from San Jose Mercury News
Vowing to raise its most traumatized children in committed family homes instead of residential facilities, California will soon stop warehousing kids in group homes where they often languish for years because the foster care system has found no other place for them to live.
Under a new law taking effect in January, the state’s Department of Social Services will begin a multiyear plan to replace privately run group homes with “short-term residential treatment centers” where youth will mostly stay no more than six months.
“In theory, and in all our hopes, this will be a revolutionary change in the way foster care operates in our state,” said Kyle Sporleder, policy director for the leading foster youth advocacy group California Youth Connection. “But like with many, many large reform efforts, we all kind of have to wait with bated breath.”
Success of the plan — already three years in the works and now involving 25 full-time state employees — relies heavily on finding enough family homes equipped with the skills to care for the state’s most troubled youth.
Will Lightbourne, director of the California Department of Social Services, is leading the reform effort backed by his department. He anticipates that the more than 5,800 foster youth now living in group homes — an alarming 1,000 for more than five years — could drop below 2,000 once the new law takes full effect.
“What we have to have is children and youth nested in a family,” Lightbourne said. “That has to be a core goal.”
Youth in group homes tend to have greater emotional and psychological needs than most foster kids. They are among the most likely children in foster care to have been moved multiple times, often with few lasting connections to family or trusted supports outside of the parade of professionals who govern their lives.
The new legislation aims to treat children’s specific challenges, such as trauma in youth who have been sexually exploited or the effects of clearly diagnosed mental illnesses. With indefinite stays no longer an option, social service workers will begin planning to place a child back in a family home as soon as he or she enters residential treatment.Almost $18 million is already budgeted to expand, recruit and retain the ranks of foster parents and relatives who will receive special training and additional 24-7 support to care for youth now in group homes. An additional $30 million ensures that relative caregivers receive the full state foster care rate.
So far, there is widespread support for the law from Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, to eradicate group homes, from the governor to the Legislature and groups representing foster youth and the group home industry.
But the plan could take years to make a difference in the lives of the roughly 62,400 children now in California’s foster care system. Despite long-standing difficulty recruiting enough foster homes, the plan relies upon vast new reserves and better trained foster parents and relative caregivers who will be patient and loving enough to care for youth even through rough times when they may act aggressively or try to harm themselves.
What’s more, many details of the new law have yet to be finalized — such as precisely how individualized mental health care will be delivered to children in family homes. Currently, there are 333 private agencies running a total of 1,022 licensed facilities in the state for foster youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, as well as for developmentally disabled children, whose group home care will not change under the new statute.
This newspaper’s investigation “Drugging Our Kids” found that foster youth in group homes are the most likely to be prescribed excessive amounts of psychotropic medications, with more than half receiving court-approved prescriptions. Many of these drugs are commonly used to sedate troubled kids, often for the convenience of group homes, rather than any proven therapeutic benefit.
Meanwhile, youth in group homes continue to suffer far worse outcomes than foster children raised with relatives or foster parents. Studies cited in a recent state report show they have higher rates of school dropout and arrest. Roughly two out of every three failed to attain basic proficiency in either English or math. Then, there are the emotional consequences.
“If you’re living in a group home, that’s not a normal family, and it will give you the message, ‘Maybe I don’t belong in a normal family’ — they’re not normal situations,” said Sporleder, who raised his two siblings in the foster care system. “It makes them feel like they don’t belong in a family setting — that they will never fit in anywhere but an institution.”
Many group homes are not expected to meet the new, higher-level standards of care under Assembly Bill 403 and could go out of business. Others are expected to adapt to the new treatment requirements, or to expand their programs to offer home-based services — wrapping care and treatment around kids in family homes, rather than moving them around in search of a residential facility.
Stone’s legislation joins three other foster care bills taking effect in January to curb excessive use of psychotropics. The bills step up oversight, monitoring and training about drugs that are too often used for behavior management, rather than the mental illnesses for which they are designed, leaving kids to suffer debilitating side effects.
“One of the biggest impacts that we’re going to have on reducing the use of psychotropic drugs is getting kids out of group homes,” said Stone. “Put a kid in a family, and that family is much, much less likely to resort to chemical restraints. It gets kids into situations where there is a commitment to their future.”
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.