Study Examines Child Welfare Experiences That Begin With Group Care
Children do best in families. Yet, about 20% of young people entering the child welfare system will experience at least one group placement. Approximately 75% of these youth will spend their very first night in a group setting — such as an institution, residential treatment center or emergency shelter — according to a new study conducted by the Center for State Child Welfare Data and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The resulting report, Using Congregate Care, captures data from 15 states over an eight-year period. It explores how common it is for kids to enter the child welfare system via a group care placement, how long and stable this placement is and how often it results in achieving permanence or a return to out-of-home care.
“This study shows that many children are experiencing group placements as soon as they are placed in foster care for the first time ― and points to ways we can make more progress in increasing the number of young people placed in families,” says Leslie Gross, director of the Foundation’s Family Well-Being Strategy Group. “Kids can’t wait. They need the relationships and experiences that living in a family provides.”
Trends in Group Placement
A child entering out-of-home care can be placed in group care, foster care, kinship care or other types of care. During the eight-year review period, more than 718,500 kids entered out-of-home care for the first time and over 104,000 of these kids began in a group care setting.
In completing this study, researchers analyzed demographic data for each child — their age, gender, race and ethnicity and urbanicity — to determine how or if these factors played a role in their group care experience. They found a significant relationship between age, race and ethnicity and the utilization of group placements. They also noted that these connections are best understood within the context of the local child welfare system and its local service offerings.
Among the study’s other findings:
- Age plays the strongest role in predicting an initial placement in group care. Over the review period, 42% of children ages 16 to 17 and 36% of kids ages of 13 to 15 entered the child welfare system via group care. Younger children were less likely to follow this path: Just 18% of kids ages 9 to 12 and 8% of kids younger than 9 began in group care.
- Boys stay in group placements longer than girls and tend to move from one group placement to another more often than girls do.
- Black and Latino children are less likely than white children to achieve permanence from group placements.
- Black children are more likely to begin in a group placement when compared to other racial and ethnicity groups.
- The likelihood of starting in a group care setting is higher for kids from urban core (16%) and smaller metro (15%) counties and lower for children from large fringe (11%) and rural (10%) counties.
- The most common way that children exit group care is by moving to another type of care (64%). The next most common option (23%) is permanence, such as adoption, reunification and exit to a relative or guardianship.
Recommendations to Ensure More Kids Grow Up in Families
Gross highlights four steps that jurisdictions can take now to ensure that as many young people as possible can live in families. She recommends:
- Local jurisdictions examine their data to understand which youth are entering group placements and why, then discuss the strategies they might need to adopt to prevent such placements.
- States examine and address barriers to immediately placing youths with kinship caregivers when they cannot remain with their parents.
- States pay close attention to the placement of teenagers, who are both at high risk of entering non-family settings and likely to enter care because of conflict with parents and other factors that do not involve abuse and neglect.
- Interventions aimed at preventing teens from entering group care placements should be an essential component of every state’s Family First Prevention Services Act plan.
- Jurisdictions work with group placement providers to transition their services toward partnering with families and young people in their homes and communities. A guide from Building Bridges, a grantee of the Casey Foundation, demonstrates how public child welfare systems and providers are working together to make these changes.
The study’s authors note that initial placement decisions typically occur quickly — when there is incomplete information available about a child and their circumstances.
“We learned that a lot of congregate care happens early when decision making is the most difficult because the child is arriving in the system for the first time and information about the needs of young people is relatively thin,” the researchers write. “Child welfare agencies get one chance to do things right at the front end of a child’s case, so having a timely, accurate assessment in place will help match a child’s clinical needs to the service provided.”
Federal Policy Changes Shape Group Care Utilization
Federal policymakers have made efforts to limit group placements through the Family First Prevention Services Act and promote timely assessments that can accurately define a child’s needs. These moves have helped: Nationwide, the percentage of kids placed in families has risen in recent years.
Despite this progress, the federal reimbursement requirements outlined in the Family First Prevention Services Act do not apply to a significant share of group placements studied in Using Congregate Care.
Child development experts point to strong evidence that growing up in group care settings can be harmful — and carry long-lasting consequences. “In principle, group care should never be favored over family care,” a team of internationally recognized researchers wrote in a consensus statement published in the American Orthopsychiatric Association journal. “Group settings should not be used as living arrangements.”