The research paints a bleak picture for teens who live in group homes, residential treatment facilities and institutions. Many end up unemployed, homeless or incarcerated — victims of a system that may take care of them physically, but fails to meet their social and emotional needs.
“These are not the outcomes we want for the children we serve,” said Shirley Rhodus, administrator of child welfare for the El Paso County Department of Human Services.
So on Wednesday, DHS rolled out a new approach to dealing with troubled teens. Rather than turn to “congregate care” facilities, such as group homes, DHS and child advocates in the area want to do more to track down relatives who will take the teens in and become a stable force in their lives.
“We have to change,” Rhodus told a crowd of hundreds of DHS caseworkers and child placement representatives. “We have poor outcomes. We have kids emancipating to nothing.”
El Paso County has the highest rate of congregate care in Colorado, and one of the highest in the U.S., with about one-third of kids in the system being placed in a facility — double the national average of 15 to 16 percent.
Last year, a Baltimore-based organization renowned for its work on child welfare issues offered to work with El Paso County officials to bring the rate down. For about eight weeks, officials with the Annie E. Casey Foundation interviewed Colorado Springs-area foster parents, caseworkers, child placement workers and DHS staff.
The goals of the new system include reducing the number of kids initially placed in congregate care and moving those already in congregate care to live with relatives.
“It’s a permanent connection to people who mean something to them,” Rhodus said.
For DHS workers and others in the child welfare system, it means stepping up efforts to find relatives willing to take in teens, and supporting them through the life of the case. Ideally, the stability and feeling of belonging will set the kids on a productive path.
“Many of our youth now don’t fare well after leaving the system,” Rhodus said.
The new model won’t work for every teen, Rhodus acknowledged, but the agency will be more diligent about identifying kids who still need congregate care.
“We are doing strong gatekeeping to determine which kids need to be at that level of care,” she said.
One participant at Wednesday’s event questioned whether the new initiative will end up being a flavor-of-the-month program, soon to be forgotten. But Rhodus painted it as a sea change in local child welfare operations.
“It’s a reform agenda for changing everything we do,” Rhodus said.