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New Report Reveals New York State Congregate Settings are Unsafe, Isolating, and Unhealthy for Youth in Foster Care

First-hand accounts from young people provide a “wake-up call” for lawmakers and child welfare officials 

Contact: Camilla Jenkins, Children’s Rights, cjenkins@childrensrights.org

NEW YORK, NY — Today, Children’s Rights and Community Impact Advisors released Are You Listening? Youth Accounts of Congregate Placements in New York State. The new report details the experiences of young New Yorkers who spent time in congregate placements, defined in the report as any foster care setting other than a family home. 

The accounts of youth with lived experience captured in the report vividly illustrate that congregate placements overwhelmingly inflict lasting harm on youth, while the recommendations for changes to the State’s current child welfare policies show a clear path forward that can lead to the elimination of congregate placements in New York.

Over the last decade, New York has steadily maintained one of the highest congregate placement rates among states with large foster system populations, with the damaging effects falling disproportionately on young people of color. Black youth in New York comprise 15% of the general child population, yet represent 41% of the foster system population and 57% of the population of youth placed in congregate settings.

Youth who contributed to Are You Listening? described congregate settings as highly restrictive living environments, continual threats to their safety, profound loneliness and isolation, and lasting barriers to well-being and stability. Key findings include:

  • Carceral conditions: foster youth report severe limitations on phone and bathroom use, unsanitary living conditions, punitive eating restrictions, lack of adequate hygiene products for Black youth, negligent health care, low-quality medical treatments and restriction of free movement.
  • Unsafe conditions: from staff, a residential culture often involving conflict and bullying, and disparate treatment for LGBTQ+ youth based on their gender expression or sexuality.
  • Isolation: young people report feelings of isolation and loneliness with little emotional support from staff and disconnection from family and friends, compounded by restrictions on communication and visits.
  • Lasting harms: youth report emotional, academic and developmental setbacks and challenges. Experiences of hopelessness, lasting trauma, anger and depression, as well as poor academics in congregate placements left them under-credited and unprepared for future education and career opportunities, financial security, and independent living.

According to the report, New York State is uniquely positioned to improve the experiences of foster youth by acting on key recommendations, including:

  • Building partnerships with lived experts to co-design practices and policies: leading to the elimination of congregate settings; eliminating the use of emergency shelters; evaluating facility standards; and banning the use of restraints and other punitive practices. 
  • Prioritizing preservation and support for families of origin: increasing financial resources and community mental health infrastructure to help families stay together in the first place; reinvesting the savings from depopulating congregate settings into preserving families; and increasing kinship care.
  • Increasing transparency and accountability around congregate practices: making facility data publicly available; independently evaluating staff conduct and treatment of youth; and establishing a hotline for youth to report maltreatment and abuse they experience in the foster system.

“This report adds to the mounting evidence that congregate placements do more harm than good. What foster youth experience at the hands of the system is not right, and they deserve much more– like growing up in home settings with family, friends and community so they can thrive. We must continue to listen to youth. I hope these brave accounts move New York to do what is morally just and eliminate these harmful placements once and for all,” said Rashida Abuwala, Principal at Community Impact Advisors. 

“Being part of this advisory committee was very important to me because being placed in congregate care led me down a path of constant survival. I was pushed to mature faster and it took away my childhood. Congregate care creates a situation where youth constantly live in survival mode, even after they leave care. It distances them more from their families and communities. It takes away their ability to have healthy relationships and creates a cycle of violence and isolation. Youth need to feel supported with meaningful connections, not feel like they’re living in jail, in order to grow into their adulthood and have a successful future after care,” said Jonathan DeJesus, Are You Listening? Advisory Committee Member.

“Are You Listening? is a wake-up call for lawmakers, child welfare officials and those who advocate for the rights of foster youth in New York State. These troubling first-hand accounts underscore the dark reality that so many young people face. Instead of giving families the community resources and support they need to stay together, New York’s policies are actually breaking them apart unnecessarily — leading children inexorably down the path to congregate placements and all the resulting harms we see. With these insights and recommendations from young people with lived expertise, we hope lawmakers in New York and across the nation will take steps toward purposeful change that will end the use of congregate placements,” said Shereen A. White, Director of Advocacy & Policy at Children’s Rights.

Click here to read the full report and learn more about youth experiences in congregate settings in New York, and their recommendations for change. 

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Every day, children are harmed in America’s child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org