DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. (AP) - In many ways, Children’s Village resembles an idyllic college campus, with its abundant open spaces, handsome buildings, brand-new activities center and Olympic-size pool.
Yet the child-welfare professionals who run the 180-acre complex in this New York City suburb are committed to a seemingly paradoxical goal: They want fewer foster children settling in to make the residential cottages their home.
“The longer kids stay in institutions, the less capable they are of reintegrating into society,” said Children's Village CEO Jeremy Kohomban. “We need to use the residential system as a short-term emergency room, then get kids back to the community.”
At the forefront of a nationwide effort to improve the foster care system, Kohomban and his team have steadily shifted the focus of Children’s Village, which was founded in 1851. The Dobbs Ferry campus now has fewer than 100 beds set aside for foster children, down from 275 in 2004.
Over the same period, the charity’s caseload of children receiving community-based services - in their own neighborhoods throughout greater New York - has risen from 1,367 to more than 4,400. These services range from in-home therapy for some troubled kids to parenting classes for their mothers and fathers.
That shift of mission reflects a growing consensus within the child-welfare field that institutional settings for foster children - while sometimes necessary - should be used sparingly. With varying success, most states have tried to move in that direction, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, recently proposed a bill that would cut off federal funding for long-term placements in group homes.
Hatch says youths in group homes are often targeted by sex traffickers and pimps. Other problems include abuse by staff, youth-on-youth sex abuse, overuse of psychotropic medication, and restrictive rules that prompt many youths to run away.
Even an acclaimed facility like Children’s Village has disadvantages.
“We can help kids who were traumatized - we can stabilize you, treat you,” said Kohomban. “But we can’t teach you to be a brother, a sister… The best place is always with your family or extended family.”
According to the latest national statistics, there were 397,000 children in foster care as of September 2012, including 58,000 - or 15 percent - in some form of institutional setting. There are two main forms of group care - residential treatment centers like Children’s Village which accommodate children with serious emotional or behavioral problems, and group homes housing other children for whom no foster family can be found.
As recently as 1999, there were more than 100,000 children in group care, about 18 percent of that year’s foster care population of 567,000. In the ensuing 15 years, most states have shortened stays in foster care, expedited adoptions and expanded preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed from home in the first place.
While pleased that group-care numbers have fallen, many child-welfare activists and members of Congress want the trend to accelerate. They accept the need for some residential treatment centers but they would like to phase out the use of other group homes.
“In congregate care, children are cut off,” said Celeste Bodner, who advocates for foster youth as head of a nonprofit called Foster Club. “They deserve to continue their childhood in as normal a setting as possible, instead of pulling them out and sticking them in a bubble separated from the people they know and love.”
To lower their group-care numbers, states have two main options: providing more preventive support for fragile families and recruiting more people - including relatives of the affected children - to serve as foster parents. It’s generally the older children - adolescents and teens - who are the hardest to place with families, and thus the most likely to be placed in group homes.
“There’s not enough work done on developing foster families for teens, so group homes become the default option,” said Tracey Feild, a child-welfare specialist with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She said 57 percent of all teens in foster care spend some time in group settings, where they often are deprived of normal activities such as organized sports or learning to drive.