The Changing Face of Foster Care: The end of an era of institutionalized foster care for teens?

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg's second year in office, New York City's Administration for Children's Services (ACS) has steadily picked up speed in its turn away from institutionalized care for foster children, reflecting a growing consensus in favor of family-based care. Today this shift has the potential to become permanent. Men and women who work with teenagers in foster care are making headway figuring out how to help create stable family homes for young people who once would have spent years in group homes and residential treatment centers. Officials are creating funding streams and enacting policies to support this work.New York City is charging a growing number of families with abuse and neglect, leaving Family Court overwhelmed and more children spending longer periods in foster care. This edition of Child Welfare Watch reports on the difficulties of moving children out of foster care in a timely manner in the wake of Nixzmary Brown's murder, two years ago tomorrow. As a result, a higher percentage of the city's foster children now live with foster families and relatives than just a few years ago. In June 2004, there were 3,908 New York City foster children living in congregate care. That number dropped to 2,595 by March 2008, a 34 percent reduction. Over the same period, the total number of children in foster care declined by 19 percent. The city has been closing residential treatment centers and group homes and shifting resources to family foster homes. Recently, ACS announced its intention of eliminating 1,200 more group care beds.

In this special edition of the Watch, our reporters explore the city's move away from institutional care. What happens when foster parents struggle to care for teenagers? How successful are the city's new efforts to help agencies and foster families care for kids? What can practitioners learn from one nonprofit foster care agency's careful effort to move teenaged boys from institutional care to family life? And how are teens dealing with these changes?

Nonprofit foster care agencies are demanding more government resources for flexible support services to help hold foster families together. They are also calling for restraint in closing institutions. Nonetheless, more than 1,000 children who, if they had entered foster care in 2004, might well have been placed in group homes or treatment centers are instead finding temporary homes with families in the city's neighborhoods.

The biggest shift has been among young teens, those 12 and 13 years old, according to city and state data. But even 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls are more likely to be placed with families today than they were in the past. The change is far less marked among older teens. Today, 16- and 17-year-olds entering foster care are just as likely to be placed in congregate care as they were four years ago, according to city data.

Social work practitioners have long advanced the theory that teenagers in institutional foster care programs would stand a better chance adjusting to society and achieving longterm success if they were in family care. A study released in 2003 by the Seattle-based foundation Casey Family Programs demonstrated that, with ample support, teens placed in stable foster family settings achieved a higher level of education than their peers in group care.

City child welfare officials agree. "We have too many kids spending too long without that permanent family," ACS Commissioner John Mattingly told participants at a December 2007 public forum at The New School. "Too many kids [are] being bumped up into residential treatment because we haven't had the resources focused on good foster families to care for troubled kids."

Julie Farber, director of policy for Children's Rights, a national legal action group, cites studies showing 60 percent of children adopted from foster care are adopted by their foster parents, while those in group care often lack adoption plans. "Too often, the child welfare system looks at a group facility as a permanent placement and efforts to find that child a family just stop," she says.

And while residential treatment centers and other institutional programs are supposed to provide children with services they might not receive in a family setting, "there is very limited evidence of [their] effectiveness for a child's mental health," notes Farber.

"Life in society is best defined by the experience of the family," adds Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of The Children's Village, a foster care agency once known primarily for its institutional care programs. "We can stabilize them and bring them from the precipice," he says. "But it's only in the family that you learn to be a father, brother and citizen."