An Industry in Denial

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In June, Youth Today ran a story alleging that somewhere in Santa Clara County, Calif., there is an institution called EMQ Children and Family Services. But if many people in the child welfare business are to be believed, such a place can’t possibly exist.

According to this story, EMQ used to have 130 residential beds, where it housed the most difficult children short of a psychiatric center. According to the story, EMQ actually shut down 100 of these beds for no better reason than that its staff noticed that their services weren’t helping children. Then the agency came up with alternative ways to care for the same children and many others, with better outcomes and long-term cost savings for the state and the county.

This is not the first time Youth Today has claimed such places exist. A couple of years ago it told us of a place in Tennessee called Youth Villages. That institution, too, was said to have drastically reduced institutionalization, using an alternative approach to serve more of the same children at less cost with better results.

But I know better. I know that these places cannot possibly exist. I know it because, for as long as I have been following child welfare, first as a journalist and now as an advocate, virtually the entire American child welfare establishment has been assuring me that it is impossible to do what EMQ and Youth Villages are doing.

The children are too difficult, they say. They “blow out” of all foster homes and all other alternatives, they say. They have no birth families or extended families to go to, they say. No form of family-based substitute care can handle them, they say.

So we must keep paying $85,000 a year and up to warehouse each child, even in the absence of evidence that it helps them, and even if it means all that money can’t be used for alternatives. And I know that the only interest these defenders of the status quo have is “the best interests of the children” – because they keep telling me so.

Nan Dale, the head of Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. – widely considered the crème de la crème of residential treatment – has said she would love to put herself out of the institutionalization business, but it just can’t be done. Earlier this year, she wrote that institutions like hers take “only the most troubled children, all of whom have failed in less restrictive care.” So obviously, a place that takes children just as difficult as the ones she takes and manages not to institutionalize most of them cannot exist.

There is one other possibility. Maybe there really is an EMQ, and much of what the story called the “group home industry” is rationalizing its own existence. These good, sincere people have convinced themselves that theirs is the only alternative for every single child in their “care.” And they are terrified of anything that might jeopardize their lifeline: a per-diem payment system under which the longer they hold a child in their institution and fail to find that child a permanent home, the more money comes in.

But that would mean that the biggest addiction problem in child welfare isn’t substance-abusing parents. That would mean the biggest addiction problem in child welfare is politically powerful, well-established child welfare agencies that are addicted to per-diem payments and to institutionalization as the only answer. And it would mean these agencies are putting their addiction ahead of the needs of the children.

So in a letter to Youth Today, Michael Pawel, who runs another institution, tells us, in effect, that EMQ can’t exist. It must have “abandoned” the children it used to serve and now must be serving others.

On the contrary: EMQ, Youth Villages and other pioneering programs, such as Wraparound Milwaukee, serve exactly the same children they used to serve. They just serve them better.

And the stalwarts of the “group home industry” who say it can’t be done?

They’re “in denial.”

So let’s settle this once and for all. I have a modest proposal for the trade association for many agencies that institutionalize children, the Child Welfare League of America: Immediately send a delegation to the purported address of this place called EMQ. See if it’s really just a vacant lot in San Jose.

If by some chance it turns out they find that there really is an EMQ, the delegation from CWLA should stop in and see how they do it.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a nonprofit based in Alexandria, Va.