Seeking Stability

New measures call for significant reform to offer foster youth a better chance at permanent homes

Back Longreads Apr 6, 2017 By Laurie Lauletta-Boshart

Fifteen-year-old Austin Nichols* brushes the loose hair away from his eyes and adjusts his glasses before recounting his foster care experience. A victim of chronic neglect, Nichols was eight when he and his two siblings were removed from their family and placed in separate group homes. The shy, quiet boy struggled to find his place. “One day I was living at home with my brothers, and the next, I was living with a bunch of strangers,” he says. “Nothing was familiar. It was very scary.” Nichols suffered from anxiety disorder and lashed out in frustration. His anger issues became a barrier for permanent placement with a family, and he declined in group care.

He was shuttled between two more group homes in Sacramento County before a foster family took him in. That same family adopted him last year, six years after he was removed from his biological family’s home. “It took me a while to trust them” he says. “But now I know that they love me and accept me.” His younger brother was adopted by another family in 2014, but his older brother didn’t fare as well, spending time in four group homes and on probation before being emancipated. He was arrested last year for felony larceny and is currently serving time in prison. “He had no support, no one to check up on him,” Nichols says.

Current research from Princeton University and the Brookings Institute confirms what foster family agencies have found: Foster youth who live in congregate care settings (like group homes) are more likely than those who live with families to suffer a variety of negative outcomes, including low education levels, mental illness and involvement with the justice system. Placing foster youth in a stable and caring home is paramount, but finding the best way to do that has proved challenging.

While agencies have long understood the importance of permanence — whether through reunification, kinship care, guardianship, long-term foster families or adoption — the child welfare system has been slow to respond. Now, sweeping changes introduced under Continuum of Care Reform will impact the way foster youth are served. But the rigorous standards have some concerned about sacrificing resources in the short term to reach better outcomes in the long term.

More Services Needed

Larger, more established organizations like Sierra Forever Families, a Sacramento nonprofit organization providing pre-and-post adoption services, have been working on permanency for some time.

“Although some children enter foster care, no child should grow up in foster care,” says CEO Bob Herne, who was tapped early on to provide input for the reforms. “Every child should grow up with the love, safety and unconditional commitment of a family. And so we will do any service and provide any support to ensure that a child has that safety and well-being of a family.”

Sierra Forever Families partners with a number of organizations to provide comprehensive services, including independent living skills and a short-term residential therapeutic program with Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento, and outpatient mental health and intensive treatment services with Stanford Youth Solutions.

Related: Compassion Planet Employs Aged-Out Foster Youth

Sierra also implemented a program a decade ago called concurrent planning. Resource families (kinship, foster and adoptive families who have been trained to meet the immediate and permanency needs of children) working with Sierra are asked to take foster children early on to help reunite them with their biological families, and if that doesn’t work, then to consider adoption. “About 75 percent of our families are willing to do this,” Herne says. “Our families understand that reunification is just as successful as adoption.”

A recent UC Davis survey supports this premise, finding that one of the strongest motivations for potential foster parents to open their homes is the chance to keep biological families together. Herne and his staff view their concurrent planning model as an opportunity to work at permanency as soon as a child enters the system.

Rochelle Trochtenberg, a former foster youth and the state’s new foster care ombudsperson, was removed from her home at age 13 and placed in foster care in Los Angeles County. “I had some really great congregate care experiences with positive adult support and role models that are still in my life today,” she says, “but I also had the flip side where I had that low-quality experience, with staff who didn’t care and program administrators who weren’t engaged.” Trochtenberg has been an outspoken advocate for foster care reform and is actively involved in the implementation of CCR.

More Families Needed

CCR seeks to elevate the standards and level the playing field for all foster youth. Convened under the Department of Social Services, it began as a group of stakeholders, including foster youth, foster families, foster family agencies, group home providers (now called short-term residential therapeutic providers), child welfare agencies and policymakers, all tasked with creating a list of recommended foster care reforms. After a two-year process, 19 recommendations were issued and introduced through Assembly Bill 403. The legislative mandates became effective Jan. 1 of this year.

The state intends to reduce the number of children in group homes from 8,000 to 2,000 in the next few years. The measure also seeks to reduce the time children spend in group homes, while increasing stable placement in family settings. Group care will primarily be used only for short-term intensive treatment interventions. The legislation also streamlines the support all foster youth receive and expands support for the families who care for them.

Foster family agencies are being reorganized to meet a broader range of individual needs. Facilities seeking licensure as short-term residential therapeutic programs will now have to meet higher standards of care. Not only will they need to earn national accreditation, these organizations must now deliver or arrange for access to a set of core services that are trauma-informed, including specialty mental health services.

The new regulations also aim to improve selection, training and support of all resource families, including relatives, seeking to care for a foster child. Under CCR, every child will have a team following them, developing a plan to ensure that children and families are getting the services they need.

