Moving Foster Care to a Child-Based and Family-Centered Focus
Op-ed by Elliott Smart, Plumas County Department of Social Services Director


For many years child welfare professionals have known the best place for children who are removed from homes because of abuse or neglect is a safe and stable home setting.  We’ve known that placing these children in settings that are the most family-centered is where they are most likely to experience successful outcomes.    

At the same time, many of the children that come into the child welfare system are traumatized.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Children who’ve experienced abuse and neglect-often for much, if not all of their lives-have significant behavioral, emotional and mental health issues. For these children, it has been difficult to arrange the needed services around them without placing them in restrictive high-level group homes (known as congregate care) because that is where such services are more likely to be readily available. 

Placing children who come into child welfare in congregate care has been troubling for many of us. In our county, it often means sending children far away from here, their home. It can mean moving them from familiar surroundings and supports, friends and others who play important roles in the stability of their lives. But all of that is about to change.

In early 2015, a report was released by partners in the child welfare system that generated a significant number of recommendations. The recommendations are aimed toward fundamentally changing the way children in the foster care system are placed into out-of-home care and served in these types of placements. The report is titled California’s Child Welfare Continuum of Care Reform (CCR). It resulted in landmark legislation, Assembly Bill 403, which became law in October, 2015. 

A fundamental goal of the CCR is to limit the amount of time that children in the foster care system spend in group homes or congregate care. In order to accomplish this, the CCR sets in motion a number of initiatives that are designed to ensure that foster children can be successful. It does this by providing supports and services to them while they are in care, wherever that might be which we hope will be more family type settings. 

These changes will require that services and supports follow a child into less restrictive family-based settings. CCR will also speed up the time it takes to move children into a permanent setting. It will remove some of the barriers to adoption when that is the ultimate goal.

Why are these changes important?  California spends millions of dollars right now placing children in high level congregate settings. While we know these care settings are doing what they can for foster children, removal to these far away placements isn’t always best for the child. And, it is often the case that the more traumatized children in our system are placed in higher levels of care because that is where the services they need are. It is sort of a “fail up” system where children get placed where services are rather than services following children to enable them to succeed in less restrictive family-based settings. 

That’s what CCR intends to accomplish. Providing a continuum of care through services and supports, children are able to “step down” to community based family settings. 

This change will include changing perspectives and changing the nomenclature. That includes changing the long-established term “foster care”. Instead such settings will be referred to as “resource families”, families in our community willing to open up their lives and homes to provide a safe, loving place where children can be successful. 

But CCR isn’t just about changing terms. Resource families will begin to receive “trauma informed” training that will enable them to better understand and support children who’ve been victimized by abuse and neglect: Children who’ve been drug and alcohol exposed and children who have behavioral, emotional and mental health issues.

Group home or congregate care will be limited to Short Term Residential Treatment Centers or STRT’s.  While these elements will remain a part of the CCR continuum, the intent is that they won’t become permanent settings for children who can be successful with the right level of services and supports following them into home based settings.

Making these changes will not be easy. One of the biggest challenges our Department of Social Services has faced over the years is finding relatives and non-relative extended family members who can provide a home-based setting for children who come into our system. This is where our community can help our goal by providing homes for children who are in need of caring people who support them and believe in them.

Finding and marshalling supportive services to children will be hard too. The fact is that rural communities lack some of the resources that we could bring to bear to address child needs. And, with the likelihood that some of these children will come with behavior, emotional and other challenges our task becomes that much more difficult. 

But because something is hard to do doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Having services follow children is the right thing to do. Removing barriers to providing children with a sense of permanency and stability improves their chances for becoming successful and responsible adults: Adults who will live and thrive in our community. 

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that CCR is a framework to build in. One size won’t fit all of the state’s counties. There will need to be latitude from our state partners to adjust the framework to what works for smaller jurisdictions.

But if it is done right, we have the possibility that another step will be taken in putting traumatized children on a path where they can be successful. And we will need help from the community to create safe and caring homes for these children.

Originally published in the Feather River Bulletin, Chester Progressive, Indian Valley Record and the Portola Reporter, four weekly newspapers in Plumas County.