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

Updated on October 12, 2021 and originally 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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