Children In Crisis: Can We Solve The Group Home Conundrum?

Aug 20, 2015

Rhode Island puts too many children in group homes. Everyone agrees that’s bad.

But dig a little deeper, and it seems Rhode Island does have some alternatives: therapists, family case managers, parenting coaches, visiting nurses. Lots of nonprofits serving children and families. So what's the disconnect? Here's a look in my reporter's notebook.

Rhode Island has lots of services for children and families, services that are not group homes. In fact, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, or DCYF, relies on a huge roster of outside service providers to do everything from managing group homes to finding foster families.

Before group homes, there were orphanages, like this one, circa 1950, operated by Child and Family of Rhode Island.
Credit Child and Family RI


So why can’t we reduce the number of kids we put in group homes? Well, all those alternatives I just mentioned, we don’t fund them.

Jamie Lehane runs the Newport Community Mental Health center. He says that back in the 1990’s, Rhode Island’s safety net of community mental health services was one of the best.

“We know what types of services actually work," says Lehane. "And we were funded at a level that we were able to provide those services to our citizens, to the consumers that we serve, and our outcomes were phenomenal.”

Jamie Lehane heads Newport Community Mental Health Center.

  But that funding didn’t last.

“But then, as with other states, state budgets started cutting services and cutting the funding for the services that we know work best. That’s exactly what happened with children’s mental health services.”

What Lehane is getting at is that there were good options, options that helped kids and families stay out of the system. Therapy is one example. Or case management, where a social worker helps piece together services a family needs, like housing or counseling, to get back on its feet. 

But then the recession hit, and more families were thrown into crisis. Opioid addiction and overdose rates began to climb. More families wound up in the state’s child welfare system than anyone expected, overwhelming an agency already struggling to cope. More and more teens, in particular, ended up in group homes. More than 2500 kids are in the system now. Nationwide, 14 percent of them would be in group homes. In Rhode Island, it’s 25 percent.

“And I think things got a little out of whack in the state of Rhode Island," says Tracy Field , with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. DCYF asked her team to figure out what exactly was out of whack, and how to fix it. Feild says one glaring problem was Rhode Island’s failure to recruit more families who want to foster teenagers.

“For teenagers, you really need to target your recruitment towards people who like teenagers," Feild says. "Let’s face it, that’s not everybody.”

I have a teenager and I’m nodding my head. But some people like spending time with teenagers, like sports coaches or teachers. Reaching out to them might help. But DCYF hasn’t tried that. Yet.

So more teenagers end up in group homes, which are really expensive, like $400 plus dollars a day. Then DCYF finds itself spending so much of its money on group homes it can barely afford to try other things.

So, conundrum. Do you just close down the group homes? Newport Community Mental Health’s Jamie Lehane says group homes are expensive.

The Portsmouth Center, a group home run by Child and Family of Rhode Island, opened in 1986.
Credit Child and Family RI

“And it’s not their fault. They’ve got to maintain a staff, an infrastructure," says Lehane. "There are costs to keeping these beds open.”

Beds you might need some day for emergencies. But when those beds become home base, you’re asking for trouble. Research shows the chances for succeeding in school, staying out of the criminal justice system, living healthy, happy lives – all of that gets more precarious the longer a kid lives in group homes – even though some group homes might be really great.

Martin Sinnott heads Child and Family of Rhode Island. His organization operates some group homes and provides other services to families involved in DCYF. He says some of the teens placed in group homes don’t even need to be there in the first place. It’s just what was available.

Martin Sinnott, right, leads Child and Family Rhode Island. Susan Howell, left, also oversees programs at the organization.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“We have kids entering care that range from those who are at imminent risk in terms of their health and safety in their biological homes," Sinnott says, "to teenagers who are truant, acting out, and really, although they’re important issues that need to be address, they don’t cross that safety definition.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Tracy Feild says in those types of cases it’s better to send help in before you separate the family.

“'Alright, you’re having trouble? Let’s figure out how we can all get along with each other,' Feild offers as an example. "It’s practically like a mediation process with a therapeutic component. And it’s a whole lot cheaper than these poor teenagers cycling out of group homes.”

So, let’s summarize: too many group homes. Alternatives exist but they’re underfunded. We don’t have enough foster parents. Has anyone tried to fix it? Yes. In fact DCYF reorganized a couple of years ago. It created these two networks of outside service providers. Child and Family led one, for example, and they would dole out cases referred to them by DCYF to providers in their network. DCYF hoped the reorg would be the magic bullet. Was it? Child and Family CEO Martin Sinnott says it made things worse. 

“When you have a state with three times the rate of kids in congregate care, when you have half the capacity you need in foster care, I think that crosses the threshold into a mess," Sinnott says.

DCYF is in the process of figuring out what to do with the networks. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake, as the agency tries to figure out how to balance the need for group homes with the need to shift money into programs that help kids stay with their families.

But there’s another problem at DCYF. The agency lacks basic financial controls and even basic technology. Governor Gina Raimondo has asked Jamia McDonald to overhaul DCYF. Here she is telling a State Senate task force what they’re up against – just in the child abuse and neglect call center.

“So as a call comes in, we don’t have good technology," McDonald told the task force. "The call takers have to take notes on note pads. And then they have to data enter it. And then it touches four hands before it actually gets to an investigator. And right now the investigators in our child protective division have twice the number of cases they can keep up with on an annual basis. They get 15,000 calls and right now we’re only able to physically get to seven to eight thousand of those investigations.”

McDonald and Raimondo have called in reinforcements from Harvard and elsewhere to guide the turnaround. Meanwhile, caseloads are high, morale is low, and every day, more children and families need help.