Despite efforts to reverse the trend, hundreds of foster children continue to be funneled into costly congregate homes instead of being placed in family settings, a new report says.
About a quarter of some 4,000 abused or neglected children in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families live in “orphanage” settings, according to Connecticut Voices for Children. About 90 children a year “age out” of DCF care when they turn 18 without ever having been placed in a foster home.
“All children deserve to grow up in families. One in four is a far cry from acceptable,” said Alexandra Dufresne, a senior policy fellow at Voices. “The state has not made good on their promises.”
Two years ago, DCF agreed to add 850 foster family homes by April of this year to reduce the state’s dependence on congregate care. So far, DCF has achieved less than one-third of that goal.
Gary Kleeblatt, spokesman for DCF, said his agency is trying to reduce the number of children in group homes, but it’s difficult finding foster parents.
“We are doing our darndest to find them but no one has shown us or given us that magic wand to find them,” he said.
DCF launched a “We All Have Love to Give” campaign to recruit new foster families in May, and Kleblatt said the strategy is to focus on demographic groups that have produced the most successful foster placements, including families of color, people over 40 years old, and households concentrated along the I-84 and I-91 corridors between Hartford west to Waterbury and south to New Haven.
“We certainly can do better,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s difficult to find foster homes and this is not unique to Connecticut.”
Carole Shauffer, executive director of Youth Law Center, a nonprofit in San Francisco that studies nationwide congregate care trends, has a suggestion on how the state can do better: Outlaw group homes.
Shauffer says other states – including Maryland, Florida, Nevada and Michigan – by law prohibit placing children in congregate care or strictly limit its use.
“Connecticut is a different story. The philosophy is different,” she said. “You have not seen them commit to ending the practice completely.”
Dufresne agreed that the only way to end congregate care in Connecticut is to force DCF to do it.
Last year, a bill that would have required DCF create a pilot program to funnel children into families versus the traditional default congregate care died on the House calendar.
But DCF Commissioner Susan Hamilton testified against the bill, saying “It is already the department’s current practice statewide to make every effort to provide a family setting for every child in the Department’s care and custody.”
But for advocates, the current ratio of one out of every four children living in group homes is not acceptable.
Kleeblatt doesn’t disagree.
“We’re not satisfied with that. …We fully acknowledge that we need more foster homes,” he said. “Are there kids in congregate care settings that could be in a home? I think that’s what we’ve been pursuing.”
Shauffer said studies show children fare better when placed in a family setting. And advocates also argue that congregate care is far more expensive.
“No matter how you slice it, (family placement is) still going to be significantly cheaper than institutional care,” Dufresne said.
Yale University researchers agreed in a 2003 study. They found in Connecticut that “most children who enter out-of-home care can be adequately maintained in a traditional foster home at approximately one-tenth the cost of group care.”
That study found it cost Connecticut $206 a day for congregate care versus $23.12 a day for at-home foster care.
The same trend holds true nationwide, according to a 2009 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that found congregate care typically cost three to five times more for states.
Both child advocates and Kleeblatt agree that foster care is the ideal setting for these abused and neglected children, if they cannot safely remain at home with their families.
“We’re saying more strides need to be made, Kleeblatt said. “That’s why we are looking for more [foster] homes.”