Katrina Alston wasn’t trained as a therapist, social worker or anything of that nature when she worked at a Pasadena, California, group home for emotionally troubled teenage girls in the Los Angeles County foster care system. She simply went through a weeklong training process and two weeks of job shadowing.
With that scant preparation, Alston was charged with the care of at least six of the home’s 19 adolescents at a time when she was on shift.
Now, Alston is a social worker with the LA County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). It’s her job to investigate reports of child abuse or neglect and remove children from their parents if need be.
In the year and a half she has been working for DCFS, she’s had to remove dozens of children from their parents, but she’s only brought one child to a group home.
Knowing what Alston knows about the way such facilities work, having seen what she’s seen as an employee at a group home she called “well-run, relatively,” is partly what stops her from bringing more kids to any similar facility, she said.
“It was wild,” she said. And not in a good way.
Sometimes, Alston said, she wondered how much the placements she was involved in were actually helping kids. “Are they getting better, or are they getting worse here?” She also often doubted how capable the system was of safely handling the many crises that arise for already traumatized children who enter foster care. “It was scary,” she said.
In 2017, California’s group homes will be shutting down— or changing, at the very least — in the wake of new legislation passed in September 2015. The measure aims to move the state’s foster care system toward encouraging family-based placements for all foster children.
AB 403 “would provide for the reclassification of treatment facilities and the transition from the use of group homes for children in foster care to the use of short-term residential treatment centers,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest appended to the bill.
This, in effect, would mean that children would have to exhibit a “clinical need” in order to be placed in a non home residences, and that any such placement would be temporary.
Critics of the bill argue that closing group homes will hurt kids in a system that already suffers from too few foster care beds, and that tough-to-place kids who may have behavioral issues but don’t meet the “clinical need” qualifications will be especially affected.
Supporters of the bill argue that group homes often serve as dumping grounds for those same hard-to-place kids, who wind up still further underserved and developmentally disadvantaged.
Group homes are community-style residential settings where anywhere from six to more than 60 kids and teens live in a facility staffed 24 hours per day by a rotating crew of shiftworkers, like Katrina Alston. The homes are categorized on a scale of 1-14 based on the level of behavioral, emotional and medical challenges among the residents.
Residents at a Level 14 home would be those kids who were the most “emotionally disturbed,” and prone to behaviors such as violence, running away and inflicting self-injury. Alston describes these acute care facilities in even harsher terms. “Level 14 is a juvenile psych ward,” she said.
Kids placed in lower-level group homes, though, may be just as hard to place for other reasons, such as age, lack of extended family to lean on or low chance of permanent placement. The rating of group homes also dictates the staff-to-resident ratio. At the Level 12 where Alston worked, the ratio was 1-6.
The staff of these homes are not required by law to have any sort of education or degree related to working with their resident populations — namely children suffering neglect, abuse and trauma. Their preparation includes 24 hours of classroom training they receive upon being hired and 20 hours annually of supplemental instruction, as required by California’s Department of Social Services.
The proposed replacement for group homes, short-term residential treatment centers (STRTC), would require a child be assessed with a “clinical need” for a more restrictive and differently equipped environment than a family home setting can provide, as judged by either the DCFS or a physician.
The duration of stays in STRTCs would be time-limited. Once residents are on a treatment plan and stable enough to live in a less restrictive environment, they will be placed in foster homes deemed equipped to handle their needs and set up with in-home services to further their treatment.
Group homes in California came under national scrutiny in recent years after a series of very public closures that included reports of abuse and neglect, along with harrowing tales of children missing from the home for days at a time. While this worst-case scenario of supposed protectors abusing the already abused was being highlighted in the media, a report came out suggesting that, even in the best-case scenario, group living situations aren’t an adequate option for kids who are separated from their families.
In January 2015, the California Department of Social Services sent a foster care reform report to the state Legislature recommending that the state mandate the closure of group homes and build out support for a family-centric foster care system.
Among the evidence provided against group homes in this report were allegations that children who go through reunification with their families after a stint in a group home are more likely to re-enter the foster care system than are those who are placed solely with families.
Further, the report cited studies showing that placement in a group home is correlated with significantly higher rates of arrest, as well as among the lowest rates of high school graduation when compared to other kids in the foster system. The report also said that many of the kids who’d come out of group homes had “articulated the need for permanency, normal childhood and teenage experiences, and caregivers who understand their needs.”
The latter sentiment was echoed by Alston, the group home staffer turned DCFS social worker. Her superior, Kelly Schreiner, who is the assistant director for the Metro North division of the department, also advocates for the need to prioritize keeping children with their family, if at all possible, when developing interventions in cases of abuse or neglect. She has made it the directive for her staff.
