Saturday, September 9, 2023

Gambling with the rural foster youth

Nonmetropolitan Elko County covers a vast expanse of northeastern Nevada and is home to approximately 54,046 residents, but it only has twelve beds to service every foster child in the county.

Earlier this year, the need for those limited beds spiked in what one Nevada social services manager told NPR was the worst uptick in foster need she had seen in twenty years working for Nevada’s Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). With the number of displaced children exceeding the number of foster beds, state officials were at a loss on where to house the children.

In response, Nevada social services used hotel casinos to house seven rural foster youth over a period of 89 days, with staff paid overtime to provide one-on-one supervision of the children.

Of course, casinos are not DCFS’s first choice for placement. DCFS’s primary goal is kinship care, where the child is placed with relatives. But when kinship care is not available, DCFS resorts to out-of-home placements, also known as "traditional foster care."

What happens when kinship care is not an option, and “traditional foster care” is overcrowded and shrinking? Where do these displaced children go?

This is a frequent dilemma and a national trend, which is putting other child welfare agencies in the same predicament as Elko County: KCRA 3 reported Sacramento County was fined by the state of California for placing foster youth in former juvenile detention facilities; the Child Welfare Monitor uncovered Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington all reported similar situations where children removed from their parents were
warehoused in inappropriate settings, such as temporary shelters, hotels, offices, or state-leased houses staffed by social workers; sent far away for residential care, or being left in psychiatric hospitals and detention centers after being cleared for release.
Worth discussion in this regard is the Family First Prevention Services Act (“FFPSA”), which the National Conference of State Legislators describes as offering federal funds to support child welfare programs. As the Act’s name implies, the primary intention is to keep families intact. It thus necessarily shifts child welfare services towards prevention.

Through FFPSA, states with approved funding have the option to apply funds towards “prevention services.”

One explicit goal of FFPSA is to curb the use of congregate or group homes by prioritizing family foster homes for child placement. States are generally not reimbursed under the FFPSA if they place a child in a group home for more than two weeks.

This well-intentioned goal likely will but up against rural realities: it can be particularly difficult to successfully place children with rural foster families, as noted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

In general, the process for vetting a foster family is intensive, for both the government and the prospective family. The Plight of Rural Child Welfare: Meeting Standard Without Services accentuates how spatial barriers, like sheer distance from a social services office, can make it especially difficult for caseworkers to visit foster families and for foster families to engage with social services.

Rural communities often lack the support networks and resources that are necessary for child welfare, which undermines efforts to identify rural foster family placements.

In "When Mamaw Becomes Mom: Social Capital and Kinship Family Formation amid the Rural Opioid Crisis," Professor Kristina Brant posits that social capital with the local legal actors (e.g. bureaucrats, judges, and child welfare caseworkers) plays an important role when establishing foster families in rural communities. Naturally, good social capital cuts in favor of a family becoming a caregiver, while poor social capital likely prevents them from doing so.

The advantages of social capital plummet, however, when the relevant legal actors are no longer local. This is not an uncommon problem given the spatial remoteness typically associated with rural communities and the phenomena of “legal deserts,” a term coined to refer to the rural lawyer shortage. (Read more about “legal deserts” here and here).

In cases where social capital cannot be employed, a key determinant for getting approved as a rural foster family is effectively out of reach.

To compound and exacerbate the difficulties of finding a rural foster family, the social services associated with supporting families and preventing child maltreatment are few and far between in rural communities.

Some of the notable services considered necessary for adequate child welfarethat are scarce in rural communitiesare substance abuse treatment, mental healthcare, and parenting classes. For the social services that are available, material distancethe literal distance that must be traveledcan make accessing and providing services expensive and time consuming.

Simply put, the lack of support and services in rural communities sweeps the legs out from under some of the broad reforms in the child welfare system, like the FFPSA, and leaves rural foster children with no place to go.

This only scratches the surface of several intersectional barriers to adequate child welfare in rural communities, a few of which have been discussed in a thread of blogs starting here, and in this law review article.

Child welfare is by no means an easy issue, and I cannot deny that state agencies and committed individuals and organizations are making efforts to improve it. I only draw attention to differences in rural infrastructure and social services that make rural foster youth especially vulnerable and frustrate the goal of family foster placements. 


Caitlin Durcan said...

This is a very interesting post regarding foster youth. I had never really thought about how foster care differs in rural vs. urban areas and the challenges rurality plays in what is already an underfunded program. Do we think that the huge uptick in foster children is due to the COVID pandemic, the opiod epidemic, or something else? Issues in foster care are widespread and not limited to rural places. It makes sense, however, that the issues common in urban foster care would be exacerbated by the physical distance in potential placement homes, and the inaccessibility that rural areas create.

Katie Eng said...

Thank you for this post! The shortage of suitable placements and the use of unconventional settings like hotel casinos are clear indicators of a deeply rooted problem. Your post highlighted the reality of rural areas’ limited social services and support networks that post obstacles to implementing FFPSA’s goal effectively. I wonder what we can do to improve social services in rural areas? We discussed in class how urban areas are better equipped to deploy services due to density and anonymity. Maybe social media campaigns would work best for youth.