“This is the largest change in child welfare in a generation in California,” Herne says. “This is huge. We have a lot of fears around it, but we also have some hopes and dreams around it.”

Laura Heintz, CEO of Stanford Youth Solutions in Sacramento, has also been anticipating and preparing for the changes with CCR for some time. Her nonprofit organization offers a variety of services to support children and families, including foster care services. The biggest task that Heintz sees for Stanford Youth Solutions is finding more of the right resource families, and training and equipping them. “The state wants us to recruit families that can take any kids, all kids, even those with behavioral issues. Our biggest challenge will be finding and retaining families who are the right match for the child,” she says.

Related: A System of Support

Resource families and foster youth will be matched based on needs, interests, culture, family environment and location. “We rely on foster families to recruit other families,” she says. “But when they hear about the new regulations and requirements, they get scared.”

So far, the compensation rates for foster family agencies have not changed. “The state is working on it, but they don’t understand our urgency,” she says. “We are expected to implement these new standards, but we don’t have the additional resources to do it.”

Theoretically, with CCR, Heintz believes the process to place foster youth in homes should be quicker and better, but it will be hard. “Childhood is short,” she says. “We have a very short period of time to make an impact.”

Unintended Outcomes

Bill Ryland is concerned about how the new regulations will impact his nonprofit and others like it. A 29-year veteran with Koinonia Family Services, Ryland serves as director of Koinonia Homes for Teens & Treatment Clinic, a residential treatment program for foster teens. The state has mandated foster youth spend no more than six months in a short-term residential therapeutic program. Most of Ryland’s programs are between nine and 12 months.

“The state is expecting 6,000 very high-need kids to be taken in by single-family homes. That won’t happen. They are going to have to revise the legislation to fit the reality,” he says. “When you have a child who is abused and has attachment disorder, just because they are in a single family home, that does not mean they will automatically attach.”

Koinonia’s residential program offers a drug and alcohol program with a treatment clinic, as well as an accredited public school. To warrant the level of treatment that Koinonia provides, children placed there have already failed in other foster care settings. “We provide 12 hours of treatment a week and are fully committed to it,” Ryland says, “and to expect families to be able to duplicate that is unrealistic.”

Ryland believes we could lose a generation of kids through this “test-crash dummy approach.” “The state is saying we don’t want kids in group care. We aren’t group care, we are treatment,” he says. Ryland is currently working to increase staffing to comply with the new regulations. “The whole point of the legislation is demanding a continuum of care, but not readily accommodating it. We are big enough and old enough to make the switch, but not everyone is,” he says. “We will lose a lot of our peers.”

While there are excellent providers who have brought in mental health and wrap-around services, and have a high-quality program that is trauma-informed, not all are operating at that level.

“I feel like CCR is saying to all the other group homes that are not at this high standard, ‘this is where the standard ought to be,’” Trochtenberg says. “It may eliminate some group home providers that are not willing or able to provide these high-quality services, but to be honest, kids deserve that. And if providers are not able to do that, then maybe they are not the best provider to be serving this population.”

Michelle Callejas, deputy director of child protective services for the County of Sacramento, is working on increasing the capacity within its community and home-based settings to step children down from group homes. She says the County has requested extra staff to recruit more potential foster families and intends to work closely with other agencies to learn from their strategies.

Under the new legislation, Callejas says, children won’t have to change placements to get the services and support they need. Ideally, there should be no difference in access to services at a county foster home, relative’s home or a foster family agency home. “If we are able to do this piece well, there will be fewer placement changes,” Callejas says,” which will ultimately help us get to permanency in a more timely manner.”

For her perpetually positive attitude, Callejas has been called a delusional optimist. “I truly believe every child is adoptable if we find the best services and support to enable that to happen. It is our job, in collaboration with our partners, to hold hope for children and families, even if they don’t have it.”

After she emancipated, Trochtenberg quickly lost hope. “I was given seven days notice and a handwritten list of board-and-care facilities and homeless shelters,” she says. “And that was my exit into the world.” With no support system, she struggled for many years and spent time homeless. “At 18, I was very unprepared for the world, very unable to care for myself, because of the nature of the institutionalization that occurs when youth are languishing in group care facilities.” Finally, a caring adult encouraged her to try community college, and eventually she enrolled at Humboldt State University where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work.

“Overall, this is probably the biggest reform of the California foster care system in decades and significantly changes how we care for foster youth,” Trochtenberg says. “My hope is that as we get more youth out of congregate care settings and in more community and family settings, we will see better outcomes.”

Based on his experiences, Austin Nichols sees room for improvement. “My time in foster care was sometimes good, but mostly bad,” he says. “If I had gotten help earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have been so angry and could have been adopted sooner. And maybe they could have helped my older brother.” 

*Child’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.