Gotham Gazette

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Giving Foster Teens a Place to Call Home

child welfare watch report
Photo by Arpan Munier
When he was 17, Emmit Hunter (right) moved into the foster home of Karen Zimmerman, who has 3 grown children.

(This article is adapted from Child Welfare Watch Vol. 16, "Home Away From Home: Foster Parents for a New Generation." Reporting by Ann Farmer, Kendra Hurley, and Barbara Solow.)

Sixteen-year-old Juan would not seem like a good prospect for placement with a foster family. He lived in five foster families before coming to Children's Village, a residential facility north of the city. Once there he ran away. "We do stupid things," Juan shrugs.

But on a March day, Juan, clutching his black poetry journal, was about to move to a permanent foster home in Parkchester. "It's awesome," he said.


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Juan represents part of an effort by New York City's Administration for Children's Services to turn away from institutionalized care for foster children in favor of family-based care.

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 as 16 and 17-year-olds entering foster care are just as likely to be placed in congregate care now as they were four years ago, according to city data.

While generally applauding the trend, some experts note that the shift away from group care is demanding a lot of the city's foster families and that they will require additional support and services to make these placements work. While finding suitable foster homes for children of any age poses difficulties, the challenge becomes particularly daunting with teenagers, especially those who have already spent most of their lives in group care facilities and have an array of problems.

The Shift to Families

Social work practitioners have long advanced the theory that teenagers in institutional foster care programs would stand a better chance of adjusting to society and achieving long-term 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.

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

"Life in society is best defined by the experience of the family," adds Jeremy Kohomban, president and chief executive officer of The Children's Village, a foster care agency once known primarily for its institutional care programs. "It's only in the family that you learn to be a father, brother and citizen."

With this in mind, men and women who work with teenagers in foster care are 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 seeking funding streams and enacting policies to support this work.

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, 3,908 New York City foster children lived in group 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. Meanwhile, 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.

Placing these children can be difficult. In 2005, the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an association of the city's privately run foster care agencies, assessed the behavioral and emotional challenges of 213 adolescents at six agencies who were sent to live with foster families. They found that 44 percent of the teens had previously lived in foster care, 26 percent had mental health issues, 33 percent had problems with truancy and 16 percent had exhibited violent behavior.

Foster parents who open their homes to children with these issues report they need far more help than those who care for younger children. "It's a very, very stressful situation to be dealing with a child with behavior problems," said Valentina Staton of the Bronx, a veteran foster parent who is now the official foster parent advocate for Leake and Watts Services. "Sometimes you have to wait for [treatment] beds to open up and you have to keep a child that is acting out until there is a bed available. You have to keep an appointment book, you have to follow all their medications. It's a lot." She said that many of her agency's foster parents are dealing with these kinds of issues.

Different Children, Different Needs

New York is still a very long way from ending institutional care. And many child welfare experts acknowledge that being with a family may not serve all children in foster care.

Take 19-year-old Cecil Lundy. According to caseworkers at Episcopal Social Services, he never adapted to foster homes. Instead, the tall, husky teenager, who has been in care since he was 8, spent most of his childhood in group homes and residential treatment centers. A few unsuccessful tries in family settings ended after he got into fights with foster parents or siblings.

Things got better for Lundy after he and a roommate moved into an apartment in the Bronx that is under the supervision of their foster care agency. Social workers check on them regularly to offer support and to enforce curfews and other program rules.

Many foster care agency leaders believe that some teens like Lundy benefit from the stability of group homes and residential treatment centers with a 24-hour staff can provide. "No one size fits all," said Jim Purcell, chief executive officer of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies.

Finding Places

While acknowledging that, city child welfare officials say that many teens who are in group care can successfully find homes with families. "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," said Farber of Children's Rights.

The staff at Children's Village agrees. Working closely with You Gotta Believe!, a Brooklyn-based organization that finds foster parents for older kids, the agency had been able to place 50 percent of teens they hoped to move to family homes-all whom had spent at least five years in institutional care-with foster families. Though it wanted to place more, said Kohomban, "Our position is 50 percent is better than zero."

The process of moving children like those at Children's Village from a residential facility into a permanent foster or pre-adoptive home is known among social workers as "stepping down." Teens are traditionally much harder to step down than younger children, especially those who have been referred to residential care after several failed foster family placements. Most teens at Children's Village, for instance, struggle with mental illness or severe emotional disturbances such as depression, fear and anger, for which they receive counseling, drug therapy and other services.

To help find foster homes for the young people at Children's Village, the staff attempted to match the teens with people they already knew and with whom they felt a special connection, such as an aunt, uncle or former foster parent. The matching process often took six to twelve months, but the Children's Village staff learned to not rush into any matches. This allowed the teenager and prospective parents ample opportunity to assess whether the match felt right.

Even then, some matches failed. "Some people have no clue what they're getting into," said Mona Swanson, Children's Village's chief operating officer. "We look for backbone, for people who are able to set limits and not take things personally, and know how it is to live with a teen."

