Today there are more than 5,000 children in foster care in Arkansas, but only about 1,600 foster family homes are available to serve them, according to the Arkansas Department of Human Services. So the demand for foster homes is greater than the supply.
Group homes have been used as an alternative to fill the void. There are large group homes and small, family-style homes, such as Agape House in El Dorado and Sunshine House in Fordyce.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law enacted in February 2018, is being implemented and one of the unfortunate consequences of the act is the closure of smaller, family-style group homes that serve children unable to find placement in an actual home setting.
The act places emphasis on keeping families together and preventative services aimed at avoiding the need for children to enter foster care. Family First allows states to utilize federal dollars previously restricted to paying for foster care to also provide prevention services for families with children at risk.
These services include substance use disorder treatment, mental health services, and in-home parenting supports. By providing evidence-based services to caregivers and children, Family First is devised to reduce the number of children entering foster care and safely keep families together, according to the Family First website (https://familyfirstact.org/).
This act supports families, which is wonderful. If families can receive services to keep them together, the stressors and trauma of separation can be avoided. But what about those who can’t be assisted by the preventative measures? And you know there will be many of those cases. The children will need foster care — and there is a shortage of available homes … . And the group homes are closing because the act shifted their funding source to other services.
Under Family First, federal foster care dollars for group care placements exceeding 14 days must meet or fall within one of several categories of quality placement settings: a residential family-based substance use treatment program serving parents and children together; specialized programs serving pregnant and parenting teens; treatment programs serving victims of sex trafficking; independent living placements for children 18 and older; and Qualified Residential Treatment Programs.
“A Qualified Residential Treatment Program will have to meet basic quality standards, such as accreditation and licensing, use of a trauma-informed treatment model, the presence of nursing and clinical staff in accordance with that treatment model, and the provision of support services for six months after the child leaves the program,” according to familyfirstact.org. “In addition. the law also requires that the courts regularly review the appropriateness of a child’s placement with the goal of transitioning to a family setting as soon as possible.”
All of these things are good initiatives. But Family First may fail to provide supports for what could amount to thousands of children, should these preventative services not work.
According to the most recent federal data, there are currently more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States. There was an estimated 437,465 children in foster care on September 30, 2016, Child Welfare Information Gateway reports. Five percent or almost 22,000 of those children were living in group homes.
Remember now, only 1,600 foster homes are available in Arkansas — and there are 5,000 in need. Preventive services take time. Where will children whose homes are unsuitable go in the interim?
I don’t think large institutional environments are healthy for children, but smaller group homes with house parents are a good option when enough foster homes are unavailable. And states typically lack enough fosters and people willing to adopt, as DHS noted. There needs to be a small group home option for care, especially when you consider the fact some foster placements and family reunification efforts don’t work out. Hopefully, Congress will revisit the topic.
Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.