In 2013, 28 percent of Rhode Island’s 1800 foster children were living in congregate care institutions, group homes in which children do not grow up with a nuclear family. Beyond Brown’s doorstep, 57,000 children nationwide are currently living under the custody of the child welfare system without foster families. Although these statistics seem impersonal, their human toll is staggering. They merely touch the surface of a serious problem — the abhorrent number of foster children living without families — that must be addressed with additional funding and and resources. Failing to do so is a disgraceful betrayal of this country’s most vulnerable members.
While many recognize problems in family-based foster care, it is crucial to understand how superior it is to congregate care, as the family is extremely important for child development. According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children depend crucially on a close adult caregiver through all stages of development: interactions with a close adult caregiver is key for the development of infants’ brains; parents teach young children how to create relationships and express appropriate behavior; and during adolescence, parents help kids navigate newfound independence. Furthermore, a stable family life is an important counterbalance to what the American Orthopsychiatric Association (AOA) calls “deviant peer influences,” such as alcohol and drugs.
In congregate care settings, this family structure is notably absent. Children are not able to develop these kinds of bonds with their caretakers, who serve a much more professional role and turnover at high rates. As a result, when children grow up without a family setting, their social and behavioral development plummets, possibly leading to psychological harm. In particular, the AOA believes that these kinds of setting can lead to attachment insecurity, where former foster children experience difficulty engaging in close relationships — of many kinds — later in life. In a statement condemning the widespread use of institutions of this kind, the AOA pointed out that various forms of maltreatment — such as physical and sexual abuse — were more prevalent in congregate children’s institutions than in either foster family settings or the general population. Raising tens of thousands of children in such environments is clearly perilous, and should be reduced wherever possible.
The overuse of congregate care can dent the government’s budget in hidden ways, too. From a cost-saving perspective, this goal is worth meeting, since children that grow up with behavioral, educational, and social problems are often slide towards drug abuse, crime, and unemployment, adding financial burden to public institutions meant to deal with these issues. A 2008 study from the Children and Family Research Center at the University of Illinois found, after controlling for a number of factors like abuse and behavioral history, children held in congregate care facilities were 2.4 times more likely to be arrested than their counterparts in foster homes. Since paying to process these individuals through the criminal justice system — and possibly incarcerating them —can be extremely costly.
Unfortunately, the large number of children without foster families stems from the fact that many child welfare systems — especially Rhode Island’s — face a dearth of available foster homes. States are eager to find more such homes because keeping children in foster homes is seven to ten times less expensive than raising them in congregate care facilities. However, finding foster families is challenge that states perennially come up short in trying to solve. Yet it’s the states’ cost-cutting mentality that might be causing the problem, as low compensation for foster parents reduces the number of applicants.
The solution, it seems, is for foster parents to be paid more in order to lessen the monetary burden of raising a foster child. A study from the University of Maryland School of Social Work showed that in 28 states, living expense reimbursements for foster parents would need to be increased by over 50 percent in order to cover the costs of raising a child. Fives states would have to double their current reimbursement amount in order to meet this goal.
Of course, nonfinancial solutions exist as well. Policymakers in states like Rhode Island would be wise to look at places like Wisconsin, where the government developed a marketing campaign that stressed the human reward that comes out of raising a foster child. The Associated Press reported that, as a result of this campaign, “One area had 25 potential foster families contact them in one month. In the past they’d never had more than five.”
In addition, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a report in 2009 titled, “Rightsizing Congregate Care,” in which it detailed various successful efforts by states and municipalities to reduce the amount of children in these kinds of homes. For example, in New York City, the Administration for Children’s Services helped achieve a 47 percent decrease in the number of congregate care beds by engaging more directly with foster children; according to the study, social workers interviewed foster children about who they still kept in contact with, and who they trusted most, recruiting these contacts as potential foster parents. Money that was saved through a reduced reliance on congregate care facilities was reinvested into support programs that ensure healthy and cohesive foster families. The Casey Foundation report also detailed successes with similar programs in Louisiana and Maine.
But clever solutions notwithstanding, financial strain seems to be the white whale of child care services. At the national level, Senator Orrin Hatch introduced a bill to the Senate Finance Committee in 2015 that sought to limit funding for congregate care facilities. In a statement, Hatch said, “No one would support allowing states to use federal taxpayer dollars to buy cigarettes for foster youth. In my view, continuing to use these scarce tax payer dollars to fund long terms placements in groups homes is ultimately just as destructive.”
Fortunately, nascent progress is being made on this issue in Rhode Island; for the 2016 state budget, Governor Gina Raimondo dedicated $1 million to improving the state’s foster care system, according to the Providence Journal. While this is a good start, more must be done, and other states need to take similar initiatives. Otherwise, 50,000-plus children will continue to reside in harmful living conditions.