WASHINGTON, July 21, 2021 /PRNewswire/ — Today, Think of Us launched Away From Home: Youth Experiences of Institutional Placements in Foster Care, a study that shares the stories, feelings, dreams and worries of foster youth living in long-term institutional placements within the foster care system. As much as possible, Away From Home lets foster care youth speak directly in their own voices to communicate their lived experience of the harsh realities of the U.S. foster care system.

In close partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs, Think of Us began the research for its new report in September 2020. This research used qualitative social research methods to discern the perspectives, attitudes and experiences of young people with recent histories in institutional placements. In total, the study engaged 78 different participants, sourced through an open call, who were between 18 and 25 years old. Participants engaged in individual, semi-structured interviews and/or submitted cultural artifacts, such as poems, artworks or photographs, that communicated personal thoughts and feelings of their foster care experience.

The key findings are as follows:

  • Institutional placements failed to meet the mandate of child welfare, which is to ensure foster youth’s safety, permanency, and well-being [Children’s Bureau, 2014].
  • Institutional placements were prison-like: youths themselves used carceral vernacular to describe their experience in institutional settings.
  • Institutional placements were punitive: youth in this study felt that by being sent to an institution, they were punished, treated as criminals and made to bear the consequences of the failures of child welfare.
  • Institutional placements were traumatic and unfit for healthy child and adolescent development.
  • Institutional placements shielded youth from building relationships.
  • Institutional placements felt like they didn’t have a way out: having no alternatives to the institutional placements is how youth rationalize their presence in those settings.

“At the Casey Foundation, we believe deeply that the young people who have lived in foster care and experienced the trauma of being separated from their families know best what they need to heal those hurts, grow and thrive,” said Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Systems Innovation. Away From Home is their unvarnished truth, and it is a powerful contribution of compelling qualitative data. I hope child welfare leaders will read Away From Home and walk away even more committed to working on behalf of all kids in foster care as though they are their own daughters, sons, nieces and nephews – based on what they would want for their own.”

Mark Nickell, executive director of Building Bridges Initiative, said, “Away From Home showcases the alienation, hardship and pain experienced by foster youth in institutional placements, and is a clarion call for change.”

In recent years, there have been compelling arguments and growing leadership to reduce and eliminate institutional placements in foster care. Away From Home has contributed to this momentum by centering youth experience in such a powerful way that it has already helped inspire several states across the country to make the pledge to extremely reduce and eliminate the use of institutional placements and replace them instead with meaningful family-based alternatives. 

“As the accounts of our youth who have experienced ‘institutional care’ were shared, I heard their voices differently,” said Dr. Jacqueline McKnight, social services deputy director for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. “My sense of urgency was redefined. I knew instantly that I must make a commitment to reimagine this work, fully cognizant that youth must be at the table, given voice, and possess the role of lead stakeholder.”

Since the creation of the modern child welfare system, a significant percentage of youth in foster care have been sent to live in institutional placements rather than with relatives or foster families. In decades past, it was common to have as many as 30% of youth in institutions. Today, of the hundreds of thousands of young people in foster care systems each year, nearly 44,000, or 10%, are in institutional placements or group homes. While there remains significant work to be done, much progress has been made. To further this progress on foster care reform, Away From Home draws upon the lived experience of foster care youth in group homes to craft recommendations and alternatives to congregant care. The fight to end group homes cannot stop until all children in the U.S. are placed within a family context.

“The Away From Home report adds a powerful perspective to our understanding of why it is so important to the health, safety and well-being of children that they grow up in a family setting connected to their communities and cultures,” said David Sanders, executive vice president of systems improvement at Casey Family Programs. “The message in this report from those who spent critical years of their childhood in an institutional setting is an urgent call to action for all of us who are committed to ensuring that children and families have the support and opportunities they need to thrive.”

“Before we completed the Away From Home report, I knew something was wrong with group homes and institutional placements,” said Sixto Cancel, founder and chief executive officer of Think of Us. “But getting closer to the nuances of young people’s stories revealed that group home placements are one of the most inequitable experiences. When the state removed young people, it promised safety, family and love. Instead, group homes traumatize and institutionalize young people. It is wrong. Elimination is the only ethical option.”

“Based on the findings of this report, we cannot, in good conscience, recommend that institutional placements in foster care be upheld in any way,” said Sarah Fathallah and Sarah Sullivan, authors of this report.

Angelique Day, associate professor at University of Washington School of Social Work and a member of the Lived Expert Review Board who reviewed Away From Home, said: “Away From Home is an important contribution to the field because it pushes us to center the voices of people with lived experiences in all aspects of the research process. I’m excited for the way this study centered lived experience in the peer review process, and I encourage my colleagues who are journal editors to find ways to do similar lived experience peer reviews for future studies in child welfare.”

“Children can’t develop healthily without unconditional love. They require a sense of permanency and a home. As someone with lived experience in a group home, I know this to be true,” said Faith Mishkin, a participant in the Away From Home study. “While placement in institutional care provided me with the basic necessities I needed to live, my critical need for love and genuine emotional care was not met. As a result, I, like so many others highlighted in the Detailed Findings section of this report, often became emotionally shut down and detached during the most formative time of my life.”

On August 5 at 3:30 p.m. EDT, Think of Us will be hosting the National Readout of Away From Home, which highlights the findings and recommendations of the report and includes participants from the study, and on September 9, Think of Us will host an event on the methodology of the project called Centering Lived Experience: Methodology of Away From Home, at 3:30 p.m. EDT.

Away From Home has already inspired many state and local leaders to join the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs in the fight to change our foster care system by sharing resources, strategies and materials about how to end group homes. If you are interested in being a part of this learning and sharing community, please contact Rodney Brittingham at [email protected].

To learn more about the report and access resources, including a discussion guide, visit https://www.thinkof-us.org/awayfromhome.

About Think of Us

Think of Us is a systems change organization that centers lived experience to spark ideas, influence work, support critical initiatives and create new approaches, all with the goal of transforming child welfare so every human connected has what they need to heal, develop, and thrive.

About Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private philanthropy that creates a brighter future for the nation’s children and youth by developing solutions to strengthen families, build paths to economic opportunity and transform struggling communities into safer and healthier places to live, work and grow.

About Casey Family Programs

Founded in 1966, Casey Family Programs works in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and with tribal nations across North America to influence long-lasting improvements to the well-being of children, families and the communities where they live.

SOURCE Think of Us

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