Hope for a broken foster care system hinges on familiarity
Updated: May 26, 2020
The teenagers sleeping on air mattresses in office buildings in Tampa, Florida, aren’t homeless. They aren’t runaways either. The people responsible for them are well aware of where they are. You might wonder why someone doesn’t call child protective services on such people who would leave children unsupervised overnight like that. But that wouldn’t help. These kids are already in the system, and the very organization trusted by the state to ensure their welfare is the one allowing it to happen.
Eckerd Connects is the lead agency in charge of the foster care system in Hillsborough County, Florida. The county is supposed to act as a sub-contractor to the agency, but has been forced to take a more hands-on approach in recent years after discoveries of incidents like the scenario described above.
Just last year, the county issued an investigation into the agency’s handling of what Hillsborough calls “overnight placements.” This is the name given to the particularly troubled kids who have been passed around different foster homes so many times that the child decides he or she has had enough and refuses placement. By definition, the kids typically have histories of mental health issues or criminal activity.
But the problem with Hillsborough’s overnight placements extends far beyond Eckerd Connects. In the state of Florida, there are only a few dozen of these cases. Twenty of them are in Hillsborough County alone.
At a certain point of a child being bounced around from home to home, he or she eventually winds up in a residential facility or group home. Even that can be a risky option because the child has in all probability encountered so much trauma that social workers say being around other children can exacerbate the problems.
But even so, Hillsborough, desperate to find a solution for its disproportionately large number of high-risk cases, initially turned to group homes as the solution.
Lake Magdalene is a county-run group home that is known for its institutional aesthetic and strict rules. Up until a few months ago, cell phones were not allowed and children often went through a security check before entering the cafeteria. Lake Magdalene started a program last year to house the overnight placements. After not even a month, complaints from the facility’s neighbors about repeated break-ins and the teens causing trouble in the area resulted in the program being dissolved.
The county was once again left without a solution for these kids who, by virtue of being passed around and sent to live in a group home for an unforeseen amount of time, had already been through more trauma than most people could even imagine.
But the closure of the Lake Magdalene program is forcing officials to come up with an alternative solution, which Hillsborough County Chief Information and Innovation Officer Ramin Kouzehkanani says is not a bad thing.
“Over the years there’s been an over-reliance on these places because they are an easy place to go to. Just put them in a place like that, and we’ll see what happens. That’s no longer acceptable,” Kouzehkanani said. “Nobody wants their parents changed every four or five hours. Group homes are not the right place for these kids.”
According to Kouzehkanani, who has been overseeing county programs and changes since 2015, group homes only tend to make the situation worse. These facilities introduce additional instability and often neglect to provide an exit strategy. Group homes essentially become a limbo where troubled teenagers wait to age out…or end up in jail.
“When we remove them from their terrible parents because we said they are neglectful or hurting them, this isn’t what we promised them, that they would go into the system and then five years from now they finally age out,” Kouzehkanani said.
He is not alone in his lack of faith in group homes. Even some social workers acknowledge how detrimental they can be to an already traumatized youth.
“I hate group homes with a passion. When I had to place kids there, I was the person who kept putting placement requests in repeatedly until I got something else,” Deanna Bellomo, a social worker in Clermont County, Ohio, said. “I will sit here with this 15-year-old while he stares at me like he wants to kill me for the next four hours. That’s fine. But I’m not taking him there, I am not going to do it.”
The trend of high-risk teenagers in the foster system getting stuck in group homes is a nationwide problem.
The most recent Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 11% of children in foster care are living in a group home. Most of those children will age out instead of finding a permanent solution.
Bellomo has seen this tragic phenomenon all too often due to over-worked case workers and high turnover rates.
“If they are holding steady in a group home and you have 17 other kids on your case load that are blowing placements, that kid is always going to be put on the back burner because that kid is safe,” Bellomo said. “You are not going to continue to look for placement because you don’t have time.”
According to the Juvenile Law Center, a public interest law firm that advocates for the rights of children in the welfare system, one-fourth of all children who age out of foster care will be homeless, in prison, or dead within two years. One half will develop a substance abuse problem. Ninety percent of foster children with five or more placements, like the overnight placements, will enter the criminal justice system.
Every state in America is now having to face these truths and come up with an altered model of group homes or abandon them completely. With the Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into federal law by President Donald Trump in 2018 as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act, group homes are essentially being defunded on a national level.
As of October 2019, the federal government will no longer reimburse states for children placed in group homes for longer than 2 weeks. This completely turns the long-term care customary of group homes on its head. Now every state is working on a plan to compensate for the loss of these mass holding centers for the kids who, as sad and unfair as it may be, nobody else wants.
Bellomo said that it is nearly impossible to find foster parents who are willing to take in a teenager, much less one with a record of violence
“I had a kid beat the hell out of his dad who was beating the hell out of his mom. He got labeled with domestic violence and that was a charge we could not shake, so on paper, he’s got a domestic violence charge and everyone’s scared of him,” Bellomo said. “But I see him and he’s not a bad kid. He’s not an angry kid. He’d just had enough.”
The Hillsborough Juvenile Justice Advisory Board has proposed that all children who refuse placement be sent to a secure facility at a juvenile justice campus. The idea has been met with a significant amount of backlash from members of the community Kouzehkanani. He is outraged that these already neglected children would be, for all intents and purposes, locked up.
