Out-of-Home Placement Options for Children in the Child Welfare System

(July 14, 2023) In my previous blog, “A Glimpse at the Child Welfare System: An Introduction to Child Protective Services,” I talked about how a child becomes involved in the CYF system and gave a brief overview of the different directions a case can go. One important determination that needs to be made is if a child has to be removed from home, and, if so, where he or she will be placed.

Ideally, the goal is to keep children at home with their family, with the necessary services and safety plans in place. When this is not an option due to imminent risk of harm or safety, a child is removed and placed in an out-of-home placement while the parents work to alleviate the circumstances that led to the removal. There are several different kinds of out-of-home placements that are categorized from least restrictive to the most restrictive.

The least restrictive placement for children removed from their homes is known as kinship care. Kinship care is similar to foster care but with kin – family or close friends. The parents are asked to identify family or friends that may be appropriate and willing to provide temporary care for their children. If kin can be identified for placement, they have the option to become certified foster parents. This option affords them the opportunity to receive financial assistance as well as other supports from a foster care agency. ​​Kinship care has the added benefit of placing children in the homes of relatives or friends, reducing the chance of further traumatizing the child after their removal from home. They can also stay connected to their communities and cultures.

When kinship care is not possible, the next best option is traditional foster care. Traditional foster care is provided by families who are willing to open their hearts and homes to children in need. Foster care provides a family-like environment where children can receive care and support from a foster family. These families go through extensive training, an in-depth home inspection, and criminal, child abuse, and FBI clearances. They are completely certified before any child is placed in their home. Whenever possible, siblings are placed together in the same home. Foster parents are asked to provide temporary care and also be supportive to the reunification process.

The next type of out-of-home placement is a group home or congregate care facility. This is placement in a non-family, residential group setting and therefore is a more restrictive placement. These facilities have many children living together and cared for by staff. The children are typically separated by gender and sleep in rooms with multiple other youth. Group homes are usually for children at least 10 years of age or older. There’s no question that congregate care isn’t the best way to protect or nurture vulnerable children. That’s not because the people who manage and staff group homes are not caring, loving people. It’s because these settings, where children are raised by professionals doing shift work, are not families. And children, by definition, belong in families. Therefore, there is a big movement in Allegheny County to end congregate care. Over the past several years, many of the congregate care facilities have closed and more foster homes have been created, but not nearly enough foster homes have been identified.

When there are no kinship placements, foster homes, or congregate care placements available, children are placed in temporary shelters. This is only ever used as the absolute last option for children that have been removed from their parents. Shelters essentially house children and meet their basic needs until a less restrictive environment is identified. In Allegheny County, there are very few options for shelters so children sometimes have to be sent to a shelter out of county. This is obviously not ideal at all as the children will not only be away from their family and community but also their school.

When children are removed from their home for any length of time, it is going to be traumatic, regardless of where they are placed. It is clear that trauma can be minimized by placing children with kin, and when kin cannot be identified, placing children in the least restrictive environments. It is also crucial to have the least amount of placement changes as possible, meaning keeping the child attending the same school, involved in the same activities, church, etc. The trauma that accompanies placement changes puts children at risk for negative outcomes such as aggression, delinquency, and depression, and can lead to delayed permanency, academic difficulties, and challenges developing meaningful attachments. Our children deserve better, and we can work together to minimize the lasting impact.

Heather Wilkes, Allies for Children Policy Director