Colorado work group establishing rules for foster care reform that eliminates group homes

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Federal child welfare reform is driving a new model of foster care, essentially eliminating group homes, reducing congregant living in staffed facilities, and creating “professional foster care parents” who are trained to help children recover from trauma they’ve experienced and improve misbehavior.

“These children will heal better in family settings, in home therapy,” said W. Lee Oesterle, executive director of Kids Crossing.

The El Paso County-based child placement agency has been working on Colorado’s adoption of the Families First Prevention Services Act. Oesterle co-chairs a 29-member, statewide Foster Care Placement Continuum Work Group that began meeting in mid-January.

The objective of the new federal law is to have children live in the least restrictive, most home-like environment, he said.

The work group will issue recommendations to the Colorado Department of Human Services on an April 1 rollout and an Oct. 1 implementation of the Families First act.

“The goal is to collectively put our brains together to advance the foster-care continuum and redefine placement,” said Amber Biss, child, youth and family services manager for El Paso County Department of Human Services and a member of the work group. “We’re hoping having different levels or types opens up more opportunities for kids to be in lower levels of care.”

The system overhaul aims to keep children out of foster care by helping parents or guardians who are having problems with their children before removing them from the home.

For example, Medicaid can cover in-home therapy, Biss said. Other strategies include providing parenting education in the home or addressing parental substance abuse, a major reason kids enter the system, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Teens who use alcohol or drugs, are truant at school, run away from home, have juvenile delinquency cases, aggression issues or sexual misconduct normally are sent to congregant centers because their actions are too difficult for traditional foster parents to handle.

To reduce the number of teens in congregant living, therapeutic foster homes will become the norm, with stay-at-home parents whose full-time job is foster care. The parents will be trained in trauma-informed response, and receive 24-hour crisis support and assistance with schooling.

“We’re creating a therapeutic team of professionals that will work with the families and the youth,” Oesterle said. “If you need someone at 3 in the morning, someone will show up at your door.”

Three Kids Crossing group homes in Colorado Springs, one in Pueblo and one in La Junta have been transitioning to the new therapeutic model under a pilot program that began in June 2019.

About a year ago, Champion St. Paul started fostering two teenagers and enjoyed the work so much that after a month, he expanded to accommodate six adolescent boys.

“We receive support from our home supervisor with administration, as well as mentors, life skills, therapy and tutors,” St. Paul said.

“It can be hectic at times, but more often than not, having a full home allows for support in accountability, peers to confide in, brotherhood, confidence building and, of course, lots of laughter.”

Among its tasks, the work group, which includes representatives from state and county human service departments and child placement agencies, is determining which types of teens will need the therapeutic services and how to reimburse those foster parents.

The state of Colorado pays foster parents a tax-free base rate of $36.36 is per child per day for housing, feeding, clothing, transporting and other needs. The work group is considering recommending therapeutic foster parents receive $70 to $90 per child per day, Oesterle said.

The new federal law also recognizes that there aren’t enough foster homes for the number of children in the system, Oesterle said. Colorado’s shortage is estimated at 900 or so homes, he said.

The work group expects 100 to 200 new therapeutic homes will be needed to meet the demand.

While COVID-19 initially produced an uptick in interest in people who wanted to become foster families, the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic have increased the need.

Since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago, Children’s Hospital Colorado has noticed what officials are calling “a startling trend.”

Non-accidental trauma — child abuse — accounts for 11.7% of the trauma cases seen at the hospital and now ranks as the second-highest cause for children to enter the emergency department, the hospital reported earlier this month.

While trauma generally spikes during summer months from bike crashes, trampoline injuries and other mishaps, non-accidental trauma saw a steady increase in 2020, officials said, with more than 30 cases of non-accidental trauma reported at the Colorado Springs location in December 2020 and January 2021.

The correlation is not immediate, but generally when child abuse and neglect hotline calls and cases increase, so does the need for more foster placement, officials said.

Different attempts have been made in the past to improve the child-welfare system, but this is the first time the federal government is providing states with money to make the changes, Oesterle said. States that don’t meet the goals will be financially sanctioned and penalized for having too many adolescents in congregate-living facilities.

“It really incentivizes the states to work to make these changes,” Oesterle said.

Anyone interested in foster parenting can call Jin Tassler, (719) 650-4433 or email Jintassler@elpasoco.com. The webpage is https://humanservices.elpasoco.com/child-protective-services/foster-care/.