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The Future of Foster Care in California

New legislation in the Golden State is attempting to fix the foster care system by putting foster families before group care programs, but some group homes can become non-traditional families.
(Photo: GSPhotography/Shutterstock)

(Photo: GSPhotography/Shutterstock)

Group homes, which lack the kind of nurturing parental relationships thought to be developmentally necessary for healthy children, have historically been a last resort for foster kids. But a family placement does not guarantee a happy child; as Natasha Vargas-Cooper reported for Pacific Standard in the 2013 September/October issue, foster children typically bounce between at least three family placements, and often as many as 10 or 12 different homes. Vargas-Cooper's piece focused on a lucky few who wound up at an unconventional group home and boarding school near San Diego called the San Pasqual Academy, whose students challenge, "what society has come to expect from kids who've been in group homes," Vargas-Cooper wrote. San Pasqual's 238-acre campus has a high school that graduates students at twice the rate of foster teens across California, along with a farm, a technology center, and cottages where the students live with adults who provide parental-like guidance and supervision.

Unfortunately, the San Pasqual Academy seems to be the exception: Many group homes throughout the state of California have been plagued by controversy for several years. For over a year, ProPublica has documented reports of runaways, suicidal teens, rape, and child abuse allegations in overtaxed group homes across the state. In response to the disorder, last month California Governor Jerry Brown approved new legislation that promises to overhaul the juvenile group home system.

"These kinds of group settings are a tool to even the playing field for youth educationally, so it would be disappointing if legislation limited these kinds of opportunities."

The crux of the new law is that children should live in homes with families, rather than group-care facilities. "It is well documented that residing long-term in group homes with shift-based care is not in the best interests of children and youths," the California Department of Social Services wrote in a report to the state legislature earlier this year.

The new law aims to provide more support for the recruitment and training of foster families, and limit group homes only to children who cannot be safely housed in family settings; for example, group care programs may be necessary for adolescents with behavioral difficulties or unique mental health needs that can be too challenging for family placements. Even then, the state hopes to limit the amount of time a child spends in group homes to "the minimum time required for stabilization," the report states.

The number of children in out-of-home foster care placements has been declining in California for at least a decade, thanks in large part to the state's focus on preventative and early intervention practices for families at risk of being separated. But there are still roughly 60,000 total children in the foster care system throughout the state; about 3,000 of them have been in group home placements for more than a year, and 1,000 for over five years.

The California Department of Social Services report cites research that finds kids who go through group homes tend to have poorer education and employment outcomes, and may be 2.5 times more likely to get into trouble with the law than children in other foster care settings. For some, however, group homes are the only option, as Vargas-Cooper reported:

San Pasqual, a non-profit that can serve about 180 kids, exists because families fail. And when teenagers are involved, families tend to fail most spectacularly. The academy believes teenagers should bond with a community of their peers and a group of adults rather than be folded into a series of potentially dysfunctional families. The concept can be reduced to a simple truth: There is no time. There are more than 60,000 foster children in California alone, and it can take years even to try to rehabilitate troubled biological parents or family members, or find stable adoptive parents.

The new legislation specifically calls out group homes that rely on shift staff, and there are many other forms of group care with live-in caregivers, including the San Pasqual Academy. "It would be hard to claim a 'one size fits all' solution for foster youth. There is quite a bit of rhetoric related to 'every child deserves a family,' and it's hard to argue with that," says Bethany Lee, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "But some group care programs do provide a very family-like setting for youth; an environment can act like a family for a child, without looking like a traditional family." Access to high-quality education is a significant hurdle for foster children, according to Lee, who says residential boarding schools for children in the welfare system, like the San Pasqual Academy, can be "transformative."

And there can be significant consequences to states limiting the options for foster children and their families. "There are places in Australia where group care was almost entirely eliminated and the number of homeless youth grew quickly," Lee recalls. Without group care options, she says, the adolescents whose behavioral problems kept them out of family placements ended up in shelters and other places that were unlikely to meet their behavioral health needs.

"As a society, we accept that wealthy families can choose to send their youth to boarding schools to provide incredible learning experiences, so it seems we should also consider how to make these opportunities accessible to all children, including foster youth or disadvantaged children," Lee says. "These kinds of group settings are a tool to even the playing field for youth educationally, so it would be disappointing if legislation limited these kinds of opportunities."


Since We Last Spoke examines the latest policy and research updates to past Pacific Standard news coverage.