First Qualitative Research Study of New York City Teens Living in Foster Care Finds...

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Voices of youth and workers show what works and doesn't in group settings, with quality of care a "mixed bag" and dangerous violence from peers and staff.

( New York , November 6, 2003 ) The first comprehensive qualitative research study ever done of teens living in group settings in New York City foster care, released today, found that quality of care for these youth is extremely variable and that teens face an unexpectedly high level of physical danger from violence within congregate care facilities.

The study, conducted by three child advocacy groups, in cooperation with the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), uses interviews with youth, social workers, judges, attorneys, and ACS representatives, among other stakeholders in the child welfare system, to examine the experiences of youth age 12 and over living in group homes, residential treatment centers, maternity facilities, and mother/child facilities. The study found that while ACS is taking measures to improve care in these settings, a greater sense of urgency is needed to reduce reliance on this type of care, to achieve full accountability by ACS and private agencies, and to ensure the safety and well-being of youth.

The three partners in the study-Children's Rights, Lawyers For Children and the Juvenile Rights Division of The Legal Aid Society- came together in an attempt to address concerns about teens in foster care raised in the Marisol v. Giuliani lawsuit and in reports by a panel of national child welfare experts convened after that lawsuit's settlement. The study's findings and recommendations focus on six key areas:

*Placements -appropriateness of congregate care for youth;
*Services -overall quality of services in education, health, and youth development;
*Safety -how physically safe are youth and their belongings while in care;
*Permanency -movement toward reunifying with family, adoption, or independent living;
*Youth involvement -participation in planning and decision-making;
*Transitioning from foster care -efforts to prepare youth to live independently.

Individual interviews and focus groups with youth gave a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard on all these issues throughout the study, including testimony such as:

"[At my group home], they teach you a lot but they teach you a lot of bad things and good things. I learned a lot of awful stuff there that I wouldn't have wanted to learn . . . It was a very weird and mixed experience."

" One staff actually sexually assaulted me and they didn't do nothing about it. And still haven't done nothing about it. [I told] my foster care agency. I told the supervisor. He still works there ."

"Kids don't want to be in the system so . . . girls would get pregnant to leave. Because once you leave you can go to a mother/infant program. From a mother/infant program, you can move to a Section 8 apartment. So, I got pregnant there . . ."

"This study makes clear that youth are not faring well in foster care in New York City and that steps must be taken immediately to ensure their safety and welfare," stated Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights, a national non-profit advocacy group for children.

Safety was an issue that came up repeatedly in the interview with all the stakeholders in the system. One youth reported that, " I got raped in that group home. And when I told staff what happened, they said, 'oh, no that didn't happen. You are a faggot."

"Of deep concern is the study's finding that young people simply are not safe in many group and residential care settings," stated Madelyn Freundlich, Policy Director at Children's Rights and author of the report. "The physical violence and intimidation they face are unacceptable and must be rectified as a critical first step in improving the quality of foster care for youth."

Monica Drinane, Attorney-in-Charge of the Juvenile Rights Division of The Legal Aid Society observed that, "Young people in foster care are dumped out of the system. Transitioning from foster care is a real problem because most of our adolescent clients are not involved in planning their future; they leave foster care without a home to go to, without connections to families and without necessary skills and training. We are hopeful the City recognizes the sense of urgency in this study and its recommendations."

Karen Freedman, Executive Director of Lawyers For Children, stated, "The study gives the public a unique look at the experience of adolescents in foster care in New York City , and issues a call to action to the Administration for Children's Services. The findings clearly document the many ways that the foster care system fails teens by providing inadequate care, depriving them of the programs and services to which they are entitled, and robbing our communities of thousands of bright, productive young people. The report recommends that ACS immediately move away from its current punitive, control-based, congregate care model of foster care for adolescents, towards a youth oriented, service-rich, family-centered model. ACS has an opportunity to act swiftly and decisively to replicate successful existing programs in order to change a dysfunctional system that fails more and more adolescents with each passing day. "


Among key findings from interviews with the young adults and professional stakeholders were:

Placements for Youth in Congregate Care

In general, congregate care does not work well for youth as it does not provide a "family-like" setting and fails to meet the service and permanency needs of youth.

