By Dorienne J. Silva, MSW
On any given day in the United States more than 500,000 children and young people in the child welfare, behavioral health and juvenile justice systems are separated from their families, with many living in residential and institutional settings. Thousands more live in dangerous, unsafe communities.
For the sake of our children and our collective future, we must pursue a more constructive response that helps youth with complex needs stay safe and in their home communities. To that end, we at Youth Advocate Programs are taking our mission to the next level by initiating a collaborative campaign to bring our children "safely home."
With the launch of our Safely Home Campaign, we are leading a call for collaborative action.
We at YAP believe that a collective effort of a broad cross-sector of policy makers, providers and community stakeholders is essential to bring youth safely home from out-of-home placements and prevent future unnecessary placements.
We also believe that we have a shared responsibility to address the disparate practices that cause a disproportionate number of youth of color to be placed out-of-home.
And we believe that the time is ripe to redirect our investment in residential centers, correctional facilities and other types of congregate care to a more robust continuum of community services empowered to help youth with complex needs in their home communities, with the participation and support of their families.
For 38 years, YAP has created successful community-based alternatives to help at-risk children and youth thrive in their homes and communities. History provides us with the impetus to move forward. There was a time when it was considered the best intervention to remove children from their parents, homes, and communities and send them away to institutions for lengthy stays. Not only was it philosophically accepted to remove children, it was organized, intentional, systemic, and sanctioned by society’s “experts."
Through the clarity of hindsight, we know now that removing youth from their homes and community disrupts lives, may not necessarily be rehabilitative or therapeutic, and often creates severe disconnection to family, home and community.
Today, children are often removed from their homes because their needs do not fit into pre-designed and pre-set programs and services. Moreover, while children and youth are away from home, the environment they were removed from remains the same. Nothing in the home environment changes because the intervention with the youth is taking place elsewhere. This makes lasting change and transitioning back difficult.
While we have gradually moved away from institutionalizing youth, too many children remain in congregate care or institutional settings.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Report:
- The population of youth in the juvenile justice system declined at a faster rate from 2006 to 2010 than from 1997 to 2006. Despite this rapid decline, "the United States still locks up a larger share of the youth population than any other developed country.”
- Nearly 400,000 youth are in the foster care system with more than 57,000 living in some kind of institutional setting.
- More than 11 million children have one or more behavioral, emotional or developmental conditions. Many of these children and their families lack support in their home communities and may be subject to congregate care.
In addition to these statistics, youth with disabilities are especially vulnerable to policies and practices that end in removal. And youth who identify as LGBTQ face unique challenges and often lack support from a trusted adult and sometimes even their own families.
We launched the Safely Home Campaign to amplify the message that together, we can achieve the best outcomes for youth when: (1) individually-tailored community and home-based services and supports are in place with participation of youth and families; (2) we shift our practice away from congregate care or institutions and towards a continuum of community-based programs, redirecting resources to provide robust services; (3) we work to reduce ethnic and racial disparities in youth-serving systems by prioritizing culturally competent alternatives; and (4) we work to make communities safe for all young people.
We need to advocate for all kids, and remind those in positions of authority to influence systemic and individual remedies that we can do much better. Just because a youth is severely emotionally disturbed, does not mean she is better off placed indefinitely in a residential placement. Just because a young person in trouble does not have strong parental controls in the home, the answer is not to lock him in detention. It is not okay to incarcerate a teenage young woman because she has been a victim of sexual abuse and is now using the streets as a means for survival.
We must continue to advocate for practices that match the policies. It is not enough to have policy that speaks to concepts such as "least restrictive, community alternatives, continuum of care, and system of care,” without practices in place to reflect those policies. In today’s current practice, the actual services and supports are either not available or they are piecemeal, temporary, or inaccessible in real time. Unfortunately many times the crisis needs to happen before the intervention does.
It is critical that we continue to inform decision makers of the far reaching value of keeping youth in their communities and keeping communities safe.
We must spotlight the impact institutional placement had on youth, families and communities, including its devastating emotional and economic costs.
We must champion increased support for policies embracing in-home, community based care and redirection of funds from institutions to community programs.
We invite you to explore the Safely Home Campaign’s web-based home and partner with us to bring youth and young people back to their families and safely home. Together we can increase public awareness, commitment and accountability for change. As partners we can change systems through direct services, policy initiatives, advocacy and training. Together we can educate policymakers, advocates and the public about the consequences of congregate care for youth, young adults and their families. And together we can help alleviate society's already strained resources, compromised by costly out-of-home placements yielding little to negative net social benefit.
Safely Home is a movement gaining momentum. Join us.
Dorienne J. Silva is Deputy CEO and President of Southeast US and International Programs for Youth Advocate Programs.