Older Children, Bigger Hurdles
Foderaro, Lisa. New York Times, June 8, 2008.
Eight months into New York City's bold experiment of moving hundreds of troubled teenagers out of group homes and into foster care, the system is stretched so thin that many involved say they are having trouble making thoughtful matches between foster parents and their charges. Some child-welfare experts are worried they may soon be unable to recruit enough qualified foster parents, while others say the city has moved too slowly in putting support systems in place to help these older children flourish in private homes.
"It's a good direction, but the problem is that we're implementing the plan before the infrastructures are all in place," said Bill Baccaglini, executive director of the New York Foundling, one of the largest of about three dozen private foster care agencies that contract with the city to find and monitor homes. "We run the risk of burning out our foster parents and losing them."
Stephen McCall, a consultant who runs a support group for foster parents, said he fielded a frantic call in May from a New York City police officer he had helped persuade to foster her 19-year-old godson. She suspected he was smoking marijuana with friends in her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. "She said, 'I don't know if I can do this,' " Mr. McCall said.
A 61-year-old psychotherapist said that a year ago, after raising four children of her own, she welcomed a 17-year-old boy into her home on the Upper West Side with the intention of adopting him. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because she wanted to shield her private life from her clients and protect the boy, she said that the teenager had been physically abused when he was younger, was "emotionally no older than 12 or 13" and consistently lied to her. He moved out in March.
Even Mary Chancie, an experienced adoptive parent who recruits foster parents on behalf of the nonprofit agency You Gotta Believe, lasted only six months with two teenage boys she took in. One, age 13, had a behavior disorder and went to live with a sister; the other, 19, was "disrespectful to family members in the house," Ms. Chancie said.
"He was a nice kid and we still have a relationship," she said. "But he had challenges I wasn't equipped to deal with at the time."
Robert H. Gutheil, executive director of Episcopal Social Services, another private foster care agency that contracts with New York City, said his organization usually has 10 to 15 foster families awaiting children, but "typically, in the best case, only one to three of those would be willing to take a teenager."
With the city's Administration for Children's Services having promised to move 700 to 1,100 children out of so-called residential care -- group homes and larger institutions -- and into foster homes by June 2009, that may not be enough.
"It's the right principle and policy, but principles and policies need to meet kids where they are on every single day," said James F. Purcell, executive director of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, an umbrella organization that represents foster care agencies. "And we need to pay constant attention to that -- that we don't let a policy direction that says 'less residential' become the reality if, in fact, that's not what the kid needs."
New York -- which has long had a higher proportion of teenagers in institutional settings than other large cities, according to John B. Mattingly, commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services -- is among several places nationwide prioritizing a push toward private foster homes. National studies show that in general, children in private homes have fewer problems as adults than those in group homes.
As the total number of children in the city's care has dropped to 17,000 from 19,000 over the past four years, the proportion in institutions has also dipped, to 15 percent from 19 percent, according to figures provided by the children's services agency. The average age of the foster care population is 10 1/2, while those in institutional care average 16. Children in New York State can remain in foster care until age 21.
The city's most recent initiative to reduce the current institutional population of about 2,500 to as few as 1,500 comes on top of similar efforts. In 2005, the city finished closing its own 250-bed network of group homes. And in 2004, Children's Village, a private nonprofit agency that contracts with the city and houses 280 children in cottages on a 150-acre campus in Westchester County, decided to redouble its efforts to find homes for teenage residents rather than maintain its longstanding practice of keeping them until they turn 21.
Mr. Mattingly said the key is to place teenagers in private homes immediately on being removed from their families, because otherwise they often languish forgotten in institutions.
"The basic experience we have in the field, and research supports this, is that if you work at it, you can place teens at the very get-go in foster families," Mr. Mattingly said. "Those foster families sometimes will need additional supports, not always, and the young people will do better and achieve permanency more quickly if placed at the outset with a family."
But the challenges of placing teenagers only grow more complicated as the numbers dwindle, since those left behind tend to have more physical, behavioral, emotional, psychological or learning problems. Some were badly abused and further traumatized by bouncing from foster home to foster home.
"Good, solid, healthy teens have issues in the best of families," said Mr. Gutheil, of Episcopal Social Services. "But these are not run-of-the-mill, 'I'm in a bad mood today' adolescents. These are kids who have gone through some pretty rugged times. The notion that an adult is somehow going to take control of their lives is very difficult for them."
To address these issues, the Administration for Children's Services has created nearly 1,000 so-called therapeutic foster homes, which come with extra counseling services, as well as crisis-management support and more training for parents. The city has also relaxed its rules regarding kinship placement, allowing a godparent, coach or family friend to take in a child.
