Recently a 10-year-old resident experienced a crisis characterized by threats to run away and a manic episode of constant activity. This is a child who has experienced great trauma in his brief life, has been hospitalized numerous times, and requires the kind of attention and care that only a place like Hillsides can provide. Just a few weeks ago while in Washington, D.C. for the bi-annual conference of the Child Welfare League of America, I met with key staff members of California legislators to advocate for the needs of this young boy and others like him who are desperate for care. Yet their care is threatened by legislation being drafted that would limit the treatment of children, under the age of 13, to 15 days.
Influenced by stories of failed foster care services, ill-motivated foster parents, and abysmal long-term outcomes, some would suggest that no child should be placed outside their home and the only remedy is early intervention and prevention services. It is hard to argue that children should be anywhere but with their families. However, the harsh reality is that some families, in spite of the best intentions, are challenged to safely care for their children. Poverty, addiction, and mental illness can destroy a family, leaving children traumatized and requiring significant resources to be reunited in some fashion successfully. If only effective treatment could be delivered in 15 days. For many who we serve, 15 days is much too short. The cost of caring for a child in a residential treatment facility is considerable and early intervention would certainly be more cost-effective. However, for children and families who, for whatever reason, did not receive prevention services, treatment away from their families for a period of time has been very effective at stabilizing a child in crisis, securing a comprehensive assessment, and engaging all interested parties to develop a plan for family reunification, if indicated.
But for politicians wedded to the notion of cost neutrality, the only way to fund early intervention and prevention services is to cut programs that serve children like our 10-year-old resident to free up funding for less expensive early interventions.
The system of care in the United States must have a full and robust array of services to effectively address the needs of all vulnerable children and their families. Artificial and arbitrary limits on the number of days in care will only place children and families who are in desperate need for a comprehensive approach at further risk.
California has a very supportive congressional delegation that raises a consistent voice on behalf of the children and families we serve. Visiting with their staff was to some extent like preaching to the choir. Still, our hope is our respective elected representatives may convince other legislators to avoid the pitfall of an easy financial fix while making a poor situation worse and further jeopardizing the long-term well-being of both children and family members.