Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Foster care in California: Group home greed trumps children’s need

Just when you think there must be some sense of shame left in the foster care-industrial complex, when you think there must be some limit to their seemingly insatiable greed – they find a way to dash any such hope.

Everyone knows about the horrendous budget crisis in California. Practically any service you can imagine to help the vulnerable faces devastating budget cuts.

It's not just prevention and family preservation that are at risk. Those programs often are the first to go because, though their actual beneficiaries are children, they appear to be serving "bad parents" so they're politically unpopular. No, things are so bad in California that they're even cutting things like a transitional housing program that helps young people after they're kicked out of the foster care system at age 18.

So what are the group homes and institutions of California doing about all this? Everything they can to make it worse.

In a triumph of group home greed over children's need, California's group home industry managed to grab an additional $242 million to fund programs that are largely worthless and sometimes harmful to children.

A federal judge has ordered the state to give California group homes and institutions for foster children a whopping 32 percent rate increase, even as the rest of California's social safety net is being torn apart by budget cuts.

The decision is expected to cost the state $77 million and counties $115 million – with $50 million more from the federal government.

And the actual cost, to children and taxpayers, is likely to be even higher. As the rest of the social safety net is further ripped to shreds to satiate the greed of the group homes, more and more families are likely to fall deeper into poverty; that poverty is more likely to be confused with "neglect" and more children are likely to be taken from everyone they know and love and thrown needlessly into foster care.


All that money could be far better spent on safe, proven alternatives to tearing apart families in the first place. In those cases where children really must be taken from their parents, there is nothing that a group home or institution does that can't be done better and at lower cost in therapeutic foster homes and with intensive services like Wraparound. Details on the research, and those better alternatives, are available on our website here.

The group home industry trade association that sued for the increase, the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, issued an unctuous statement claiming to favor alternatives and insisting they only want their institutions used when absolutely necessary, blah, blah, blah. That's what they always say – and it's so predictable that we have a checklist of their excuses, and why they don't wash, on our website.

But my favorite part is where the alliance says their members "have pioneered alternatives to group home care, such as Wraparound and intensive treatment foster care…" As a matter of fact, one of their members, EMQ Families First, really did pioneer such alternatives. And the group home industry fought them every step of the way. In fact, the very term "group home industry" doesn't originate with NCCPR. We got it from former EMQ CEO Jerry Doyle, who described the fight in the trade journal Youth Today.

And that's typical. While the group home industry plays lip service to alternatives, they scarf up all the money that would make them possible. Even California's worst fiscal crisis in memory is not enough to give them pause. While people with nothing left to give must tighten their belts, the group home industry is pigging out, paid for every month they needlessly hold children in their institutions – creating a perverse incentive to prolong foster care. And now, its greedy grab of $242 million more will only further ensure a steady stream of children to fill their beds.

I don't know if the state can appeal this decision, I certainly hope so. Because it's going to take the force of law to stop this transfer of $242 million to the group home industry at the expense of vulnerable children and families.