A recent article appearing in Youth Today addressed the new legislation that is taking effect and intended to reform the foster care system in California, AB403. The writers stress that the aim of the law is to preserve families at all costs; children should be removed from their homes only if absolutely necessary and if so, for only a short period of time. The article also reports on the utilization of “wraparound” programs that “wrap” a child and family with an individualized set of services. As a provider of an array of services for children and families who have experienced trauma, Hillsides agrees with the intent of AB 403 to support a foster care system that is family-centered, child-focused and driven by long-term stability for both child and family.
The idea I disagree with, expressed in this story and others, is the generalization of group homes. The article — and others — presents them as ineffective, poorly staffed, and self-interested. The challenge for residential treatment centers like Hillsides is that, although characterized as a group home, we are the opposite of these negative characteristics. Hillsides is a national accredited institution, requiring our staff to meet education and licensing requirements, adhere to best practices and evidence-based treatment models, and comply with all funding and state requirements. The same rigor could be applied to other group homes.
There is no question that children are best served in their homes, with their families, supported by their communities. AB 403 recognizes this and will transform the foster care system over the next few years in such a way as to reduce the number of children separated from their families while developing an array of services that will provide a clear pathway to a stable and long-term solution for them.
Hillsides is committed to being an effective resource for both children and families until they are reunited, which is evidenced by our participation in a pilot program that is a precursor to AB403. Essential to reducing the amount of time a child is in the therapeutic treatment program is the ability of the family to be prepared to welcome the child home. Our experience in this pilot demonstrates that often families, though willing, take longer to be prepared to receive their children back than it takes to stabilize a child. Unless a safe environment can be assured, additional services such as resource families, otherwise known as foster families, must also be part of an array of services. These resource families will provide an appropriate setting for children who no longer need a structured therapeutic program while their families continue to prepare for reunification. Recruitment of these resource homes, given the severe shortage of foster families in Los Angeles County, will be a critical element in the success of AB 403.
For too long the foster care system understandably has been the object of skepticism. Strategies favoring the elimination of all congregate care (group home placements) versus the long-term out-of-home care of children have divided the child welfare field. While the debate has gone on, children and families have been poorly served by a system not sufficiently focused on them. AB 403 offers an opportunity to assume the best intentions of all parties engaged in the care of children in the foster care system. Aside from the resolve to best serve these most vulnerable children and families, what is needed are the resources to fund adequately this emerging reform.
The pilot Hillsides has been participating in over the last six years has proven to being very effective. It has reduced the amount of time children are separated from their families, enabling families to reunify and securing community-based services to support these children and families long term. The commitment of time, talent, and financial resources by each of the pilot agencies is an indicator of the providers’ resolve to be transformed to provide the most effective care to those we serve. The transformation of the foster care system is a gargantuan task, and will require years before effective change is achieved. In order for AB403 to be successful, it must be embraced by all providers. Let’s hope that it is.