BY: Mike Jones
One of the more troubling aspects of a top-down system of governance is that all too often those who are impacted the most by federal or state legislation are the ones with the least input in its creation. I was recently asked by the Coalition for Residential Education (CORE) to speak on a Congressional panel along with several other young people to push back against this issue and, hopefully, give those people at the top a little advice from those of us at the bottom.
The impetus for our visit to Capital Hill is the recent push to defund residential/group home care in several states across the country by reducing the number of minors that are placed into these programs. The foster care system, while still the first stop for young people that can no longer live with their families due to abuse, neglect, or issues beyond their control, is overcrowded and many youth end up bouncing to multiple different foster care placements before either turning 18 or becoming emancipated minors. Reform is needed but not all reform is created equal.
In the Fall of 2010, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth released a white paper concerning the state of youth in the U.S. Child Welfare System. For the most part, the points provided are sensible and reflective of what welfare advocates have been pushing for years. For example, proposals to create a "foster care bill of rights" and to "monitor the use of psychotropic drugs" administered to young people in foster care are sensible and long overdue. Other parts however, such as a proposal to decrease funding to "congregate care" (Group homes) after a one-time 90 day period following the placement of a minor, and to eliminate that option for anyone under the age of 16, is raising eyebrows among advocates for residential education like CORE.
Over the past decade, states such as Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina have made reducing the number of youth in residential or group home care an essential part of their plans for Child Welfare Reform. The motivation behind this is two-fold. On the one hand, it is generally accepted that foster care placement, in which a minor lives with relatives or "qualified adults" that they are not related to, is preferred to placement in a group home. On the other, more suspicious hand, the motivating factor for states and a growing number of organizations in the field (such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation) is that foster care just costs less; in fact it costs 2/3 less than a comparable group home placement.
With this in mind, you might be asking yourself why these wildly expensive and supposedly less preferable group homes exist in the first place and you would no doubt find company in those higher echelons of policy-making that feel the same way. However, these institutions have been around for decades for a reason, there is a real and continuing need for them. There are approximately half a million young people in the child welfare system and although it would be nice to think they all have support networks of people to take care of them at a moments notice, that's simply not the case. Group homes may not be the best first option but if given the chance they can be a close second for thousands of young people across the country.
This was what I had in mind when, with the support of an amazing group of young people bearing similarly positive experiences with group home care, we made our way to Capitol Hill. The speakers, with ages ranging from 18 to 33 all gave incredibly moving testimony about how when the traditional foster care system failed them and they were placed into residential care, they found themselves in a community of young people just like themselves and were given a stable environment to live and ultimately thrive.
One by one, each speaker rattled off the ways in which a residential placement option, while not the ideal choice, eventually ended up being the right choice for them. The message of the event was clear; a monolithic system of care in which a few policy makers decide that foster care and foster care alone is the right decision for the 500,000 minors in the system is not an acceptable solution to this national problem. Defunding residential group home programs while knowing that there are simply not enough foster care families to meet the needs of displaced youth will further add to a population of transient minors in the foster care system. Maybe the top should listen a little more closely to what's going on down at the bottom.