“You get to a point where there are behavioral issues or worse, and they don’t want to go. So what, you want to handcuff them?” Kouzehkanani said. “The very thing that these children need the most is trust, and that goes immediately out the door.”
Meanwhile, for one county in rural Ohio, the proposed solution isn’t getting much traction, although the idea seems to be closer to success than Hillsborough’s misguided efforts.
Clermont County is the first in the state of Ohio to partner with Justice Works for a pilot program starting with 20 foster kids. The Justice Works agents come into the group homes, get to know kids individually, and then help them move into a foster home. From that point, Justice Works provides custom mental health counseling and support for foster parents tailored to the children the workers have now gotten to know.
Bellomo has watched the program’s efforts in her office over the last three months but is skeptical of how effective the implementation will be in the long run.
“What we are finding is that our foster parents just aren’t ready for this. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They don’t know how to deal with the trauma,” Bellomo said. “And they just don’t have the patience, they don’t have the education, and they don’t have the time to deal with our kids like this.”
But with the push to phase even high-risk children out of group homes, Bellomo thinks Justice Works is on the right track.
“I think it’ll take a while to launch because I think they are going to have to get into these group homes and these residentials, and they’re going to have to get experienced staff to be able to handle this,” Bellomo said. “But I think it’s a good idea.”
But while states try to figure out what to do with the kids who are already labeled as needing special attention, a paradigm shift has been emerging in the foster care community that focuses on more preventative measures before kids even enter the system.
Differential Response (DR) “recognizes that variations in families' needs and strengths require different approaches” and prioritizes individual assessments to “tailor its response accordingly,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Families with low-to-moderate risk are eligible for Alternative Response (AR), while Investigative Response (IR) is a more intensive path taken by case workers for higher risk situations.
Essentially, in an Alternative Response case, foster care is seen as a last resort. Instead, case workers assist the family in finding a safe temporary situation for the children while supporting parents to re-stabilize the home situation.
Bellomo has been involved in Clermont’s trial with AR since it started four years ago. She explained that it all hinges on parents’ willingness to cooperate with case workers and agree to follow a jointly created safety plan. The case worker helps parents and children find someone who is “willing and able” to be a temporary caregiver and possibly take over custody if the parents can’t get it together.
It’s a method that ultimately proves much more taxing on the social workers, but the goal is to keep the child in as familiar an environment as possible and increase his or her chances of finding a permanent solution.
Bellomo currently has a case that makes her drive three hours each way to visit a child staying with his grandfather as part of the safety plan.
“It’s inconvenient for me, but it’s worth it because this kid is out of custody with grandpa. He’s safe. And hopefully mom will get her stuff together or he’s willing and able to file for custody,” Bellomo said.
A handful of states, including Ohio, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina and Washington have begun to experiment with restructuring the foster care system to utilize Alternative Response and have reported success in their efforts thus far, according to the U.S. Department of Family and Protective Services.
The most obvious criticism of AR is that it is riskier to the safety of a child to put him or her back in a situation that has already proven dangerous. As Bellomo points out, who is to say that it isn’t more traumatic for children to watch their parents relapse and have to go through the entire ordeal of being ripped away from their families yet again?
AR techniques have only gained popularity within the last few years, so long-term data is not widely available. But the evidence up to this point is encouraging.
In a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2019, six states using various degrees of AR were analyzed for how those cases correlate to repeated reports of abuse after the child is reunited. The report found “that higher rates of AR use in states with differential response are not associated with an increased risk of re-reporting. Further, for three states, counties have comparatively lower re-reporting in the presence of higher rates of AR use.” In simpler terms, AR is working.
But despite these numbers, AR has still proven problematic for certain counties. For example, Hamilton County in Ohio tried AR for a time but disbanded it several years ago.
Bellomo explained that the program was not suited for Hamilton County because of its emphasis on constant vigilance while the children remain in the home with potentially unstable parents.
“It’s more intensive and the case workers have to be on it. If you have high caseloads and high turnover and cases that are not already being seen in a county where they are already behind, Alternative Response is not going to work,” Bellomo said. “And then you run the risk of kids getting hurt.”
But in counties like Clermont, the numbers tell a different story. When the program started four years, the number of children in custody was in the 500s. Today, four years later, it is just around 200, and 87% of their cases are dealt with using AR.
“The state is really turning how they look at some of these drug cases and how they look at how we don’t need to put the kids in foster care unless we absolutely have to,” Bellomo said.
Back in Florida, Hillsborough is starting to see the value in that approach as well.
“For me, the bottom line is to address the root cause, intervention prevention strategies, keep more families together safely and provide wrap around service to those who are at risk and hope that we can reduce our intake safely again,” Kouzehkanani said. “In many cases where we know something is brewing and we can get ahead of it, I think families tend to respond if we can stay with it and close the loops.”
Hillsborough may not know exactly how it’s going to integrate this new prevention-focused approach yet, but an analysis of the success rates shows that AR may be a good place to start. It won’t help the kids being kicked out of Lake Magdalene, but it might curtail the problem of overnight placements in the future. The shift in ideology has changed so that the goal is no longer to keep kids in the system. It is to make sure families stay together and that troubled teenagers do not end up sleeping in office buildings ever again.
By Ashley Allen