When 17-year-old Lexie Grüber first entered the Allison Gill Lodge group home for girls in Manchester, Connecticut, she said it felt less like a home than a business. Instead of family photos, the walls were covered in informational posters and licensing certificates. When her emotions got the better of her, she said, the only conversations she had were with a doctor with a prescription pad at the ready.
Now 22 and a recent college graduate, Grüber came before the Senate Finance Committee this week to testify about the experience. She recalled being medicated to the point that she developed a facial tic. She said she lost basic privileges like phone calls and television time for what she now considers normal teenage behavior.
"Often, the group home residents were treated like second-class human beings," she said in her testimony. "I could not understand why I had to act perfectly just to have the basic social privileges of a child. Why was I being penalized for having been removed from an abusive home?"
Grüber was one of roughly 57,000 children who live in group homes for foster youth across the country. Many child advocates believe that's far too many. The Senate Finance Committee, which authorizes roughly $12 billion a year for child welfare programs, held this week's hearing to examine alternatives. The homes are supposed to offer intensive care for the nation's most troubled youth. But the homes have come under fire in recent years – as a failed model of care, and as places vulnerable to violence and sexual predation.
Earlier this year, a ProPublica examination showed how one of California's largest group homes descended into chaos – an unraveling that took place with the full knowledge of the home's staff, state regulators and the local police. Children disappeared for days at a time and began living in local parks. They became involved in fights, sexual assaults and drug abuse. Reports of neglect and abuse poured into the Department of Social Services, which oversees group homes in California, but the department did not aggressively act against the home until an 11-year-old girl from the facility was allegedly raped by two older boys from the home. ProPublica also found that the Department agency failed to reach any conclusion in investigating hundreds of allegations of abuse at similar homes throughout the state.
As well, the Chicago Tribune last year published a scathing series of stories on group homes in Illinois, finding that children had repeatedly been sent to facilities that were rife with abuse and that had become known recruiting grounds for pimps.
"Group homes, sometimes referred to as 'congregate care,' are literally breeding grounds for the sexual exploitation of children and youth," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement Tuesday. "As the committee heard during a hearing on domestic sex trafficking and of children and youth in foster care, traffickers know where these group homes are and target the children placed in them for prostitution."
Hatch has proposed a simple solution to longstanding problems in group homes: begin shutting them down.
In 2013, Hatch introduced legislation that would have cut off funding for children under age 13 living in group homes for longer than 15 days. The bill also sought to end funding for children over 13 after they had spent a year in such a facility. The bill didn't pass, but child welfare experts expect him to introduce a similar version of it at some point after this week's hearing.
"Here's how I look at it: No one would support allowing states to use federal taxpayer dollars to buy cigarettes for foster youth," said Hatch in his statement on the hearing. "In my view, continuing to use these scarce taxpayer dollars to fund long-term placements in group homes is ultimately just as destructive."
Earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden, the ranking Democratic member of the committee, circulated draft legislation that aimed to prevent children from entering foster care by better funding, training, and supporting biological parents and relatives of at-risk children.
Both bills echo recommendations in a report released yesterday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, one of the nation's largest child welfare organizations. The report encourages state agencies to place children with relatives as opposed to foster families or group homes, only using group homes as a last resort for children who need intensive mental health care.
"There is tremendous momentum and truly bipartisan support for this right now, so hopefully we're at a real turning point," said Rob Geen, director of policy reform and advocacy for the Casey Foundation. "There are far too many children being separated from their families and being placed in what is available instead of what is best for them. Now we have an agreement that there is a problem and a growing consensus on how to fix it."
According to the report, 40 percent of children living in group homes don't have a diagnosis that warrants such a placement. The report suggests that children are often sent to the homes because there is nowhere else for them to go.
President Obama's 2016 budget proposal aims to address that need. There is a $78 million dollar line item in it that would go toward specialized training for foster parents who agree to care for mentally ill children.
Joo Yeun Chang, a representative for the Department of Health of Human services who handles child issues, described the budget draft in her written testimony for the Senate hearing yesterday. In addition to foster parent training, the proposal would also require periodic mental health assessments for children living in group homes and smaller caseloads for social workers. Chang estimates that the proposal would save $69 million in foster care dollars over the next 10 years.
"The Administration believes that children are best served when raised in safe, loving families, and congregate care use should be limited to children who need intensive residential care due to medical issues, and only for as long as those interventions are needed," Chang said at the hearing.
Child welfare policy over the decades has regularly swung back and forth between efforts to keep troubled or vulnerable children in their homes and aggressively seeking to remove them at the first evidence of risk. The Miami Herald, over the same months that the Chicago Tribune series of articles was running, published a devastating investigation of how Florida's push to keep families intact had led to the deaths of scores of children.
Grüber, the former foster child who testified at the hearing, said she certainly would have preferred staying with a family member as opposed to living in a group home for two years.
In an interview, she told ProPublica that when she was first removed from her biological parents' home at age 15, she was placed with her uncle and his three sons in a three-bedroom home. She wanted to stay there. But she said that the Connecticut Department of Children and Families moved her to a homeless shelter and then into a foster home based on a technicality: that there weren't enough bedrooms for all the children living in her uncle's home.
"If I had stayed with my uncle, I would've had more stability. It would've been so much better to feel more involved with my family. My uncle is very involved in the church. He's really strict, but I think that would've been helpful to me. I needed that structure," Grüber said.
Kari Sisson, executive director for the American Association of Children's Residential Centers, told ProPublica that Australia closed its residential programs in the 1990s because foster care was cheaper. In time, she said, foster parents got overwhelmed and quit. Many youngsters ended up homeless or in jail. And Australia had to reopen the homes with more intensive therapeutic services in the mid-2000s.
"The conversation is fair, but it's not informed," she said. "I worry that they are making decisions that will seriously affect children who need therapeutic residential treatment. I've been a foster parent for many years and there are a lot of kids in the system that can't live in my house, because it's not safe for us and it's not safe for the community. They need a lot more intensive care than a foster parent can offer. It's very challenging."
Sisson was not called to testify.