Resident of Falcon Children's Home plays basketball on July 6, 2018.
A resident of Falcon Children's Home plays basketball in a gym facility located on the campus in northeastern Cumberland County on Friday. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Public Carolina Press

A sweeping overhaul of the nation’s foster care system has North Carolina caregivers, social workers and advocates scrambling to figure out how the new laws will affect thousands of children currently living in group homes.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, which Congress and the president enacted in February as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act, includes extensive reforms to the way the federal government funds state-level foster care programs.

The legislation eliminates federal funding for foster children residing in congregate-care settings, such as group homes. The intent is to encourage other types of placements, but the new law lacks a coherent solution to the expected influx of children who already live in group homes and will be forced to transition into family-based foster homes.

But those caring for children in group home settings say the new law is shortsighted and will leave many kids without options.

“There is a need for homes like us” said Joe Leggett, CEO of the Falcon Children’s Home in Cumberland County. “There’s nowhere for many of these kids to go. Group homes need to be part of the solution.”

Water wiffle ball at Black Mountain Children's Home on July 5, 2018
Residents of Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families cool off with a game of water whiffle ball with staff members on Thursday at the facility in eastern Buncombe County. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Unintended consequences

Advocacy and governmental groups across the country, such as NC Child, the County Welfare Directors Association of California and the New York Office of Children and Family Services, have also expressed concerns about some major provisions of the new law.

The law’s full effects will remain unclear until the federal government sends guidance documents to the states; however, it appears that the law doesn’t include adequate funding for recruitment, retention and training of the new foster families who will be needed to care for the number of children who will be leaving group homes, say these groups.

The FFPSA was proposed and approved as a response to the growing need nationwide for foster care as a result of the opioid epidemic that is ravaging communities throughout the country. The idea is to provide services to the parents of children who are at risk of entering the foster care system in an effort to make that foster care placement unnecessary. The Children’s Defense Fund called the measure “long-overdue historic reforms to help keep children safely with their families and avoid the traumatic experience of entering foster care, emphasizes the importance of children growing up in families and helps ensure children are placed in the least restrictive, most family-like setting appropriate to their special needs when foster care is needed.”

Falcon Children's Home in Falcon, NC, located in northeastern Cumberland County.
A Falcon Children’s Home dormitory. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

Other observers don’t necessarily oppose this endeavor but are concerned about unintended consequences.

Specifically, any funding under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act that was formerly used to reimburse states for spending related to congregate care for foster children will be diverted to services and programs that are designed to keep children out of foster care entirely.

Title IV-E funds will be used for in-home parenting support, mental health support and substance abuse treatment for up to a year.

That’s a significant deviation from previous funding strategies for child welfare initiatives.

Title IV-E funding has traditionally been used solely to support children whom state agencies have already taken from their homes rather than to help parents avoid the need for foster care placements.

Spokeswomen for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the New Hanover County Department of Social Services told Carolina Public Press that their organizations have not yet received guidance from the federal government about how to actually implement the provisions of the law.

Some portions of the law, including federal reimbursement for residential child-parent substance abuse treatment programs and kinship navigator programs that help connect kinship care providers with services, will be implemented in October.

Reimbursements for most children in congregate care will be cut off in September 2019 unless states choose to extend that deadline for up to two years. However, reimbursements for prevention services won’t be made available to states during the extension.

The decision about when to implement the changes and whether to opt into the deadline extension will be made by the secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The logic behind diverting funding away from group homes was the idea that foster children are often warehoused in those settings when a family-based foster home would be more appropriate. The law makes an exception for facilities that serve teen mothers and victims or potential victims of human trafficking, and facilities that meet the standards of being a “qualified residential treatment program.”

But for those facilities that house foster children in a residential setting without a clinical component, a major source of funding is going to dry up.

Black Mountain Children's Home in Black Mountain, Buncombe County, July 5, 2018
A staff member leads a young resident up the stone steps at Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families on Thursday. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

Unclear future for group homes

That eventuality has residential facilities concerned for their future — the president and board chair of the Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families in Buncombe County, in an April letter to donors, called the passage of the FFPSA “course-altering” for facilities like theirs.

“For some children and youth, family-style residential care like we provide is the best environment for their situation,” Black Mountain Home President Tom Campbell and board Chair Bruce Henderson said in the letter.

Black Mountain Children's Home, July 5, 2018
Bicycles are parked in front of one the buildings at Black Mountain Home for Children, Youth and Families in Black Mountain. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

“While some of our programs will continue to receive funding, our original residential program will be seriously at risk. This is an important piece of our continuum, providing care primarily for older youth, large sibling groups and youth who have faced multiple placements and for whom there are few viable options.”

Leggett, at Falcon Children’s Home, told CPP that the inclusion of the FFPSA in the budget bill was “shortsighted” and that he thinks representatives of group homes should have been included in the legislative conversations about how the law will affect foster children.

Falcon currently houses 90 foster children. Leggett said about 65 of those children would have to find new placements if the FFPSA were to be implemented today.

“We provide a place for a population that hasn’t been able to find a foster home,” Leggett said.

Joe Leggett of Falcon Children's Home
Falcon Children’s Home CEO Joe Leggett has worked in the role for 11 years. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

“If they could be in a foster home, they would already be there.”

Leggett said group homes are a “last resort” for many of the foster children whom Falcon serves, either because they’re part of a large sibling group, have had behavioral issues at family-based foster homes or are older children who have had a difficult time finding placement.

In North Carolina, about 2,000 children live in residential congregate-care settings that don’t include mental health services, according to Whitney Tucker, research director for NC Child, a Raleigh-based children’s advocacy group.

Should that number remain steady over the next several years, those 2,000 children potentially would be forced into new housing arrangements when the law’s provisions take effect unless the state and counties choose to make up the funding shortfall.

“The reason that they are in congregate care is often because they are part of a large sibling group where they’ve flown out of previous foster care placement and are stabilizing in a group home setting or they are just done with foster family settings and are just waiting to transition out of foster care altogether, so they’re older kids,” Tucker said in an email to CPP.

“North Carolina has a history of closing mental health residential group homes with the idea that kids would be better off in family settings and community-based services (which in intention is correct), but in reality what happened was that the community-based treatment options were not available and kids actually ended up in more restrictive placement as a result.”

The state’s foster care system is already overtaxed, with county social services agencies often scrambling to find placement for children, according to Michelle Hughes, executive director of NC Child.

While state and federal policies suggest keeping sibling groups together and keeping foster children in the same county and school system they were in when they were living at home, the absence of an adequate number of foster homes could mean that those sibling groups are broken up or that children are moved away from the area they’re familiar with.

“Without some significant focus and investment at the local level, it’s going to be challenging for county DSS agencies to significantly increase the number of foster families and then make sure that the foster families are available and make sure the foster families have the training and clinical consultation they need to care for the children,” Hughes said.

“The intent of all of the legislation is good for kids. In terms of the implementation, we’ll have to wait and see what the outcome is.

“Family First is a piece of legislation that has enormous potential to prevent children from experiencing trauma by going into the foster care system, as well as cost savings for the state. That has a huge potential to be beneficial for kids. The question, as with all legislation, is in the implementation.”

Residents of Falcon Children’s Home play in a pool on the campus on Friday. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

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Michael Gebelein was an investigative reporter with Carolina Public Press. To contact Carolina Public Press, email or call 828-774-5290.

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