Levi Zwick-Tapley first entered foster care when he was 3, after police found him rummaging through the trash at a campground in Iowa. He was adopted — briefly — when he was 10. But then his adoptive mother, struggling with issues of her own, gave him up for good.
So Zwick-Tapley spent his teen years bouncing from group home to group home, ricocheting between Iowa and Colorado. After he aged out of foster care, he worked in a group home because he wanted to help kids like him.
Group homes, he said, aren’t a home. They’re a “holding facility.”
“Just imagine loving your family and thinking there is nothing wrong with your family,” Zwick-Tapley, now 22, said. “Then getting ripped from there to a weird place where doors are locked, there are mandated showers, mandated meal times and you’re put on medication without being asked if you want medication.”
Only 58% of foster teens live with a family, compared with 95% of kids 12 and under, according to recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. And now the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, which became law last year, has put states under increasing pressure to find foster families for teens.
Beginning in October, the federal government will no longer pay for a child of any age to stay in a group home longer than two weeks, with certain exceptions. They include teens who are pregnant or parenting and children in round-the-clock residential treatment programs for mental health, drug addiction or behavioral issues.
Some states have made great strides in placing teens with families. The ones that have not face a daunting challenge.
There aren’t enough foster families, and many who might be willing to take in a younger child don’t feel equipped to deal with a traumatized teen. For overburdened caseworkers, it’s often easier to place a teen in a group home with a proven track record, as opposed to vetting a foster family.
“Workers are conditioned to think it’s safer” for the children, said Joette Katz, until recently the commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Children and Families. “And let’s face it, it’s a lot easier.”
For a caseworker who may have seven teens to oversee, Katz said, placing them all in the same group home is “one-stop shopping.”
“Teens can be challenging under the best of circumstances,” she said. “These kids have been to hell and back. The notion they’re going to come in and behave like Little Orphan Annie is absurd.”
Not surprisingly, states that have the most group homes are most likely to use them, said Robert Geen, director of policy reform and advocacy at the Casey Foundation. In Colorado, which has the lowest rate of foster kids living with families, 31% of foster children reside in 120 congregate care facilities. Neighboring Nebraska, with a population one-third of Colorado’s, has only 24 group homes, and only 7% of the foster children in that state live in them.
“I think the worst part is we are preventing our teens from the love, belonging and security that being part of a family offers,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a children’s advocacy group based in San Francisco. Rodriguez lived in group homes for six years.
Most child welfare officials agree. Still, some argue that there are children, particularly those with behavioral or mental health issues, who need the structure and supervision of group homes.
The official term for children living in an institutional setting is “congregate care,” and that term encompasses several different housing situations. Group homes typically house 7 to 12 children, plus adult supervisors.
“For some of our young people, it’s about experiencing a sense of belonging, living with people who are going through the same thing that they are,” said Tanya Trice, who oversees foster care placement with the Child and Family Services Agency in the District of Columbia.
Even so, she said, the goal is to place them in a family-like setting, and the city strives to match teens with foster parents whenever it can.
Forty-one percent of foster youth 13 to 17 are placed in a group home as soon as they are removed from their parents, according to a 2015 report by the Center for State Child Welfare Data at the University of Chicago.
In most cases, it isn’t that there has been an emergency, such as a parent dying or being arrested, Rodriguez said. Typically, a caseworker has had multiple contacts with the teen’s family and ample opportunity to find a suitable family or willing relatives, she said. Instead, a caseworker may use a group home as a temporary placeholder and end up leaving the teen there.
In recent years, some states have tried a number of tactics to successfully cut the number of foster teens living in group homes.
In D.C., child welfare officials encourage foster parents to support each other. And this summer, foster parents will host gatherings to recruit more foster families. Between 2007 and 2017, there was a 17-point increase in the rate of foster children living with families.
Meanwhile, Connecticut cut the number of teens in group homes by three-quarters, from 1,200 in 2011 to 300 in 2019, state data shows.
Officials did it by trying a variety of things: They allowed extended family members with past histories of drug addiction or nonviolent criminal records, as long as they weren’t on the child abuse or sex offenders’ registries. They recruited foster parents from the LGTBQ community to care for teens who were grappling with their sexual identity. They created therapeutic programs for traumatized kids, particularly sexually abused kids.
And they let foster teens market themselves, producing their own YouTube video to recruit new parents.
National child welfare advocates hailed Katz’s initiatives. But in Connecticut, some pushed back against them. Leonard Fasano, the Republican minority leader of the Connecticut Senate, pushed for Katz to resign.
He argued for outside oversight of the agency and said Katz closed a group home with as little as three days’ notice and without an adequate plan for displaced children, the Hartford Courant reported. Katz maintained that she never closed group homes without first finding a suitable replacement for the children.
Overworked caseworkers resisted her efforts, afraid of losing their jobs should something happen to a child under their supervision, Katz said.
Katz implemented a policy that caseworkers had to make a compelling case for placing a teen in a group home, such as they needed treatment after being sexually abused and were behaving inappropriately or abusing other children. And that meant in some instances, she had to sign off on every group home placement.
Between 2007 and 2017, Rhode Island increased the rate of foster kids living with families from 60% to 80%, the nation’s largest jump.
Around four years ago, state child welfare officials began working closely with seasoned caseworkers to convince them of the need to place children in families and to carefully assess which children needed to be placed in group homes and which ones didn’t, said Trista Piccola, director of the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families.
The best way to reduce the number of kids in group homes, Piccola said, “is don’t put kids in there who don’t belong there.”
“It was sanctioned practice to put kids in group homes,” Piccola said. “Nobody thought they were doing anything wrong. But now we need to do a course correction.”
Some children needed the kind of intensive therapy found in some group homes — and became ready with counseling to “step down” to a family setting, she said. And many of the teens in group care were black and Latino, Piccola said, a disparity she was determined to change.
For teens coming into foster care, if the state couldn’t immediately find an extended family member to step up, “the luck of the draw was you would end up in a group home,” said Lisa Guillette, executive director for Foster Forward, a nonprofit based in East Providence that supports people who’ve been involved in the foster care system.
After identifying the kids who didn’t need to be in group care, that meant finding families for them. Last year, the state held a weekend boot camp to speed up the 30-hour licensing process for prospective foster families. Rhode Island was able to license close to a hundred families from that weekend, according to Kerri White, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families.
This year, Piccola decided to spend the summer finding foster homes for the remaining hundred children who do not belong in group care. That means working with the teens themselves, to assure them that they are part of the process and that they have a say in where they will ultimately end up. She gave her staff a 90-day deadline.
In New Jersey, biological and foster parents can summon a mobile response team when facing a crisis with their teen. Within an hour, the team shows up to help defuse the situation and provide counseling.
Since its inception in 2004, 94% of children whose foster or biological parents used the service stayed in the same living situation, according to a Casey Foundation study. In 2011, 402 teens were living in group homes; in 2018, it was 219, according to the Rutgers University Child Welfare Data Hub.
The state also was able to reduce the number of kids in group homes by recruiting extended family members; placing siblings together; targeting specific communities such as churches and military families; and using an online tool to match kids’ specific needs to available families. Caseworkers check in regularly with foster parents to ensure things are going well, and foster parents can get ongoing training.
Fewer kids are getting kicked out of foster homes and placed in congregate care, said Christine Norbut Beyer, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.
“It has really helped families feel like they have support, they can manage their child’s behavior,” Beyer said.