“Congregate care” and “group home”: These are just euphemisms for “orphanage.” As a parent, I would not want my own child to spend one night – much less an extended period – in such a setting. If you’re a parent, you probably feel the same way.

There’s no question that child welfare leaders also recognize congregate care isn’t the best way to protect or nurture vulnerable children. That’s not because the people who manage and staff group homes are not caring, loving people. It’s because these settings, where children are raised by professionals doing shift work, are not families. And children, by definition, belong in families.

Yet the system at large keeps drifting back to congregate care as a “solution.”  

While there’s resounding agreement that congregate care is not an effective approach, when it’s time to take action to reduce or eliminate it, there’s often fear, uncertainty and inertia. In short, there’s a sense that it would simply be too hard to get kids out of group homes. There are just too many kids, too few ready-and-willing foster homes and too many bureaucratic barriers. 

My own firsthand experience as a child welfare leader suggests otherwise.

In the City of Baltimore, we made a clear commitment to reduce use of congregate care. Over the course of 10 years, we achieved an 89% reduction. How did we get kids out of group homes? My standard response is “We stopped using them.” I know that might sound glib, but it’s both not that simple – and entirely that simple.

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As we pursued our goal of reducing or eliminating use of congregate care, we had to tackle two big challenges in parallel.

First, we had to think about the kids who were already in congregate care. This was about remediation. How could we get these youth out of group homes and into real homes with families? What were the factors that had led to group home placement? Were there specific process issues that put a child there – and might be keeping them there for weeks or months? How could we fix those problems to get kids into individual homes?

Second, we had to figure out how to make sure kids didn’t go to group homes in the first place. This was about prevention. How could we attract and retain foster families with a mindset of loving every kid as their own? How could we ensure that nothing – not a paperwork snafu, not a medical diagnosis, not a bureaucratic rule – would cause a child to be sent to a group home?

Above all, we needed a dogged determination to get and keep more kids out of congregate care.

We did.

And you can, too.

In my next post, I’m going to share four specific ways – resources we used, mindsets we adopted, actions we took – that you can embrace to replicate this success. Until then, I invite you to get in touch with via LinkedIn or Twitter to explore how your organization can make progress in this area.

Molly Tierney

Managing Director – Public Service, Child Welfare, North America

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