Too Many Kids in U.S. Child Welfare Systems Not Living in Families

Posted May 19, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
News toomanykidsincwnotlivinginfamilies 2015

BAL­TI­MORE — On any giv­en night, about 57,000 chil­dren under the care of our nation’s child wel­fare sys­tems are going to bed with­out the care and com­fort of a fam­i­ly. In its lat­est KIDS COUNT® pol­i­cy report, Every Kid Needs a Fam­i­ly: Giv­ing Chil­dren in the Child Wel­fare Sys­tem the Best Chance for Suc­cess, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion high­lights this and oth­er sober­ing sta­tis­tics that point to the urgent need to ensure, through sound poli­cies and proven prac­tices, that every­thing pos­si­ble is being done to find lov­ing, nur­tur­ing and sup­port­ed fam­i­lies to help raise more of these children.
Specif­i­cal­ly, Every Kid Needs a Fam­i­ly empha­sizes mak­ing and keep­ing a life­long con­nec­tion to a fam­i­ly. The report also high­lights the promis­ing ways that state and local gov­ern­ment lead­ers, as well as pol­i­cy­mak­ers, judges and pri­vate providers, can work togeth­er as they strive to help these 57,000 chil­dren who are liv­ing in group place­ments — and over­all, the more than 400,000 chil­dren in the care of child wel­fare systems. 

The imper­a­tive is clear: Despite what cur­rent data show, 40% of young peo­ple who live in group place­ments while in the care of child wel­fare sys­tems in the Unit­ed States have no clin­i­cal need to be in such restric­tive set­tings, threat­en­ing their well-being and chances for find­ing a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly. These place­ments also have been shown to be harm­ful to a child’s oppor­tu­ni­ties to devel­op strong, nur­tur­ing attach­ments. Group place­ments can also cost sev­en to 10 times the amount it takes to place a child with a rel­a­tive or fos­ter family.

Every Kid Needs a Fam­i­ly rec­om­mends how com­mu­ni­ties can widen the array of ser­vices avail­able to help par­ents and chil­dren under stress with­in their own homes, so that chil­dren have a bet­ter chance of reunit­ing with their birth fam­i­lies and retain­ing bonds impor­tant to their devel­op­ment. And it shows ways in which res­i­den­tial treat­ment — a vital option for the small per­cent­age of young peo­ple who can­not safe­ly live in any fam­i­ly dur­ing treat­ment — can help those young peo­ple return to fam­i­lies more quick­ly and pre­pare them to thrive there.

We have an oblig­a­tion to help all of our kids suc­ceed,” said Patrick McCarthy, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Casey Foun­da­tion. If our chil­dren couldn’t live with us, we would want them to live with some­one close to us — and if that couldn’t hap­pen, with a car­ing fos­ter fam­i­ly who could pro­vide them with as nor­mal a life as pos­si­ble dur­ing a tur­bu­lent time. This report shows more kids can live safe­ly in fam­i­lies and get the nur­tur­ing they need while under the care and pro­tec­tion of our child wel­fare systems.”

Research shows the secure attach­ments pro­vid­ed by nur­tur­ing care­givers are vital to a child’s healthy phys­i­cal, social, emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal devel­op­ment through­out his life. Young peo­ple who do not grow up in fam­i­lies are at greater risk of being abused in group place­ments, and of being arrest­ed. Despite this, many chil­dren — espe­cial­ly teens — are sent to a group place­ment as their very first expe­ri­ence after being removed from home.

While more juris­dic­tions are find­ing ways to increase the num­ber of chil­dren being placed with fam­i­lies, these efforts vary wide­ly from state to state, and even with­in states. Among the report’s find­ings across the Unit­ed States:

  • One in 7 chil­dren under the care of child wel­fare sys­tems live in group place­ments, even though fed­er­al law requires that they live in fam­i­lies when­ev­er possible.
  • Forty per­cent of the chil­dren in group place­ments have no doc­u­ment­ed behav­ioral or med­ical need that would war­rant place­ment in such a restric­tive setting.
  • While research shows chil­dren who need res­i­den­tial treat­ment like­ly need to stay no longer than three to six months, young peo­ple are stay­ing in group place­ments an aver­age of eight months.
  • Per­cent­ages of young peo­ple in group place­ments with­in states range from as low as 4% in Ore­gon to as high as 35% in Colorado.

The Foun­da­tion reports that com­mon-sense poli­cies and prac­tices can safe­ly reduce use of group place­ments, and that these place­ments may be used when case­work­ers feel they can­not find an appro­pri­ate fam­i­ly quick­ly. Juris­dic­tions that employ strate­gies to improve deci­sion mak­ing, for exam­ple, see more chil­dren safe­ly return home; use of kin­ship care often goes up as group place­ments go down.

Pol­i­cy and prac­tice change can improve in four ways:

  • Increase ser­vice options. Com­mu­ni­ties that pro­vide a wide range of ser­vices have more options that enable chil­dren to remain safe­ly in fam­i­lies. For exam­ple, state and local child wel­fare and Med­ic­aid agen­cies should work togeth­er to ensure ade­quate sup­port by the behav­ioral health sys­tem for ser­vices that can be con­ve­nient­ly pro­vid­ed in a home setting. 
  • Strength­en pool of fam­i­lies. Pub­lic and pri­vate agen­cies should do more to find fam­i­lies for chil­dren and to make sure those fam­i­lies have the sup­port they need to help chil­dren thrive. Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Child and Fam­i­ly Ser­vices Agency, for exam­ple, has cre­at­ed a rapid-response pro­gram for locat­ing and licens­ing kin that finds rel­a­tives for chil­dren in need day or night.
  • Keep res­i­den­tial treat­ment short, with fam­i­ly in focus. Res­i­den­tial treat­ment should be strength­ened to meet children’s acute needs in a cus­tomized, short-term way that equips young peo­ple to live in a fam­i­ly and to main­tain fam­i­ly con­nec­tions through­out treat­ment. In New York, Children’s Vil­lage — one of the country’s first res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters for chil­dren — has great­ly expand­ed its com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices and net­work of fos­ter fam­i­lies in recent years, includ­ing fos­ter fam­i­lies pre­pared to take on the old­er teens receiv­ing treat­ment in the facility’s res­i­den­tial cottages.
  • Require jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for restric­tive place­ments. Sub­stan­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion should be required by child wel­fare sys­tems and by the courts before young peo­ple are sent to group place­ments. In Con­necti­cut and Philadel­phia, for exam­ple, the top child wel­fare exec­u­tive must approve all group place­ments. Judges can require case­work­ers to pro­vide reg­u­lar updates to make sure a child still needs res­i­den­tial treatment.

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