Growing group homes debate: Where
should troubled kids live?
A simmering feud over where troubled children should
live is moving from Maine's social-service agencies to the halls of the
Statehouse, as legislators prepare to decide if an outside expert should
scrutinize the state's housing practices for abused and neglected
children. The dispute pits agencies that operate group homes for
children against the state Department of Health and Human Services. At
issue is the state's decision to find permanent homes for more children
and place fewer in privately run group homes -- or discharge them from
group homes more quickly than in the past.
Some social-service agencies, such as Sweetser in Saco
and Good-Will Hinckley in Fairfield, have seen a drop in the number of
state referrals to their group homes. Now Senate Minority Leader Carol
Weston, R-Montville, who fears the state is losing sight of the value of
group homes, is calling for an outside evaluation of the state's
State officials insist the children in state custody
are well cared for, but group-home operators question whether the state
always finds safe alternatives to group homes.
"I want to make sure that what we're doing is the very
best thing for these kids," Weston said, and that the drop in referrals
is "not just based on the dollar" as the state tries to save money in
the Medicaid program. Almost all of the children in the state's custody
are covered by Medicaid, the federal-state program that insures the poor
and the disabled.
Maine has 46 agencies that operate 162 group homes,
with an average size of just under seven beds, according to the
Department of Health and Human Services. All group homes provide room
and board, but the vast majority also provide treatment for such things
as drug and alcohol abuse and mental-health problems. Some run their own
In recent years, the number of children referred to
such homes has dropped from 760 to 400. At Good-Will Hinckley, for
example, referrals are down at least 25 percent, according to Neil Colan,
the chief executive officer there. Sweetser recently announced layoffs
and the closing of six group homes, in part because of the state's
cutback in the use of such homes for children who have been removed from
their parents' care.
In the fiscal year that ended last June 30, the state
spent $81.6 million on all of the children in state custody, including
$10.8 million on children living in group homes. On average, it costs
$134,000 a year to house a child in a group home, according to the
Department of Health and Human Services.
State officials say they are committed to minimizing
the use of group homes because it is far better for a child to live with
In the past, "Maine had relied on (group homes) as a
long-term placement," said Dan Despard, the state's acting director of
child welfare services. That restricted children's development so badly,
he said, that some children who spent years in group homes "didn't know
how to use kitchen appliances and they didn't know how to ask a girl out
on a date."
Now, he said, "the intent of residential care is
short-term stabilization and focal treatment, to get a child back into a
family." That, he said, is "absolutely the right thing to do."
Group-home operators agree with that perspective to a
point, but they question how and why the change is being made. The
agencies that run group homes allege that the state has developed a
single-minded focus on placing children in family settings to cut costs,
even if that harms children who would benefit from spending time in a
group home. "I'm a proponent of the current reform efforts," if they are
implemented carefully, Colan said.
The Department of Health and Human Services should use
"a more clinically sound and standard assessment practice" for referrals
and discharges, Colan said, but instead the state "feels that
residential care has virtually no value."
The number of abused and neglected children in state
custody, and the percentage living in group homes, have both dropped in
recent years as the state has worked harder to keep children out of the
state system, or move them out of it faster. Until a few years ago, "we
were among the states that were least able to reunify children in a
timely manner" or find adoptive homes for them, said James Beougher of
the state's Office of Child and Family Services.
Maine had about 3,100 abused or neglected children in
state custody three years ago, but that has dropped to about 2,150
today, according to state officials. Then, as now, most of the state's
wards were in foster care, but before the state changed its priorities,
28 percent of its wards were living in group homes. Now only 18 percent
are in group homes.
In some cases, more children get to stay with their
parents. The number of children being removed from their homes is down,
from 929 in 2003 to 756 last year. In other cases, endangered children
are later reunited with their parents, or placed with other families.
More children are now moving in with "kin" other than their parents.
"Kinship care" is up from 10 percent of the state's caseload in 2004 to
23 percent today.
The number of children who move from the state system
into adoptive homes also is on the rise. The state reported 288
adoptions in 2003 and 342 last year.
In each case, the goal is what the state calls
"permanency," by protecting or creating families. "Would you rather have
grown up in a family or in an institution?" asked Despard, the state
Group-home operators view that as an
oversimplification. "Every kid deserves a family and a home," said Colan,
but "not every kid is actually able to attain that." He said state
workers are making decisions on group-home admissions and discharges
based on "quotas" rather than on the individual needs of children, a
charge that Beougher denies.
Paul Peterson of Sweetser said the state cannot show
that all of the children who are excluded or discharged from group homes
are safe in their new homes, if they even have homes. Colan says he
knows of children who have lived with abusive, addicted or ill-prepared
parents, at least temporarily, because the state did not want to house
them in group homes.
Officials at the Preble Street homeless shelter in
Portland and at the Shaw House shelter in Bangor said it's harder than
it used to be to persuade state officials that homeless children in
shelters sometimes need to be placed in group homes.
John Costello of Shaw House said the affected children
sometimes head back out to the streets. Beougher said he has received no
complaints from shelters alleging that the state has fought a shelter's
efforts to move a state ward to a group home. He said only two of the
2,150 children in state custody were living in shelters this week.
Some providers say they have retooled their group
homes to focus on shorter stays, but Peterson said the group homes are
now getting children who have "far more troubling behaviors" than in the
past. Sending seriously troubled children to a group home for only a
short period is "not a good combination," he said.
Even providers who are not strongly critical of the
state's move from group homes to family settings question how the state
has made the transition.
Michael Tarpinian of Portland-based Youth
Alternatives, which has converted its six group homes from long-term
care to short-term care, said the state has not matched its cut in
group-home use with a corresponding increase in in-home services, such
as parenting skills, to help families stay together.
Weston, the state senator who is pushing for an
outside review, said she agrees that Maine was placing too many children
in group homes, but she said she now believes the pendulum may have
swung too far in the other direction. The safety net "needs to be in
many forms," Weston said, yet the state seems to have decided to "make
the kid fit the policy."
24 February 2007