Smaller Role for Residential Care, Witnesses Urge Senate Finance Committee

Group settings should only be used for brief and emergency interventions in the foster care system, a panel of witnesses told members of the Senate Finance Committee today.

“There is a wide consensus that children are best served in a family setting,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.,) ranking minority member on the committee, who added that group care should last “only for as long as necessary to stabilize the child…before returning to a family setting.

“This theory is finally catching on,” Wyden said, noting that the number of youths in congregate care is down 33 percent over the decade.

The hearing continues the Congressional discussion on child welfare financing, which has taken shape over the past three years. Limits on federal support for foster care, greater flexibility for the use of federal funds by states and curbing the use of psychotropic medication on foster youths are among the reform concepts that have been pressed by various members of congress and national advocacy groups.

Today’s hearing focused on the use of group care, also known as congregate care. About 57,000 (14 percent) of the nation’s foster youth live in group care, according to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released just hours before the hearing.

The rate of group care use is erratic from state to state. Twelve states hold more than 20 percent of foster youth in group settings, and 15 hold less than 10 percent, according to the Casey report.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah,) who called for the hearing, introduced legislation two years ago that would cut off federal IV-E dollars after 15 days for children under age 13 who are placed in congregate care. For all foster youths placed in child care institutions or emergency group settings, officials would have to appear in court to demonstrate that efforts to locate potential homes for the child were made in order to receive IV-E funds.

Hatch was forced to miss the hearing because of the major trade bill on the Senate floor. Senators on both sides of the aisle shuffled in and out of the hearing to ensure it could continue as the trade bill was discussed.

Sen. Charles Grassley, who also co-chairs the Senate’s Foster Care Caucus, chaired the hearing on his behalf.

“Foster youth want the same thing as other children, a place to call home,” Grassley said. Meanwhile, he said, group homes “create conditions that make young people vulnerable to homelessness, substance abuse, and poverty.”

All of the witnesses acknowledged a need for residential care as part of the child welfare continuum, but urged limits on the use of it.

Group care is “simply the wrong intervention for most youth, including teens,” said Jeremy Kohomban, CEO of Children’s Village, a major provider of residential and community-based family services in New York City. “There is a belief that most children in group care need to be there because of serious mental health problems. That’s not true. They are children in pain, and born in poverty. And they are predominantly black and increasingly brown.”

Asked by The Chronicle how many of the youths placed in Children’s Village residential care by the city could be served in their homes or with foster families, he said, “at least 50 percent or more.”

Kohomban said that changes to federal law should address the “perverse incentives” that steer most federal child welfare dollars into foster care, including group settings.

“When we are paid by the day for each child, we are forced into business models that require keeping kids in beds” instead of “helping them live with families.”

Matthew Reynell, an adoptive parent from Rochester, N.Y., who testified at the hearing, said time limits should be placed on residential care, and that group care providers should be required to have family inclusion policies and “always be trying to identify a permanent home resource.”

In its 2016 budget request, the Obama administration proposed the inclusion of increased reimbursements for specialized foster home placements and greater oversight requirements for congregate care, said Children’s Bureau Associate Commissioner Joo Yeun Chang, who testified today.

But further reining in congregate care, she said, will require Congress doing  “something bold for the states that says, ‘This is what we expect of you, and we’re going to give you the resources to do it.’”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.