As Maryland works to move a record number of disadvantaged children out of group homes, local advocates say the initiative is going too far.
Two of Montgomery County’s four group homes were denied state funding this year. The homes, which provide the children with care and support in a residential setting, are allocated beds through the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
The department decided not to renew three-year-long contracts for Aunt Hattie’s Place in Sandy Spring and F&N Youth Home in Silver Spring.
Hattie Washington, founder of Aunt Hattie’s Place, is concerned the state is basing their contract decisions on budget numbers, not children’s success. Though her organization’s facility in Baltimore received funding, her two other group homes in Baltimore County and Montgomery County were denied funding and stand on the brink of closure.
“This is the first time ever we’ve had someone say, ‘Because of a new initiative, we only need four group homes in Montgomery County instead of 11,’” Washington said.
The state’s initiative, called “Place Matters,” seeks to remove disadvantaged children from a succession of foster and group homes and into more permanent places, preferably with their families. Out of the eight boys who had to be moved out of Aunt Hattie’s Place in Sandy Spring in June, two were returned to their families: one by a parent’s request and one by court order. Another was moved to Aunt Hattie’s Place in Baltimore, but the fate of the other boys is unknown.
“When they take a kid, very rarely do they tell us where that kid is going,” said Eric Fenwick, executive director of Aunt Hattie’s Place.
According to a news release from Human Resources, the number of children placed in group homes has fallen by 67 percent, from about 1,890 to 620, since the initiative started in 2007. Statewide, the number of children in residential child care is at its lowest levels in 25 years, the release said.
Washington believes “Place Matters” is too quick to move children out of group homes, and the result might be worse for the children.
“I’m just afraid that [the department is] doing it for the wrong reason, instead of caring for these kids long term,” she said.
Now, Washington is struggling to keep the Sandy Spring group home open without state funding.
Chuck Short, a special assistant to Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett and former director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said Montgomery can’t afford to lose more group homes.
“In the not-too-distant future, there will not be enough beds, in my view, to provide continuing care to adolescents,” he said.
Short said the state can’t eliminate group homes, as different kids need different kinds of care.
Brian Schleter, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources, said group homes still are necessary.
“Our placements are always based on the needs of the child and our goal is that every child is placed in the least restrictive setting that meets their service needs and moves them toward achieving permanency,” Schleter said. “In some cases the appropriate setting may be a group home, and in others it may be other types of care.”
Still, Short worries that the gradual elimination of group homes bears similarities to deinstitutionalization in the 1970s. At that time, mentally disabled patients living in overcrowded psychiatric institutions were pushed out and left with few resources as facilities closed and funding dried up.
“I worry that we’re going to go down that same road with children,” Short said.
Before Maurice Christopher spent eight years at Aunt Hattie’s Place group homes, he was living in foster homes.
“My mom was unable to take care of me,” he said. Both his parents had been in prison when he was growing up, and he never met his father.
For a short time, he lived with his grandmother, but his grandparents couldn’t afford to keep him, he said. He and his four siblings were split up.
Christopher wasn’t doing well in school while he was being moved around foster homes, he said, and he suffered from “behavior problems” the first few years he was at Aunt Hattie’s Place.
Christopher, now 18, lives in Baltimore, at the only Aunt Hattie’s Place group home to receive state funding. With encouragement from Washington and her group home staff, Christopher is working to earn certification to become an emergency medical technician.
Short said he supports foster care, but it should not be the only option for disadvantaged children.
“It’s critical to have a continuum of care in the state, because all kids are not the same,” he said.
Shelley Tinney, director for the Maryland Association of Resources for Family and Youth, works with group homes around the state.
“We believe there are kids whose behavior and whose circumstances make it extremely difficult for them to be served in a family setting,” Tinney said. “They need an around-the-clock supervised structure.”
Washington said kids who need group homes but have been pushed out of them are worse off. Some kids who have left Aunt Hattie’s Place to go into a sixth foster home, for example, or to live with a relative, have been abused or become homeless, she said.
“These are children who are desperately in need of a relationship,” Short said.
In June, Short sent an email to group homes advocates around the county, encouraging them to meet with the state to talk about possible consequences of “Place Matters.”
“We’re calling for a conversation about this,” he said, “before it’s too late.”