Study Examines Child Welfare Experiences That Begin With Group Care

Posted September 29, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A Latino family of four, including an older boy and younger girl, smile at the camera.

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.

Down­load Using Con­gre­gate 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.

Read What Young Peo­ple Say About Group Placements

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: 

  1. 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.
  2. States exam­ine and address bar­ri­ers to imme­di­ate­ly plac­ing youths with kin­ship care­givers when they can­not remain with their parents. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.”

Read a KIDS COUNT snap­shot on 10 years of group care place­ment data

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