I remember walking into my first congregate care setting at 12 years old and processing my new environment. I felt uncomfortable and thought it was odd that all the girls operated as if it was a normal setting. It was far from normal.
Eventually I would adapt, conditioned like so many before me to function in an institution. It is beyond doubt that congregate care settings are not an ideal placement for youth. In many cases, these settings add more trauma to a young person’s life.
I have a first hand perspective of living in different kinds of youth institutions, not only understanding the complexity of issues within group settings, but also the lifelong journey of healing needed to repair the damage they cause.
My story is not singular. Last year, I was a researcher on the Think of Us team that published Away From Home, an in-depth report on the experiences and perspectives of young people who have recently lived in institutional placements in foster care. We heard from so many young people who had stories like mine.
The problem with placing youth in institutions is not only a problem within child welfare.
Youth in many systems are put in institutions – including foster care group homes, juvenile justice settings, youth prisons, treatment facilities, behavior modification centers, and other for-profit institutions. There is a growing consciousness around the harmful experiences and poor outcomes of institutionalizing youth. And, there is a growing demand for a paradigm shift.
Fund Care Not Cages
Recently, Think of Us joined the National Juvenile Justice Network, The National Disability Rights Network, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, We Warned Them Campaign, and the New Jersey Institute for Justice’s 150 Years Is Enough Campaign, for Fund Care Not Cages: Invest in Families and Communities. This event featured leaders across sectors who share a common mission: to stop the harms of institutionalizing youth and to place more youth with families.
Sarah Sullivan – the Project Lead of Away From Home – and I shared insights about how foster youth have experienced institutionalization. And we heard our colleagues within other systems share the harms that youth experience in other kinds of institutions.
While each organization serves a different purpose and takes a different approach, four important themes emerged:
1. Institutions harm the health and wellbeing of children.
Away From Home clearly documents many of the harms that foster youth experience in institutions. But foster youth aren’t the only ones who are impacted. Andrea Fannin, a senior advocate from the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program described youth experiences in for-profit placements in her state. Established through federal mandate to “promote, protect, and expand,” the rights of people with disabilities in Alabama, this program found heinous physical, abuse and conditions detrimental to the health and well-being of children living in congregate care facilities.
The heart wrenching stories and experiences of Alabama youth left me in anguish. Increased oversight and community-based supports must be put in place to protect children within these facilities.
2. Institutions are for profit, not for healing.
Jasmyne Arianna presented on behalf of the We Warned Them Campaign, sharing her experiences as a survivor of institutional abuse. Her story moved me to urgency.
We continue to see intolerable violations on youth within for-profit institutions, including actions that have led to the death of young people. It disturbs me to know that not only are more youth being subjected to these dangerous conditions, but that many leaders across the country are complacent.
3. The cost of institutions is too high.
The institutionalization of youth comes at a tremendous social and financial cost to society. A conversation led by Ashanti Jones, with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, unveiled statistics that painted a disturbing picture for youth.
New Jersey children of color are 18x more likely to receive punitive measures than their white peers. “You're really sending messages to young people on who is deserving of being considered a kid.” -Ashanti Jones. She further illustrated the financial impacts of imprisoning youth and the dramatic increase of costs to imprison each youth per year - from $285,000 in 2018 to $455,000 in 2021, advocating for this funding to instead be utilized for schools and other community programs.
4. Youth deserve to live in families.
Away From Home calls for an end to the unnecessary use of institutions in foster care, “building up the world in which institutions are rendered obsolete,” by investing in family-based alternatives such as kinship supports and focusing on prevention so that youth don’t have to leave their families in the first place.
It turns out that our colleagues in other systems are saying the same thing.
A Shared Understanding
It has become increasingly apparent that what we know about youth in foster care as it relates to institutionalization is also the narrative for many other youth in intersecting systems. Institutionalization creates deeply ingrained trauma that requires a journey of lifelong healing.
Institutional settings are not a fit placement for youth. Youth deserve normalcy, and equitable opportunities to develop, and strive to thrive in their own communities which group setting placements cannot and have failed to provide.
What will it take to move forward in creating better conditions and options for young people? How long will systems remain complacent with institutions that advertise healing and treatment, but far too many outcomes produce additional trauma and damage?
Multiplying Calls for a Paradigm Shift
The experts and efforts featured in Fund Care Not Cages offered compelling arguments for a paradigm shift in the congregate care industry and practical solutions for sustainable pathways to this goal - end for-profit care facilities for youth, redirect funds to community-based prevention based efforts, increase federal oversight, provide family settings, and more.
Some issues are more easily solved than others. Regardless, young people and their families are depending on leaders to create change. Advocates, leaders, and systems cannot remain complacent or silent in knowing that conditions for youth are far less than adequate and many times damaging to their health and wellbeing. We must work together toward better outcomes for all youth.
We must center lived experience to create real change.
Away From Home allowed people with lived experience to share the true narrative of their experiences in institutional placements in foster care. Without their leadership and unwavering bravery, the real harms of institutions would continue to be overlooked. We are grateful for them and so many others who have sounded the alarm on the problem of institutions. Their courage to convey their vulnerable truths has set the stage to challenge the current conditions to which youth are subjected.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a village to support that child’s parent.”
- Ann Douglas.
I believe deep in my heart that there is not one aspect of a facility that can replace or supplement what a community or family is capable of providing. It is time to reimagine a world where institutions are no longer necessary, and instead replaced with co-created and community-based solutions that serve and support youth. We can no longer build solutions from a system that is fundamentally broken, but instead with those who have been directly impacted by the actions of this broken system. In partnership with people with lived experience, we must begin to explore what better conditions and opportunities for youth can look like.
You can watch the full presentation of Care Not Cages here.
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