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Kids need Permanency (the weakness of group homes)

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Last week I wrote about the place for group homes in a society that is increasingly trying to phase them out. I loved our years of group home work and the relationships we developed with the children and families. But while we have seen good come out of our group home experience, we also were frustrated with the situations of children who ended up in group home placements that were not ideally suited for them. Those kids are part of the reason we are no longer in group home work.

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After years working with kids in crisis and their families, I think the biggest need children have is for permanency. (For the sake of clarity— I am not using the word “permanency” to only refer to adoption. Permanency can mean a timely return to a biological family or guardianship by capable adults willing to make a longterm commitment.) A group home can never fill a child’s need for permanency. It can provide safety, stability, even love and affection through quality houseparents (or other residential staff), but it can’t offer permanency. The turnover rate at most facilities of both staff and students is phenomenally high. Many of the homeless in our state were former group home residents. Once you get out, if you don’t have a relationship with family members or loving staff who want to continue to support you, you are very much on your own on your eighteenth birthday.

We saw children come to us who clearly needed a strong advocate to help them achieve permanency. There was no way they were going to be able to safely reunite with their families, but without someone thinking through their longterm reality they were going to continue on legally connected to a family that couldn’t parent them and without the option of a family that could. We were heartbroken to see children stay with us for years while their parents made no progress towards creating a safe home they could return to. The children struggled with feelings of abandonment by parents who wouldn’t make changes and also feelings of abandonment from residential staff who would leave (and with much regret, we have to include ourselves in that list). While the kids could get safety, love, and their basic needs met, they could not receive the gift of a permanent family through the group home as much as we wanted to provide that for them.

So when we left group home work, we decided to become foster parents. We wanted the ability to provide more intentional care and advocacy for a smaller number of children and hopefully prevent some of the problems we were seeing down the road. Ideally “the system” should be able to be sure a child is getting their needs met (especially their need for permanency) without it being dependent on the involvement of individual foster parents. But the old adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease is as true in the foster care system as it is anywhere else. The problem is that kids are not generally capable of being their own “squeaky wheel” in this scenario.

We see exceptions to this rule in situations like Davion Only’s plea for a family that went viral last year. So many families were moved by his honest words about a child’s need for permanency, but the reality is that Davions exist in every community. If they don’t have someone advocating for them to find a forever family or stepping up to be that forever family, their prospects are pretty bleak. Davion’s story did involve stays in group homes and like so many others, it started when he was fairly young and much more “adoptable”. It becomes harder for kids to achieve permanency after they have reached a certain age or have been bumped through so many homes that they develop behavioral problems and can’t trust anymore. Where was the advocate for Davion when he was born in prison to a mother who would likely never be able to care for him? Where was the advocate for Davion (and the many like him) when his mother was no longer legally responsible for him and he became available for adoption? Why did it take a 15 year-old being his own advocate for the world to listen to the story of a child who needed parents?

Davion’s story is sad for so many reasons and while I hope many have been motivated by it to look into adopting an older teen, I also hope many have been motivated to become the advocates children like Davion need LONG before they reach that point. A good foster parent can make sure children don’t fall through the cracks. They can be that squeaky wheel that makes sure children are receiving the services they need, parents are getting accountability through a case plan, over burdened social workers (with a high turnover rate) are kept informed of a child’s needs and progress. These are tasks that even the best residential staff have a hard time keeping up with when they are dealing with lots of kids who may rotate in and out frequently.

Children who benefit from group home placement are not throw away kids, but they may be children who will have a hard time achieving permanency in a traditional family environment. They may need help with independent living skills and should be connected with a community that can continue to support them once they have aged out of care. Ideally, the church should be stepping up to help fill in that need. Adult adoption is becoming more of a reality as former state wards reconnect with caregivers from earlier in their life or form connections with valued adults when they are old enough to understand the benefits of a family and ready to trust again. These families are built on the terms that work for the adults involved and aren’t dictated by caseworkers or the system. “Permanency” for these kids is going to look unique, but it is still needed.

But for those kids who who haven’t reached that point—for whom a traditional family is still the best fit— we need to be sure we aren’t letting them get lost in group homes. We need to have quality foster parents stepping up to help be sure they get the advocacy they need. For those who can’t foster but have a passion for helping kids find permanency (either through reunification, adoption, or guardianship), we need them as CASAs or involved in whatever their local advocacy group is (in Nebraska the Foster Care Review Office does great work).

Every child needs someone passionate about them. While we hope caseworkers, lawyers and judges will take that on, it isn’t always the case. Foster parents who can focus in on the needs of just a few children can really be sure their voices are being heard. There were a couple children we worked with in our group home who would have benefitted from the targeted care and advocacy of dedicated foster parents. I still to this day think about those boys and wish we could have been the help they needed and been able to offer them permanency. While they have become resourceful and resilient beyond what any person should have to be, I know they will not outgrow the need for a family or the hurts that happened during the years they were passed around. Whatever we can do to prevent that from happening to more children, we want to do. Hopefully that will eliminate the need for kids to ever reach the point where a group home is their last, best option.

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