Learning from Children's Village

Staff at Children's Village have found that providing sufficient family support and steady follow-up care are arguably the most important components to making matches stick, according to the agency's leadership. Almost every matched teen from Children's Village was immediately entered into the city's 2004-07-08 Therapeutic Foster Boarding Home Program, which provides extra support, including a larger stipend for foster parents. Each teen has a team with a social worker, a behavioral specialist, a psychologist and psychiatrist. The teens are supposed to receive weekly visits from their assigned social worker and behavioral specialist. The parents also can receive family counseling.

You Gotta Believe! provided extensive follow-up support in the form of shadow workers skilled at family intervention who made themselves available any time of the day or night to help resolve crises.

"I can tell you this, if it weren't for Stephen [a foster parent advocate] my foster son would have gone back a long time ago," said Karen Zimmerman, who took in a Children's Village teen and has Stephen McCall, a foster parent who serves as a consultant for Children's Village and other agencies, as her shadow worker. "His phone is open 24 hours."

The Challenges for Parents

Most teens and their foster families, however, do not receive such extensive support and nonprofit leaders say services that would be especially helpful to foster families, such as respite care and therapy programs geared to teens, are still scarce or nonexistent in many city neighborhoods. "What we really need are more community-based services, not just for foster families but for all families," said Lee Pardee, director of policy and practice implementation at SCO Family of Services. "After school, sports and church-based programs and more mentoring would help."

Children in foster homes especially need better access to mental health services, experts say. Many kids in foster care have been victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence-and such experiences can exact an extreme emotional toll. Researchers estimate that as many as 50 to 70 percent of all children in foster care have serious emotional problems. Yet a 2005 study by the Citizens' Committee for Children found that only about one-third of children living in the city's foster boarding homes received individual therapy.

And despite the system's greater reliance on foster homes, the stipend foster parents receive from the city has increased only slightly in recent years. It starts at $17.52 per day and can sometimes range as high as $57.60 depending on a child's age and level of need, though most children fall at the lower end of the spectrum. This money includes a child's allowance, as well as money to be spent on clothing, food and other necessities. For most foster parents it's simply not enough to cover the cost of looking after a child, said McCall. While press accounts focus on foster parents who abuse the system, most foster parents contribute their own money-to say nothing of enormous amounts of time-to care for young people who need homes.

The Administration for Children's Services has, however, invested some resources to help agencies better support their foster parents. In 2006, ACS slated $11.5 million for agencies to help recruit and support foster parents of children aged 10 and older. It renewed this funding in 2007. Some foster care agencies used the money to reduce caseloads so each foster family could receive more attention. One agency began offering optional training for all its foster parents on how to work with children with special needs-something that used to be available only to those families licensed as therapeutic foster homes.

Other agencies, including Little Flower Children's Services, Children's Village, Edwin Gould Services for Children and Families, and Forestdale, Inc., have used those funds to hire foster parent advocates who give foster families the support that caseworkers are often too busy to provide. The advocates also give foster parents a safe space to vent. "A lot of foster parents are afraid to tell [a caseworker] what's going on because they think the agency is going to look at them like they aren't a good parent," explained McCall.

Child welfare leaders are also hopeful that the state's new Bridges to Health program, which offers Medicaid-funded services to vulnerable children in foster care, will help ease the resource crunch. The program offers children diagnosed with emotional problems, developmental disabilities or fragile medical conditions services ranging from crisis management to school advocacy. Assistance is available not only to the kids in care but also to their parents, foster parents and siblings. State officials say the program, which is just getting off the ground, will serve at least 3,300 children over the next three years.

But for now, many foster parents say they struggle getting the help they need for them and the children in their homes.

Though a foster parent for nearly 20 years, Gabriela (not her real name) wasn't prepared for the battle of wills she faced when she recently took in two teenagers: Anthony, 18, and Greg, 20. Both had been in the system a long time. Gabriela began having problems with Greg almost immediately: He left food out, steamed up the bathroom and left it a mess. When she challenged him, he said, "I can do what I want. I'm a man and I'm mature."

Things became worse when Greg took up with a 43-year-old woman he met on MySpace. "He used to go to church. He used to go to therapy," Gabriela said. "Now he's stopped and has been smoking weed. He lost his job at McDonald's because of her. He jumps hoops for this woman."

Then Gabriela began having trouble with Anthony. During an argument, he punched a hole in her dresser. After he threatened to hit her, she asked the caseworker to remove both him and Greg from her home. "I don't like getting rid of kids," said Gabriela, "But there's little things they do that I've been telling them not to since October."

When Greg learned he was being sent to a group home, he disappeared for several days, and Gabriela never heard what happened to him after that. Greg's leaving prompted Anthony to beg Gabriela for a second chance. "If I start over in a new house. I don't know what's going to happen," he told her.

Knowing how hard it is for children to bounce from one home to another, Gabriela decided to let him stay. "I really like the kid," she said. "But I let him know that if he messes up again, he's leaving. So we'll just have to see what happens."

Child Welfare Watch is a joint project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School and the Center for an Urban Future. Edited by Andrew White.


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