Children and youth of all ages, especially those in the child welfare system, need and deserve caring families to keep them safe and to support their emotional, physical and social development.

Unfortunately, despite federal law that requires states to address a child’s best interests and seek the least-restrictive placement, not enough kids in foster care are living in families. In fact, nationally nearly 56,000 children and youth – or about one in seven kids in foster care – are living in group placements. For teens, that ratio is one in three.

In recent years, however, through innovative policy and smart leadership at the Department of Children and Families, Connecticut has begun safely keeping more children with families.

Many children are better off because practices like those being implemented by DCF Commissioner Joette Katz have been successfully enacted around the country to ensure children removed from their families due to abuse and neglect are placed in the least-restrictive setting based on their needs. In the child welfare system, placing a child in the least-restrictive setting means that the child lives in the most family-like situation.

Katz’s expectation, instituted last year, is sound and rooted in consistent research that shows children do best in families. Since the policy began, DCF has safely reduced reliance on group placements by more than 50 percent, and more than 35 percent of children in foster care now live with relatives.

But this policy isn’t just about reducing the numbers of children in group placements for the sake of reducing numbers.

DCF’s policy is good for kids because child development research shows that families – whether birth, foster, kin or adoptive – are essential to a child’s healthy development. Research shows that kids who live with relatives move less often, are more likely to live with a permanent family when they leave foster care and have better behavioral health outcomes.

Families can provide the care and structure that children need – a positive parent figure who is consistently present for family meals and to help with homework, and provide connections to community activities such as recreation and sports. With proper support and services, relatives and foster families can care for children who may have behavioral and mental health challenges that are often associated with abuse and neglect.

For sure, an effective continuum of care includes a range of support, from in-home services to foster families and from residential treatment to even psychiatric hospitalization. For children with significant psychiatric diagnoses, effective residential treatment provides a customized, therapeutic, short-term intervention that helps children heal and return to family.

DCF’s policy holds everyone – social workers, supervisors, managers and administrators – responsible for placement decisions and ensures group placements are considered only when all family- and community-based options have been deemed inappropriate.

DCF has made significant progress toward ensuring more children live with families and has expanded services and supports for them in their communities. Its spending on group placements has decreased by $70 million, while an additional $49 million has been invested in community-based services.

In recent years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has worked with innovative providers who are increasing community-based services. Providers such as KVC Health Systems (based in Kansas and working in multiple states) have transformed their business models to more closely reflect best practices that are linked to community services. And they are doing so quite successfully.

KVC, for example, has driven down its percentage of children in group placements in Kansas from 30 percent to 4 percent, largely by reserving residential treatment only for children with acute needs and investing in helping families care for children where they live.

Building an effective continuum of care requires improved practice – from training to implementation – backed by smart policy. In places where Casey has supported similar policies, including New York City, Virginia and Colorado, change has included:

  • requiring a family meeting (also known as Team Decision Making) before placing or moving a child,
  • requiring relatives be considered first and
  • requiring high-level approval for group placements

Connecticut has made remarkable strides in improving its array of services and evidence-based programs to ensure more kids can grow and thrive in families. Katz has not rejected group placement as an option; she has merely required the justification that taking kids away from families demands.

Tracey Feild is the director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group of The Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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