“Most of my cases, I don’t open,” said Alston, illustrating Schreiner’s position. “Most of my cases, we don’t detain, we don’t get involved. Or if we do, we get involved in the least restrictive way possible. Which might be, ‘This kid could benefit from therapy, let’s get him into therapy. What is this immediate need? How do we address that so we don’t have to be involved?’”
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, expressed a similar point of view on what he describes as the most beneficial kind of environment for foster youth.
“Nonfamily environments are the worst kind of care for children,” he said with emphasis. While Wexler believes group homes can’t be eradicated entirely, explaining they are truly the only option in a small number of dire cases, Wexler thinks closing down as many group facilities as possible would be a “vast improvement for the children.” He added that, in Chicago, children “have gotten safer” since group homes started closing.
Like many critics of AB 403 who are concerned that closing group homes will leave kids with nowhere to go, Wexler expressed similar worries about the shortage of foster care beds, though he doesn't consider the legislation to be the root of that issue. “It’s not that LA has too few foster parents, LA has too many foster children.” Wexler points to figures indicating that LA has the third-highest rate of removal among America’s 10 largest cities.
The family-focused intervention plans codified in the new legislation certainly aim to decrease the rate of removal. But the drop in bed count associated with eliminating group homes as an option for placement may force social workers to opt for removing kids in fewer cases — which worries some child advocates who point to horror stories like that of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez who was killed after DCFS workers failed to remove him from an extremely abusive household quickly enough.
Still, Schreiner said 75 percent of the cases that come through her office are closed without a detention — the term used when a child is removed from his or her parent. But, she said, LA County “still takes too many kids without trying to give them adequate services in the home.”
Schreiner and Wexler both think the best way to work with kids struggling at home is to work with the family by bringing in the services necessary to facilitate functional relationships between parents and children, rather than removing kids, in both biological families and foster families.
This is called the “wraparound method,” in which the family unit is the focal point of an intervention, with community and social services “wrapped around” the home in support. This method was also recommended in the Department of Social Services’ foster reform report. All three — Schreiner, Wexler and the report — suggest that the successful application of wraparound services will reduce the overall need for group homes and even perhaps foster homes in general.
The sentiments toward the short-term residential treatment centers that are designated as the replacement for group homes hasn't yet crystallized. In general, it seems even the biggest decriers of group homes recognize that, for some children in the system, there is a very real need for treatment more intensive than what can be provided through wraparound services, at least for a time. In that regard, there doesn’t seem to be much pushback on maintaining that service in some form.
Wexler is concerned that the mandate of “clinical need” and categorization as a “treatment center” essentially make the STRTCs an in-house psychiatric ward for the foster care system.
“I worry that as you say you’re closing group homes, you’re institutionalizing institutionalization with this designation,” he said of the new legislation.
Schreiner, for her part, is even more wary of the new centers. According to her, the same organizations that operated the group homes will be operating the new STRTCs.
She’s got a point.
The text of the bill details the way existing group homes transfer to STRTC status when the law goes into effect in 2017. Though the methods outlined in the legislation don’t guarantee compliance, and some even argue that the burden and cost of retraining and reclassification would be too much for some centers, there’s no denying that existing centers do have the infrastructure and, now, the incentive to provide this new service.
“And if it’s the same people, how much better is it really going to be?” Schreiner asks.
In the final Senate analysis of the bill, the authors point out the need for counties to increase the number of foster families quickly to maintain enough beds for all the kids in the system. The law does allocate $17 million to fund recruitment and retention of foster parents and funding services for foster families.
Alston thinks it will take more than that, financially speaking, to really support the foster system the way it requires. She thinks foster parenting should be a profession, and salaried as such, if people are being asked to play this crucial role in the welfare and development of at-risk, in-need children. As it stands, foster parents make $657 to $820 monthly for each child in their care.
The eradication of the group home system seems to have significant support from those working in child welfare, according to those quoted here. And AB 430 indicates that lawmakers in California are serious about reforming the foster care system.
What remains to be seen is how the execution of STRTCs will turn out when the transition does take place. If the funding allocated isn’t enough to build a foster family stock sufficient to fill the gap created by the shuttered group homes, the shortage of options for kids in the system could be intensified. If inadequate group home organizations revamp themselves into the STRTCs without taking necessary steps to improve, they run the risk of continuing to be the toxic environment Alston described, or worse.
Hopefully, given the stakes and the catalysts for change, enough oversight will be in place this time around to prevent the latter, and to troubleshoot any other problems as they arise. In the meantime, LA County’s leadership has their work cut out for them: They’ve got foster families to recruit.
This story is part of a series by reporters from the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. The series is part of a collaboration between the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and WitnessLA.
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