The quality of current congregate care settings for youth is extremely variable with facilities being, in the words of one respondent, "a mixed bag."

Staff quality is critical to quality of congregate care placements but is frequently quite poor.

Services for Youth in Congregate Care

Quality services for youth in congregate care generally are not readily available.
There is a lack of focus on education for youth in congregate care.

Mental health services are seriously lacking for youth in foster care, in general, and youth in community-based group homes, in particular.

The Safety of Youth in Congregate Care

Youth often are not personally safe in congregate care settings as a result of peer-on-peer violence and gang-related activity.

Stealing of youth's belongings is a pervasive problem in congregate care.

Safety for youth is closely tied to having a sufficient number of adequately trained staff.
Permanency for Youth in Congregate Care

Overall, the quality of permanency planning is poor for youth in congregate care.
Reunification of youth with their parents is undermined by the failure of congregate care facilities to work closely with families and encourage parent-youth visits.

Inadequate attention is given to identifying extended family members and other caring adults who can be permanent resources for youth in congregate care.

Youth Involvement

Youth are not adequately involved in planning and decision-making on matters that directly affect them.

Youth involvement in Service Plan Reviews (SPRs) is very limited.

Youth are not given opportunities to participate at court hearings regarding their cases.

Transitioning from Care

Youth are not being adequately prepared to transition from foster care to living independently as adults.

Housing is particularly problematic for youth who leave care with a goal of independent living.
Youth who age out of foster care at age of 18 (or older in some cases) are educationally disadvantaged and that limitation has a significant impact on their success as adults.


1: ACS must reduce its reliance on congregate care and develop family-based placements for youth in foster care.

Recruitment must focus on identifying families who want to care for teens, who enjoy working with teens, and who have experience parenting teens.

Foster families with whom youth are placed must be provided with enhanced financial and service supports.

Practice must be changed so that caseworkers recognize the value of family for youth.

2: ACS must redesign congregate care so that it functions as a service-based, family-like model that ensures the safety and well-being of youth .

Congregate care facilities must be safe environments for youth in care.

The staff of congregate care facilities must be appropriately screened, trained, and supervised so that they provide youth with the structure, support, and guidance that they need.

Youth in congregate care must be thoroughly prepared to transition from care to life outside the foster care system.

3: ACS and the private agencies that provide congregate care must be held fully accountable for the outcomes that are - and are not - achieved. ACS must:

Develop contracts with private agencies that include outcome measures that are specific to the needs of youth in congregate care.
Monitor agencies' performance on outcome measures.

Use data measuring outcome achievement and performance to make decisions regarding continuation of contracts with private agencies
The study was carried out with support from The Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Alice Rosenwald, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, New York Community Trust, The DeCamp Foundation, The Hite Foundation, and Roche Relief Fund.

Children's Rights is a national non-profit organization working throughout the United States in partnership with advocates, experts, policy analysts and government officials to address the needs of children dependent on child welfare systems for protection and care. Children's Rights develops realistic solutions and, where necessary, uses the power of the courts to make sure the rights of these children are recognized and that reform takes place. 404 Park Avenue south, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10010 (212)683-2210)

The Legal Aid Society is the nation's largest and oldest provider of legal services to poor people. The Juvenile Rights Division provides comprehensive representation as law guardians to children who appear before the New York City Family Court in child protective, juvenile delinquency and other proceedings affecting children's rights and welfare. In 2002, attorneys and social workers represented more than 33,000 children, including approximately 29,000 in child protective matters. The organization's representation of adolescents in foster care includes assistance with all matters related to their placements as well as their transition out of care 304 Park Avenue South, 6th Floor, New York, New York 10010, (212) 420-6200

Lawyers For Children, Inc. founded in 1984, provides free legal and social work services to children before the courts in foster care, abuse and neglect, termination of parental rights, and custody proceedings. LFC's experience in providing direct services to over 30,000 children has led to a ten year long commitment to system wide reform through impact litigation and innovative projects which enhance LFC's ability to advocate for and protect the rights of children in foster care. 110 Lafayette Street New York , New York 10013 (212) 966-6420
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