Alternatives to Congregate Care Discussed in Senate Committee on Finance Hearing

  ·  Leann Down

The Senate Committee on Finance hearing held on August 4th, entitled A Way Back Home: Preserving Families and Reducing the Need for Foster Care, focused on strategies to decrease reliance on group home placements in foster care systems across the nation. Despite consensus among multiple stakeholders that children are best served in a family setting, children in foster care spent an average of 8 months in congregate care and comprised 14% of the foster care population in 2014.

To address the lack of federal policy regarding state overreliance on congregate care, Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-UT) opened the hearing noting that the current system often results in expensive, inappropriate, and detrimental experiences for those it touches. While reflecting on similar testimony heard in May, he likened the continual funding and overreliance on group home placement in foster care to “using taxpayer dollars to buy cigarettes” for foster youth. Chairman Hatch further highlighted the need to direct federal funds toward preventative front- and back-end services to allow as many children as possible to safely remain at home and return home as quickly and safely as possible.

Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) emphasized the difficult choices child welfare workers often have to make, commenting that sometimes the supports needed to keep a family safely together are not always available. Using Oregon’s Differential Response strategy as a model of successful reform, he stressed the importance of moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach by adding an alternate response track: a primary strategy in addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities in child welfare. Referencing the Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, which he will introduce this week, Ranking Member Wyden stressed the importance of national child welfare reform to adopt an approach similar to Oregon’s, allowing as many families as possible to stay together.

Subsequently, the committee heard from five witnesses on issues pertaining to the use of group homes in foster care and the lack of preventative supports and services. Sandra Killett, Parent Advocate and Executive Director of Child Welfare Organizing Project, drew upon her personal experience as a parent affected by the lack of appropriate front-end supports in New York’s child welfare system. While waitlisted for home-based therapeutic intervention per her own independent requests, Ms. Killett was investigated for child abuse and her eldest son was placed in foster care. This resulted in further negligence of her son’s mental health needs, as he received no therapeutic intervention while in care. She stressed the importance of home-based therapy, and noted it would have helped her family avoid the trauma of separation. Accordingly, Ms. Killett offered three recommendations addressing the lack of care she experienced, including the realigning of funds to support prevention and early intervention services, utilizing a non-punitive approach to keep children at home, and partnering with parents to work together at all stages of involvement with the child welfare and court systems.

Ms. Rosalina Burton, a former foster youth from California and mental health worker at a residential facility for foster youth, also spoke from personal experience. Highlighting the racial disparities seen in behavioral healthcare – for example, people of color are more likely to experience life stressors linked to mental health disorders but are less likely to receive high quality, culturally competent care – Ms. Burton described how these trends can affect individuals and families. Spending twelve years in and out of foster placements and ultimately aging out of congregate care, she spoke about the importance of addressing mental health and substance abuse issues across multiple generations. Ms. Burton promoted intensive individual and family therapy as well as financial assistance as beneficial interventions, speculating that they might have been pivotal in successfully reunifying her and her family. She further shared that her mother spent time in foster care as well and would have likely benefitted from working through her own childhood trauma with such preventative and therapeutic supports, had they been available.

Executive Director for Generations United, Ms. Donna Butts, similarly focused on the need to increase supports for those not “officially” in care. Specifically, she stressed four recommendations in the areas of kinship care and prevention. These included streamlining the notification given to relatives when children are removed from parents’ care, decreasing barriers in foster care licensure processes for kinship caregivers, increasing preventative intervention efforts and available resources, and focusing on trauma-informed care or therapeutic supports for kinship families. Given that family, friends and neighbors provide the most prevalent form of substitute care for children from birth to school-age, decreasing barriers to their participation in child welfare protocols and case planning is a natural adjustment in increasing family engagement and kinship placements.

Mr. Chuck Nyby, Differential Response Operations and Policy Analyst for the Child Welfare Program in Oregon’s Department of Human Services, and Ms. Ann Silverberg Williamson, Executive Director of Utah’s Department of Human Services, both spoke about the targeted methods their agencies have employed to achieve positive outcomes in their states. The current approaches to child welfare in Oregon and Utah both embrace flexibility and a focus on preventative, family-centered intervention. Mr. Nyby elaborated on Oregon’s Differential Response system, which places high importance on keeping children in the least-restrictive setting and has enhanced the quantity and quality of services offered through matching funds from Title IV-E waiver savings. Likewise, Ms. Williamson offered several strengths to take from Utah’s approach to child welfare, including investing Title IV-E waiver dollars into their HomeWorks program. Ms. Williamson provided several outcomes highlighting the rationale behind these interventions, noting that Utah has one of the lowest rates of entry into foster care and one of the highest rates of adoption.

Following their testimony, witnesses responded to questions ranging from suspected impact on human sex trafficking – in which nearly 60% of victims are foster youths – to broad inquiries into best practices for nationwide implementation. Witnesses reaffirmed the importance of using evidence-based assessments to evaluate risk in family-centered ways, encouraging family engagement, promoting family partnerships, and increasing supports for front-line intervention.   

In addition to Ranking Member Wyden’s upcoming Family Stability and Kinship Care Act, two other bills – the Family Based Foster Care Services Act and the upcoming All Kids Matter Act – highlight a general focus of child welfare reform among committee members. With budgetary debates on the horizon, the emphasis on family-based and preventative services in child welfare is a welcome and overdue congressional priority. The flexible, proactive, and family-focused recommendations discussed at the hearing would allow states to implement more individualized and culturally appropriate supports. Given the current racial disproportionality seen more generally in preventative care, removing these barriers within child welfare is a necessary step in achieving greater equity. 

Posted In: Child Welfare and Family Supports