Rhode Island’s child welfare system is under the microscope. Gov. Gina Raimondo has called for a complete overhaul, saying the Department of Children, Youth, and Families has not only been mismanaged, but has failed the children and families it’s supposed to serve.
One measure of that failure is the number of children placed in group homes.
Group homes might be necessary for some, but it's a kind of care critics say can be damaging to children. Yet Rhode Island places a higher percentage of kids in congregate care than almost any other state.
This is the first story in our series "Children in Crisis," examining child welfare in the Ocean State.
Tichanda looks like a typical teenager in jeans and a sweatshirt. We’re not using her last name to protect her privacy. She’s at the offices of Child and Family, an agency that works with kids and families in the child welfare system. Tichanda has spent most of her 19 years in the system. Now, she has to move out of her group home, the last in a long line.
“I’m just trying to find an apartment that’s $600 for rent, because it’s hard to find those," says Tichanda. "And I have to figure out how I’m going to pay for utilities, and food…”
Money will be tight. But Tichanda’s looking forward to living by her own rules after years of living by the state’s. Authorities removed her and her sister from their home when Tichanda was five years old. She says her father abused them, and both parents were sinking into addiction.
“It got to the point where our father would spend all our food money on all his drugs, so we had nothing to eat. The house was always really dirty, dishes in the sink were piling up, toilets weren’t working, there [were] holes where rats and stuff would come into the house.”
Tichanda says she and her sister lived with foster families at first. And after state authorities decided it wasn’t safe to go home, her little sister was adopted. There’s a picture of Tichanda from a few years ago, smiling hopefully on the web page of an adoption service. But she says it didn’t work out. Sometimes, she says, she wasn’t ready for another family.
“It was hard to accept that my mom wasn’t going to change," she says, "and wasn’t going to take me back.”
So child welfare authorities placed her in one group home after another. Sometimes she aged out of a program. Sometimes, she says, she acted up and got herself moved. By her count, 92 times.
“I actually have a list," Tichanda laughs. "And so I’ve actually sat down and counted them. Each individual one.”
Add to that tally 12 different schools. Countless times packing and unpacking. New addresses. New bedrooms. New staff names to learn. The longer she lived in group homes, she says, the harder it got to imagine another kind of life. That, she says, and the trauma of her early years, have taken a toll on her mental health.
“I was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, mood disorder, and anxiety," she says.
Tichanda says medication helps. But when it doesn’t, she reads. Her eyes light up behind her glasses.
“I love my books, my books are my world. So I usually make sure, like I’ll count my books, and I’ll memorize the names on my books so I’ll know which ones are lost," says Tichanda. "Because I love reading, because reading gets me away.”
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It’s no surprise Tichanda needed to escape, says Tracey Feild. She’s a child welfare expert with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Her team reported its findings about problems at Rhode Island’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families, or DCYF, earlier this year. Feild says the major issue is an over-reliance on group homes. They’re bad for kids’ development.
“There is a period of time during adolescence that kids really need individualized help to gain the independence skills they will need for adulthood," Feild says. "And the way they develop this is through connection with a loving adult.”
Feild says it’s tough to find that kind of connection in a group home.
“When you’re in a group setting, everyone’s treated alike. Everyone follows the same rules. You’re not allowed to break out and try new things as you can manage them and handle them.”
Feild says kids do best in families. If not their own, then with relatives or a permanent foster family. But in Rhode Island, Feild says, there hasn’t been a strong enough effort to find those options.
And that’s because the system is broken, says Jamia McDonald. She’s been tapped by Gov. Gina Raimondo to reform DCYF. In her office at a government complex in Cranston, McDonald says DCYF caseworkers don’t want to put so many kids in group homes. It’s the most disruptive option. Plus it’s expensive – more than $400 dollars a day. But there aren’t a lot of other options.
“There’s not a cohesive step-down, right? So if a bed costs $420 a day or a $20 in-home visit, there’s no range in between that. There’s no middle ground," McDonald says. "So what we’ve been focusing on is how do we reinvest, how do we build out the spectrum?”
By spectrum, she means the range of services needed to help families in crisis before a child has to be removed. McDonald says DCYF signed multi-million-dollar contracts nonprofit agencies to help build that spectrum. The idea was to reduce the reliance on group homes, or congregate care and rein in the agency’s strained budget. So far, it hasn’t worked.
“The savings that were anticipated through this process were never realized," McDonald says. "And those savings were the things that were supposed to drive the innovation and creation of the services that draw us away from the congregate. So we know it didn’t happen.”
McDonald and her team are working on a turnaround plan to help reduce the number of children in group homes. To do that, she says the agency doesn’t necessarily need to create a bunch of new programs and services for them. But they have to find a way to fit the services to the families, and not the other way around.
Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the two-thousand children in DCYF’s care are in group homes – well over the national average.
They're kids like Tichanda, the 19-year-old who’s getting ready to leave one of those homes. She says she’s had some good social workers and counselors while in the care of DCYF. But sometimes they were just a voice on the other end of the phone.
“I kind of wish DCYF had been there for me more in my life as they were taking me away," she says, "besides just shoving me in places.”
Tichanda says she’s learned to cope with being on her own. She has a job she loves, working with kids in an after school program. But the scars of her early childhood and a life spent without the presence of a loving parent won’t easily fade. Child welfare experts warn those experiences create the conditions for an uphill battle in adulthood.
And with so many in group homes, it’s a battle children in Rhode Island may be facing at rates higher than in almost every other state in the nation.