It’s been about a month since two foster children—a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy—ran away from the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home, broke into a nearby house, pilfered weapons stored there, and engaged in an extended gun battle with local law enforcement. The boy was armed with an AK-47 while the girl fired a shotgun at sheriff’s deputies and reportedly said, “I’m going to roll this down like GTA”—a reference to the Grand Theft Auto video game series.
Privacy policies and laws prevent us from knowing what happened to these children in their young lives, but we can say with some confidence that they have not received proper treatment for whatever trauma led them to this point. Even the director of the group home told authorities that these children needed a “higher level of care” than her organization could provide.
It’s an all-too-common set of circumstances. Tens of thousands of children in foster care across the country need substantial mental-health care, but policymakers who want to cut child-welfare budgets and activists who want to eliminate foster care altogether are making that help increasingly hard to come by.
Many group homes serving kids with high-level mental-health needs are planning to close or shrink in the next few months, thanks to the Family First Prevention Services Act (2018), which restricts federal reimbursements to states for certain kinds of group-home care (those that don’t have 24/7 medical staff, for example), and a second federal regulation that bars states from using Medicaid dollars to pay for the care of foster children in mental-health facilities. While these policies were intended to ensure that abusive facilities were shut down and that kids capable of being in family settings were more likely to be placed in them, the effect has been to limit possible placements for kids who need a higher level of care. To make matters worse, some of these facilities in California, for instance, are losing staff to federal facilities that house migrant children, which pay a much higher hourly rate.
The effects of reducing congregate care are already obvious. Attacks on child-welfare workers are up in Texas—the result of the rising number of kids with mental-health and behavioral problems sleeping in state offices. Washington State recently settled a lawsuit by promising not to house kids in hotels or offices, but, as one article put it, “It’s not clear where [the Department of Children, Youth, and Families] will house foster youth without placements once they stop using hotels and state offices as an option.”
Some of these children might be able to live with foster families if they were receiving the kind of mental-health support they need. But foster parents around the country say that the children in their care do not have proper access to mental-health treatment. Nor are foster parents getting the training they need to deal with children suffering from severe trauma.
Evidence-based programs exist—like Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a therapeutic behavioral program that has been shown to reduce physical aggression, improve negative moods, and even reduce cortisol (stress hormone) levels in children who have experienced trauma. But this kind of training and support takes resources that states are not willing to provide. And now pressure from “abolitionists”—those who want to reduce or even eliminate foster care because of what they see as systemic racism—is pushing legislators away from supporting foster families or properly funding institutions that can treat kids most in need. A recent document from the UpEnd movement notes that “the separation of children from their parents results in significant and lifelong trauma, as well as increased risk of harmful outcomes including mental health disorders, substance use disorders, unemployment, and homelessness.”
The trauma that children in the foster-care system experience begins long before authorities remove them from their parents. Typically, before a removal, children experience months, if not years, of abuse or severe neglect at the hands of their biological parents or the adults to whom their biological parents expose them. Yet activists are demanding an immediate end to congregate care even for the most severely traumatized children, noting that “The use of these institutionalized settings such as group homes, detention centers, and residential treatment centers deprives children of essential connections to family and community, and subjects them to lasting and irreparable harm.”
Congregate-care facilities are far from perfect; some range from ineffectual to abusive. Typically, officials place children in them only when all other options are exhausted—including kinship placements and foster family settings. (It’s worth noting that, with each additional failed placement, children experience even more trauma.)
But whether in group homes or family settings, children in foster care should have access to appropriate mental-health treatment, and those caring for them need training in administering those treatments. No political agenda should get in the way of that.
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