STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Group homes most expensive, least caring option for kids in foster care

Riccardo Bandlera

Many kids in foster care (as many as 1 in 5 but more on the numbers later) don't live with a foster family, but instead live in something called a "group home." It's a form of institutional or residential placement that I know from personal experience is NO place to grow up. The white, concrete walls resemble a jail cell more than a bedroom and there are rules against giving other people hugs. Yes, you read that correctly - not even hugs are allowed under the "no physical contact" rule that still exists in some group homes today. 

Kids benefit from a parental figure at every stage of their life – something a group home can’t provide, and certain kids are more likely to miss out on this by being placed in a group home setting. Boys are more likely than girls to be put in group homes, and teenagers more than young kids. The same goes for kids of color compared to white kids. 

Jaylon C., a 19-year-old sophomore at Saginaw Valley State University, said he didn't get much attention when he lived in a group home. “I didn’t like being there. It wasn’t somewhere I wanted to ever be again.” Jaylon says from his perspective, group homes are a last resort. “This is where kids go when no one can help them.”

What's going on with these numbers?

The recent KidsCount report says almost 18% of Michigan kids in foster care are in group home settings, more than the national average. Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services on the other hand, says that number is closer to 6%, or 845 kids, much less than the national average. 

DHHS says about 1,200 kids in the juvenile justice system in Wayne County are included in the Kids Count numbers, which would account for a lot of the discrepancy. Either way, there are many kids in foster care not living in a family setting, even though that would be best for their development. 

Group homes are not families

“Treatment must be customized,” says Cameron Hosner, the Executive Director of the Judson Center. He’s the former president of Vista Maria, a group home in Wayne County, but he says these are not ideal placements for most kids because they can't provide the kind of individual attention kids need. 

Justin M., who was in a couple group homes when he was in foster care, agrees, “The group home is worried about 20 to 40 kids and ensuring all their needs are met. A family [placement] might need to worry about 3 to 4 youth.” Justin, who is now in college, says the structure of a group home makes things like getting a drivers license – a typical milestone for teenagers - nearly impossible. When staff are so busy trying to manage a huge group of kids, one kid's needs gets pushed aside. This can lead to many kids leaving group homes ill-prepared for adulthood. 

Group homes cost more than families, too – a lot more 

Group placements cost 7 to 10 times more than placing a child with a family. Although kids shouldn’t be in group homes for more than 3-6 months, the average time for Michigan kids is 7 months, according to DHHS.

If group homes are so bad for kids, how do they end up there?

Sometimes, they’re the safest option. There are kids who can benefit from around the clock care, especially when dealing with the effects of extreme trauma. That care can be lifesaving for kids who need it, but not too many kids do. More than 40% of kids in group homes don’t have a documented reason to be there.    

Jaylon says his foster care worker used group homes as a threat. He was told that he had one last shot to improve his behavior – which Jaylon admits was a problem back then – or else “the boy’s home is where I would be put and that’s where I would stay.”

Group homes themselves aren’t always safe. Jaylon said being there was scary. “You have all these kids clustered in one area, and you don’t know who reacts to what,” he said. Kids who have dealt with a lot of trauma and abuse can be triggered by something another kid says. Fights would break out. “You come up to somebody and if they wanted to fight me or something, I couldn’t really defend myself.”

Another reason kids end up in group homes is because there isn’t anywhere else for them to go. There aren’t enough foster parents, especially those willing to open their home to teenagers and kids with a history of behavioral issues. Hosner says more resources are needed for foster families so they’re prepared to take those kinds of kids, because “every kid deserves a family.”

There's not an easy solution   

“In the vast majority of cases, children live with foster families (often their relatives) until a permanent home is found,” says Bob Wheaton of DHHS. “Michigan has successfully reduced the percentage of foster youths in group homes in recent years.” But the court monitors that watch over Michigan's foster care system say that depending so heavily on relatives that aren't licensed foster care families, instead of group homes, also puts kids at risk. The monitors say "a disproportionate number of foster children living in unlicensed relative homes suffer from maltreatment."

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