Guards told Sean when to wake up, when to clean his room, and when to eat. The teenager wasn’t even permitted to leave his “home” without a staff member.
“It was akin to being inside a prison … you lose your sense of freedom,” he said of his time spent in an institution for youth grappling with severe mental health and behavioral issues.
But Sean said he was simply a kid thrust into a child welfare system that lacked enough foster families. He entered state care after allegations of abuse at home, then spent three years languishing in institutions where kids picked on him for being openly gay. He had to attend institutional schools where he was doing 1st grade math, when he should have been in high school, he said.
Unfortunately, experiences like Sean’s are not rare.
About 15 percent of the roughly 400,000 children in U.S. foster care live in congregate care settings, according to federal data. Nationwide, about 34,000 live in residential treatment facilities, psychiatric institutions and emergency shelters, and another 24,000 reside in group homes. In some states, such as Colorado, Wyoming and Rhode Island, 30 percent or more of kids in care live in group homes or institutions, according to the Kids Count Data Center, an Annie E. Casey Foundation project that tracks statistics on children.
Although there are times when it is appropriate for children to be cared for in facilities, many kids with complex needs and histories of severe abuse and neglect can live in home-like environments.
“The opportunity to grow up in a stable, loving family setting is everything to a child,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “One of the driving themes of our work is to give children the opportunity to be part of a family, and to limit the use of facilities and institutions to only those extraordinary situations when it is absolutely needed, and when services cannot be provided otherwise.”
Lowry has been fighting for young people in foster care to live with families for decades. In the 1970s, as an attorney for the Children’s Rights Project for the New York Civil Liberties Union, she took on the city’s child welfare system over inequality in the availability of services for black children.
The case was the subject of the book The Lost Children of Wilder, which follows the story of Shirley Wilder, a girl sent to a reformatory where she was raped by other youth, then put in solitary confinement for fighting back. Staff there hit kids, and only gave them one roll of toilet paper per month.
Years later, children like Shirley are still driving Lowry to challenge the status quo of bureaucratic state systems, and push for kids to live in safer, more appropriate settings.
Children’s Rights fought for AJ, who at 13 was placed in a Tennessee mental hospital, where she heard adults on the other side of the hall “screaming all night, every night.”
“I was scared to go to sleep. I was scared to go out of my room, scared to eat. I was terrified of every thing at that point,” AJ said.
CR also represented a 5-month-old infant who suffered a skull fracture when he was dropped by a worker holding two babies in an overcrowded Oklahoma shelter.
And the organization is advocating for a 6-year-old Texas boy forced to live in a cinderblock room with only a bed and some clothes. He once asked his attorney for a hug, telling her “they’re not allowed to touch you here.”
Most recently, CR joined local advocates to file a case on behalf of an 11-year-old boy who was sexually assaulted at a South Carolina institution, then denied the mental health services he desperately needed to heal. He had been in a facility where nobody was required to watch the children at night and officials turned a blind eye to child-on-child assaults. The only reason he was there was because of a lack of foster homes.
“Unfortunately, the minor child in this case was placed in a dangerous situation by the very people who were supposed to protect him,” said local co-counsel Heather Stone, of Hite & Stone, Attorneys at Law. “It appears that this tragic event is not likely to be an anomaly, as there are serious problems with the foster care system in South Carolina that impose grave risks on the state’s most vulnerable citizens. South Carolina must do better for its children.”
Children who live in institutional settings are at greater risk of developing physical, emotional and behavioral problems that can lead to school failure, teen pregnancy, homelessness, unemployment and incarceration, and are less likely to find a permanent home than those in traditional foster homes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gabrielle, who spent 8 months in a residential treatment center, said she met kids who had been institutionalized for as long as 6 years, and saw the devastating effects it had on their independence: “When you are in an institution, everything is done for you. There is no room for growth. When you get out, how do you know what to do?”
Addie entered foster care at just 4 years old. With no foster home available, Addie and her siblings were taken to a juvenile detention center, where she and her sister were separated from their brothers and “disrobed, deloused, and cleaned.” “We were sent out to ‘play’ in a field with a very high chain link fence with barbed wire around the top,” she told CR.
Kids deserve more, and foster care systems can do better.
“If a child can’t return to their family, then you hope they will fall in love with the first foster family they are placed with and that family will fall in love with them, and it becomes a forever family. That simply cannot happen in an institutional setting, because there are no parents there,” said Viola Miller, former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
Miller was an instrumental force in reducing the use of congregate care in Tennessee, which she said “would not have been possible without CR’s advocacy.”
To move kids out of institutions, the state lowered caseloads, developed more homes for older children and large sibling groups, recruited relatives to care for kids, bolstered support services for kids in homes, and switched to a performance-based contracting system to reward providers when children reenter family settings, said Miller.
Sean, the young man who lived in a facility he compared to a “prison,” simply because there were no foster homes available, told CR his third institution wasn’t as bad. It was less restrictive, and he was able to earn the trust of staff members and be rewarded for it. But it still didn’t compare to living with a loving foster family.
“The second I walked in the door, I felt the positive energy coming from her,” Sean said of his foster mother.
Sean is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and stays in constant contact with his foster mother and her extended family. “They are my second family. They are my support system, should anything happen to me,” he said.
Children’s Rights believes all kids need these kinds of adults in their lives. “We aren’t giving up on these kids,” Lowry said. “Every child deserves the safety and stability of a family.”
THE RESULTS: CR Compels States to Decrease Reliance on Institutions
- New Jersey slashed the number of children sent to out-of-state institutions for mental and behavioral health treatment by 99 percent, from more than 300 kids in 2006, to just three in 2013.
- Connecticut decreased the number of institutionalized children aged 12 and younger by 80 percent, from 201 kids in January 2011, to 41 in August 2013.
- In 2000, one in five children in Tennessee foster care–more than 2,000 in all–were living in orphanage-like institutions. But by 2011, only about 330 youth were living in group facilities, and 92 percent of kids in foster care were living in family settings.
Learn More: Young People Speak Out About Institutions
Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter: