When Teens and Parents Can't Get Along: Prevention, Not Placement, Is the Answer

Updated October 12, 2021 | Posted February 16, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Mother with her arms around her teen son

The child wel­fare sys­tem was cre­at­ed to care for abused and neglect­ed chil­dren. But too often, teenagers are land­ing in the sys­tem because they sim­ply aren’t get­ting along with their par­ents, not because they have been abused or neglected.

Some par­ents sur­ren­der cus­tody because a teen’s behav­ior is out of con­trol or because of esca­lat­ing fam­i­ly con­flict. In fact, child behav­ior” was the rea­son giv­en for 46% of all fos­ter care removals of youth old­er than 12 — and the only rea­son for out-of-home place­ments for 28% of teens.

In many cas­es, well-inten­tioned judges order out-of-home place­ments hop­ing that pro­vid­ing more super­vi­sion might help a teens stay out of trouble.

But as high­light­ed in a Casey Foun­da­tion report, Too Many Teens: Pre­vent­ing Unnec­es­sary Out-of-Home Place­ments, need­less place­ments can con­tribute to a teen’s down­ward spi­ral. For exam­ple, these teens have few oppor­tu­ni­ties to make and main­tain rela­tion­ships with car­ing adults, which reduces their chances of hav­ing life­long, sup­port­ive fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships. And their life out­comes are poor: They are less like­ly to grad­u­ate, more like­ly to end up home­less or incar­cer­at­ed, and more like­ly to have chil­dren as teenagers.

Anoth­er prob­lem: After teens enter child wel­fare place­ments, they may get stuck there, often liv­ing in group homes that, accord­ing to researchers, can harm their emo­tion­al and oth­er development. 

Ear­ly help makes a difference

Too Many Teens describes a mul­ti­year effort by the Casey Foun­da­tion to under­stand the expe­ri­ences of teens in out-of-home place­ments. It presents research on effec­tive new approach­es that meet teens’ needs more effec­tive­ly with­out plac­ing them in the child wel­fare system. 

Too Many Teens iden­ti­fies 10 key strate­gies of child wel­fare agen­cies that have effec­tive­ly and safe­ly divert­ed teens from care. They include hav­ing a wide front door and offer­ing ser­vices to chil­dren and fam­i­lies in cri­sis, with cri­sis” defined by the child or fam­i­ly. Also key: Hav­ing a range of imme­di­ate­ly acces­si­ble ser­vices, from high-qual­i­ty assess­ments to more inten­sive ser­vices, financed by flex­i­ble, sus­tain­able fund­ing and cham­pi­oned by out­comes-focused leaders.

Research described in Too Many Teens helped lay the ground­work for a new pre­ven­tion approach that promis­es a bet­ter solu­tion. The Casey Foun­da­tion part­nered with Delaware’s Chil­dren’s Depart­ment to test a three-step approach to help reduce unnec­es­sary out-of-home place­ments for teens.

To inform the Foun­da­tion’s work in Delaware, CWSG con­sul­tants looked for local juris­dic­tions that were divert­ing teens from out-of-home place­ments by giv­ing them access to behav­ioral health or par­ent-child medi­a­tion ser­vices. Based on lessons from Erie Coun­ty and New York on address­ing fam­i­ly issues while keep­ing the fam­i­ly togeth­er, the Foun­da­tion part­nered with Delaware to build and test a mod­el that offers three crit­i­cal com­po­nents: Screen­ing and assess­ment, plus two lev­els of services.

Stop­ping a del­uge of sys­tem entries

Delaware had seen a sharp increase in the num­ber of teens enter­ing their child wel­fare sys­tem, often for rea­sons not relat­ed to abuse and neglect. In 2012, when just over a third of the nation’s child wel­fare pop­u­la­tion was age 13 or old­er, teens made up near­ly half of Delaware’s out-of-home pop­u­la­tion. The major­i­ty were going straight into an out-of-home place­ment upon entry to the child wel­fare system.

In March 2013, Delaware insti­tut­ed a con­tract­ed Fam­i­ly Assess­ment and Inter­ven­tion Response (FAIR) as one path­way in its Dif­fer­en­tial Response Sys­tem that also includes a tra­di­tion­al inves­ti­ga­tion path­way for more seri­ous abuse and neglect alle­ga­tions. Fam­i­lies are con­tact­ed by phone with­in 24 hours by the provider. All fam­i­lies are assessed for safe­ty and risk and a vari­ety of oth­er tools are used to assess the youth and family’s needs. Fam­i­lies that do not have out­stand­ing safe­ty threats or risk fac­tors may be closed while oth­ers are assigned to one of two lev­els for on-going services:

  • Lev­el I — Fam­i­ly Keys. All referred chil­dren and fam­i­lies are assigned to this com­mu­ni­ty-based pro­gram, which pro­vides short-term cri­sis inter­ven­tion, con­flict res­o­lu­tions and refer­rals to oth­er services.
  • Lev­el II — Func­tion­al Fam­i­ly Ther­a­py. About 20% of fam­i­lies use this evi­dence-based pro­gram, which pro­vides a three-stage, inten­sive coun­sel­ing approach.

The FAIR eval­u­a­tion iden­ti­fied three key fac­tors in the pro­gram’s suc­cess, includ­ing its quick response, case­work­ers’ abil­i­ty to involve fam­i­lies in prob­lem solv­ing, and hav­ing two lev­els of ser­vices beyond the assessment.

Bet­ter out­comes, few­er costs

Dur­ing a 17-month peri­od, 351 Delaware teens had FAIR assess­ment. Of those, only 1% entered child wel­fare place­ments; 8% entered juve­nile deten­tion place­ments. That means 91% of these kids were able to stay at home.

And not only have teen entries into child wel­fare place­ments been slowed dra­mat­i­cal­ly, but the pro­gram has assist­ed, along with oth­er strate­gies, to decrease over­all teens entries by 44%.

Too Many Teens will help agen­cies and com­mu­ni­ties that want to improve their approach to help­ing teens and their fam­i­lies. When research described in Too Many Teens is used to shape more effec­tive pro­grams, the result can be dramatic.

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