Keeping Children Out of Group Placements: Strategies and Alternatives

What Will It Take to Transform and Eliminate Unnecessary Uses of Congregate Care by 2030?

Posted January 18, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The image is a photo of a Black family of four — taken from behind — sitting  on an outdoor bench, with their arms around each other. The father, on the far left, has dreadlocks pulled into a bun, while the mother has textured, natural hair. They are joined by their two small sons.

Every child deserves to grow up in a fam­i­ly instead of an insti­tu­tion. To help child wel­fare sys­tems iden­ti­fy prac­tices that may reduce their reliance on group place­ments, Luther­an Ser­vices in Amer­i­ca exam­ined ini­tia­tives used by its providers. Trans­form­ing Con­gre­gate Care: A White Paper on Promis­ing Pol­i­cy and Prac­tice Inno­va­tion, a new report, dis­tills their find­ings. It high­lights promis­ing pro­grams and prac­tices as guide­posts for future child wel­fare reforms. 

There is no sub­sti­tute for a fam­i­ly when chil­dren and young peo­ple are work­ing through their hurt and pain,” says San­dra Gas­ca-Gon­za­lez, vice pres­i­dent of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Cen­ter for Sys­tems Inno­va­tion. We must sup­port fam­i­lies to remain togeth­er and serve chil­dren based on their needs with­in their com­mu­ni­ty rather than in insti­tu­tions. With inven­tive prob­lem-solv­ing solu­tions such as the Con­gre­gate Care Elim­i­na­tion Dis­cov­ery Ini­tia­tive, we can cre­ate the bet­ter, more equi­table future that all chil­dren, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties deserve.” 

Trans­form­ing Con­gre­gate Care was pro­duced by Anto­nio Oftelie, a Luther­an Ser­vices in Amer­i­ca board mem­ber and exec­u­tive direc­tor of Lead­er­ship for a Net­worked World at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. The Con­gre­gate Care Elim­i­na­tion Dis­cov­ery Ini­tia­tive, fund­ed by the Casey Foun­da­tion, con­duct­ed the research.

More than 55,000 chil­dren live in group place­ments, about 14% of all chil­dren in fos­ter care in this coun­try. This pop­u­la­tion is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly made up of chil­dren of col­or, espe­cial­ly Black chil­dren. Kids of col­or also tend to start ear­li­er and stay longer in these pro­grams than oth­er chil­dren, because child wel­fare sys­tems more fre­quent­ly sep­a­rate Black fam­i­lies rather than seek alter­na­tives that keep chil­dren with par­ents or kin. 

Luther­an Social Ser­vices of South Dako­ta (LSSSD) offers an exem­plary case study” of a solu­tion that slowed a stream of chil­dren enter­ing care. There, data revealed that judges often sent chil­dren to group place­ments when their fam­i­lies failed to show up in court. This affect­ed many chil­dren of col­or. LSSSD respond­ed by des­ig­nat­ing a Racial and Eth­nic Fair­ness Case Man­ag­er,” who helps fam­i­lies obtain a trans­la­tor, trans­porta­tion or edu­ca­tion to nav­i­gate the juve­nile jus­tice system. 

Since cre­at­ing the posi­tion, LSSSD has seen a reduc­tion in the num­ber of war­rants and observed a shift in the mind­set among pro­fes­sion­als in the court sys­tem,” the paper says. Focus­ing on holis­tic out­comes can strength­en youth and fam­i­lies,” help address racial inequities and more appro­pri­ate­ly sup­port each family’s needs, the report says. Prac­tices doc­u­ment­ed by the six providers offer hope for future reforms.

As providers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers move for­ward, they can lever­age the work of this cohort and imple­ment proven strate­gies to elim­i­nate the unnec­es­sary reliance on con­gre­gate care and deliv­er bet­ter out­comes for chil­dren,” Oftelie wrote.

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