J. (who can't be named because he is a minor) was 3 years old when he came into Department of Children and Families care. He had been sexually abused in his home and was placed in emergency custody. Clinical research says that it's vital children such as J. be placed in a family setting quickly so they can be nurtured by a consistent caregiver.
But J. went to a group home and stayed there for 79 days until a judge mandated a foster family be found for him.
J's case is not unusual.
In Connecticut, young children placed in group homes may to stay for months before being placed with a family that can provide stability and comfort. At any time, there are almost two dozen abused or neglected children under age 5 living in group homes. They are cared for by staff members on multiple shifts and might not know who is going to tuck them into bed or be there when they wake up.
This is why there is virtually unanimous consent among child-development experts that such homes do not meet the needs of young children.
Fortunately, a bill before the General Assembly would prevent the use of group home placements for children under 5, unless the child needs complicated health care that cannot be given in a family setting. State child welfare advocates, including the Office of the Child Advocate, the Center for Children's Advocacy, Connecticut Voices for Children and the Commission on Child Protection, as well as the Department of Children and Families, support the measure.
DCF is undergoing exciting changes under a new administration that is looking for fresh solutions to seemingly intractable problems. One of those changes must be a shift away from group homes, and there is much evidence to support this effort.
A 2002 study led by the University of Maryland looked at the effect of group care on infants and toddlers. It concluded that even when the group home was small and well staffed, group care was "associated with negative effects on [children's] development and social-emotional functioning." The study concluded that "young children should not be placed in such facilities, be they large or small."
Connecticut's evaluation, in 2005, of the use of group homes for young children at the time of DCF placement showed that despite the best efforts, these placements did nothing to promote stability for children. Furthermore, the study showed that using group home placements at the time of entry into care was a failure when it came to increasing family reunification rates, shortening the duration of children's time in state custody or preventing re-abuse after care.
Many of the people who run group homes disagree with the proposed bill. They work tirelessly to provide care for abused and neglected children but, in the case of infants and toddlers, the research is clear that group facilities are inappropriate. The data suggest, however, that these facilities might be important for children who have behavioral or medical needs that preclude a family placement.
Beyond the research saying a shift away from group homes for young children is imperative, there is another reason to make the change. Connecticut is feeling the pinch of hard economic times. The 2005 Connecticut evaluation showed that group care for young children costs more than $200 per day — money better spent recruiting and supporting foster and relative homes to care for these vulnerable children.
Sarah Healy Eagan is a lawyer and director of the Child Abuse Project at the Center for Children's Advocacy. Martha Stone is a lawyer and executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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