When a child welfare agency determines that a child is “unsafe” or the juvenile justice system determines a youth is “too dangerous,” he or she is often taken out of their home and placed in a foster care or group home setting. A primary reason for removing a child from their family home is parental “neglect.” Much of this neglect, however, is neither malicious nor deliberate, but often due to poverty.
The foster homes, group homes, and private juvenile facilities to which youth are sent are very expensive, costing more than $300 per day for each child. If the young person has a mental health challenge, those costs can double. Federal funds that pay for residential placements, known as Title IV-E funds, prohibit any of the monies being spent on the child’s natural family – which could often help alleviate some of the challenges of poverty that contributed to the “dangerous” or “unsafe” conditions in the first place. Instead, these funds are sent to states and passed on to counties to make out-of-home placement decisions and payments.
For youth in the juvenile justice system, courts and probation departments use the same network and process of out-of-home placement if a youth is to be taken out of the community due to his or her delinquent behavior. Though sometimes referred to as group homes, youth sent to out-of-home placement by the juvenile justice system are usually placed in large, private, secure juvenile facilities. Hence, in effect, these youth are incarcerated. And far too often, youth are sent to these placements not as a result of a new delinquent offense, but a technical violation of the terms of their probation.
Group homes and even larger congregate care facilities to which many youth are sent have proven ineffective and even harmful. On average, youth spend one year in out-of-home placements, a length of time that is expensive, disruptive, and detrimental to youth and their families. The system often sends youth to private, secure juvenile facilities that are located far away from their families, oftentimes out of state, making family counseling and support nearly impossible. A recent national study by Juvenile Law Center revealed that length of stay in juvenile placements should be reduced to six months or less – half the time most youth in spend in such placements.
In 2006, the federal government allocated more than $6 billion dollars in Title IV-E funds to states for foster care placements. The next year, a promising shift took place: Los Angeles and Alameda Counties were the only two counties in California to participate in the first-of-its-kind five-year pilot “Waiver” initiative. Under the Waiver, participating jurisdictions receive a capped allocation of Title IV-E funds (based on average annual spending over the previous three years) that could be used to pay for placements, as usual, or for services and supports that prevent placement of children outside their homes. Any jurisdiction receiving the Waiver would in turn be financially penalized if its number of out-of-home placements increases, and would not be qualified to receive the additional funds to pay for those placements. Conversely, if a jurisdiction reduces the number of youth sent to placement, it can create substantial savings that can be used to fund youth development programs in the community, or even provide families with direct support.
The cost of an out-of-home placement can be extreme. In California, the level of private facility to which most youth in the juvenile justice system are sent costs $115,000 annually for each youth. Reducing the number of youth sent to these placements by just 10 can save a jurisdiction more than one million dollars each year.
Between July 2007 and February 2010, Los Angeles County reduced its foster care population by 23 percent. The number of children placed in group homes and other institutionalized settings declined by more than one-third during this same period. In 2007, there were 1,600 probation youth in out of home placements in Los Angeles County and in 2015 that number was cut in half, down to 800 probation youth in placement. In the first year of the waiver, the Los Angeles County Probation Department saved $11 million by reducing the number of youth sent to out-of-home placements.
Los Angeles County has also successfully reduced its use of out-of-home placement, which in and of itself is a very good outcome. But the county has not yet adequately invested the millions of dollars in savings created by this reduction into families and communities.
All local and state governments which remove youth from their homes and put them in private placements need to implement numerous reforms, including:
improving the tracking and reporting of outcomes for youth who are currently in or have been in out of home placements, or who have been diverted from out of home placements.
When tracking these youth, include well-being measures, such as education and employment outcomes; increase the amount of funds allocated to community services and increase the amount of funds provided directly to needy families; reduce the length of time youth stay in out of home placements, with a goal of no longer than six months; utilize more single-family homes as placements instead of large congregate care facilities, like Therapeutic Foster Homes or the evidenced-based Multi-dimensional Treatment Foster Care (MTFC).
These simple reforms would result in significant savings and improved outcomes for youth, families, and communities.
David Muhammad is on the Board of Directors for the L.A.-based Anti-Recidivism Coalition. He is the former Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County in California and the former Deputy Commission of Probation in New York City.