And foster care agencies have begun to tailor their recruiting pitches at churches and street fairs to play up the benefits of fostering a teenager, including the freedom from diaper changes and sleep deprivation. Among the most effective tools has been including a panel of teenagers who need homes in the 10-week training of prospective parents: Mr. Mattingly said that while perhaps 7 percent start out willing to take in teenagers, by the end, 25 percent raise their hands.
"One lady called after attending a panel and talked about one young man who she said had an amazing self-deprecating humor," recalled Jeremy C. Kohomban, the president and chief executive officer of Children's Village. "She ended up taking him."
Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School and editor of Child Welfare Watch, a policy journal, said that some of the planned reductions of children in residential care would be achieved through attrition, as young people age out of the system at 21.
The current challenges were foreshadowed by the experience of Children's Village, which found this year that over three years, only half of 69 charges age 13 to 20 settled successfully with families. The story of the other half is sprinkled in shorthand across an agency tracking spreadsheet. Angel, 18: "Severe Psych Issues. AWOL from Hosp & now incarcerated." David, 19: "Severe Psych issues: not ready." Claude, 16: "Goal to be changed."
"It's not that residential has no place in the continuum, but it can't be a permanent solution, and in the past it has become that," Dr. Kohomban said. "Organizationally, we have to be eternally optimistic that there's always a family. All of us look at these kids and say, 'There's a family for you.' When kids lose hope, they're impossible to treat."
Dr. Kohomban said that as hard as his staff tried, the cottages on his Dobbs Ferry campus, which house 12 to 14 boys each, could not replace the experience of a private home. "We take boys who have been arrested multiple times and get them into employment," he said. "But the one thing we can't do in residential care is we can't create family. The dynamics of family life have to be experienced -- the negotiating, the setting of limits, the good, the bad. I can't create the values of being a brother or a son or responsible boyfriend."
Richard Hucke, deputy director of foster home services for the Jewish Child Care Association, is one of many in the field who want the city to create more therapeutic foster homes, in which the parents also receive a much higher monthly payment, called a board fee, to help cover the expense of housing a foster child.
(According to the Administration for Children's Services, the board rate for a child 12 or older is $662.70 a month, compared with $486.30 for a child under 6, and the $901.50 annual clothing allowance for a foster child of 16 is about quadruple that for a 4-year-old. Those with special needs get a board rate of $1,065 to $1,614.60 a month.)
Mr. Hucke said that his agency, another contractor, is hamstrung because the city gives it only enough money for 96 therapeutic homes, though it has trained more parents to run such homes. "I have therapeutic homes that are sitting empty," he said.
In the meantime, his is one of many agencies that have become more aggressive and creative in recruiting new foster parents since the city's focus shifted to placing teenagers. It offers a finder's fee of $500 for each new household that current foster parents recruit, and is planning a cruise around Manhattan on Thursday to woo new foster parents and thank current ones.
On Friday morning, representatives of the Jewish Child Care Association set up a table brimming with brochures outside a mental health forum at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx in the hope of reaching out to potential parents with a grounding in some of the children's challenges.
"Those are professionals, and those are the people we really want to target," Mr. Hucke said.
Beverly Mills, a case manager for a city-run shelter for homeless families who stopped by, said she lives alone and has plenty of room. She said she would like to do her part to help disadvantaged young people, explaining that "sometimes when they're not raised correctly, they come out here and do bad things." But Ms. Mills, who has a 30-year-old son, drew a line at adolescents.
"I would take someone up to 11 or 12 because they're still impressionable," she said. "You can still grab them and guide them so they can go through school and go through college."
As a success story, Children's Village points to Juan Molina, 17, who in another time and place would have simply been called an orphan. After a decade of searching, Juan found a family in the form of Henry Greene, a 71-year-old retiree who had already adopted eight boys, most of them teenagers at the time, now successfully launched into the world. They began spending time together last fall, and Juan moved into Mr. Greene's apartment in the Parkchester section of the Bronx in March. Mr. Greene, Juan's foster father now, has started the process of adoption.
Juan was 7 when he was taken from his father, who he said was an alcoholic, and his mother, who was sick with cancer. After bouncing around among foster families, he landed in Children's Village at 11, though he said he ran away and lived with a friend in Brooklyn for a couple of years.
Until Mr. Greene entered his life, Juan had given up hope of being someone's son. "Ever since my mom passed away, I never thought I'd find a family," he said. Of Mr. Greene's decision to adopt him, he added: "It was awesome. He cares about me and talks to me like a father. I feel like I finally got this."