Shelter Care vs. Foster Family Care

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Youth Today recently drew attention to an important issue: the debate about what type of emergency care – shelter or family foster care – is best suited for children who are removed from their families because of alleged abuse or neglect.

To appropriately serve these children, communities must have an array of placement environments that are sensitive to the trauma of children’s maltreatment and placement away from their families, and that meet their safety, health, treatment and education needs.

An upcoming Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) publication, which was previewed at the league’s national conference and was the subject of Youth Today’s “Nose Knows” column in April, explores several options for a child’s first placement, commonly known as emergency care. These include shelter care, family foster care and receiving centers.

Emergency care should be part of a full array of treatment and placement options that begins with family supports for children who can remain safely at home and includes kinship care, family and therapeutic foster care, and residential treatment. It must also integrate community-based support networks for children placed in family settings or residential facilities.

The conference workshop highlighting the CWLA’s upcoming publication, “The Role of Emergency Care as a Child Welfare Service,” caused some controversy when several providers perceived it as being biased against the use of emergency shelter services. While the authors do recommend eliminating or reducing the use of shelter care, they also make clear that we lack reliable information about the impact of both emergency shelter and family foster care on the children served.

Because many studies have lacked control groups and involved inadequate samples and insufficient rigor, there is a desperate need for more comparative research about emergency care. Yet policy is being made on the untested assumption that care within residential settings like emergency shelters should always be the last resort, and that alternatives are always preferable. The truth is that we don’t know if this holds true for each child, and whether it addresses each one’s unique needs and circumstances.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems are going to look like nails.” Conversely, if you put an exquisite array of precise tools fitted for every task into the hands of sensitive, well-trained professionals, they will be equipped to meet the individual needs of each child and family.

Both the upcoming publication and CWLA’s “Standards of Excellence for Services for Abused and Neglected Children and Their Families” describe the factors to be considered before deciding which placement option is best for a child.

It is important to note that virtually every child welfare service provider prefers to see that all children remain safe with their families or extended families. Most would like to see less demand for their services because we have eradicated child maltreatment.

So this discussion should not be about who cares about kids, and who cares only about their business. It should be about children getting what they need. It should also not be about what kind of care is better than another. Every type of care is valuable if it meets the needs of a child.

We need to ensure that we have the right placement options available when they’re needed – options that reflect a dynamic paradigm that contemplates the least restrictive, appropriate placement. We need to determine which setting best protects and nurtures the child at the time of initial placement, and protects other children if the child’s behavior becomes violent. We need to learn which setting can best provide for each child’s treatment needs – given the child’s stage of development and appropriate cultural considerations.

It is also critically important that we send children to well-trained and supported foster families. Likewise, we must ensure that emergency shelter facilities are staffed with the highest caliber of workers; serve an appropriate number of children (avoiding overcrowded institutional settings); provide the assessment-based services needed by the children placed in their care; and are not seen as open-ended placements. High-quality care is an absolute necessity when meeting the needs of children facing the trauma of maltreatment and the emotional challenges of leaving their homes.

As leaders in child welfare, we must always look to provide what is best for the children in our care. So let’s not categorically assume how each should be treated. It will take a variety of approaches to best meet their needs. For our children’s sake, we must remain open-minded about the alternatives if we are to best provide for their care.

Shay Bilchik was CEO of the Child Welfare League of America. (202) 638-2952.