare systems to technical assistance for selecting and successfully implementing evidence-based practices.
  • Promote research on these interventions, especially in child welfare settings.
  • Develop funding streams that support flexibility in the delivery and intensity of outpatient services.

The brief was released today as part of Chadwick Center’s San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. Samuels is also expected to share the brief at a meeting with Casey Foundation leadership in Seattle.

You can read the brief online via Chapin Hall or at the Chadwick Center website.

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Jeremy Loudenback
About Jeremy Loudenback 309 Articles
Jeremy is the child trauma editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.