The National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) held a webinar to discuss congregate care and group care for youth and advocating for connected placements during the COVID-19 pandemic. This public health pandemic places youth in congregate care facilities at an increased risk of contracting the virus than youth in family-like settings or foster homes. In congregate care facilities or group homes, youth live in close proximity to one another and have staff constantly in rotation, increasing the risk of exposure for the residents and personnel.
Presenters included attorneys Jennifer Rodriguez from the Youth Law Center, Jennifer Pokempner from the Juvenile Law Center, and Tom Welshonce from KidsVoice. They each reiterated that attorneys play a key role in advocating to get and keep their clients out of congregate care during the COVID-19 pandemic. The presenters shared that many youth have experienced isolation and additional restrictions due to the public health pandemic.
We do not know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end or how much the virus will spread. Now is the time to engage in robust planning with youth in congregate care to improve the risks they face. As the daily functions of agencies and support systems involved in a youth’s case become more limited, resulting in fewer and different types of contact with the youth, the role of attorneys and advocates is critical to ensuring that youth who can exit congregate care do so now, that facility conditions are monitored and reported, and that the full scope of the youth’s needs are met. This toolkit is intended as a resource in support of those goals.
Federal and state laws, as well as best practices, support the least-restrictive, most family-like placement for youth in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Yet, many youth continues to be placed in congregate care at alarming rates. The risks and concerns of congregate care placement are not new problems, but they have been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Investment and commitment to youth do not happen in congregate care; it happens in family-like settings.
The panelist reiterated that the youth’s placement into congregate care is mostly because of behaviors, especially for older youth. These include running away or aggression rather than the need for mental health treatment. Research and data have shown that youth who end up in congregate care placements typically include youth of color, particularly black boys. Black and indigenous youth are placed in group care settings at higher rates than white children and ultimately have disparate outcomes to permanency and re-entry into foster care.
In addressing normalcy and prudent parenting, being in congregate care settings does not present normal-like childhood experiences for youth. For youth, specifically youth of color, they want and need to be out protesting to create the change for their future, and in group care, they are denied the opportunity to find strength and hope. Congregate care facilities prohibit this kind of activism and activities by nature of the structure. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, youth in group homes are limited to communication with friends and family, more than anyone, and some have to be isolated to prevent transmission to one another, which is ultimately solidarity confinement. In advocating for youth in congregate care, professionals should consider the best interest of youth currently, because it can change over time, and consider the factors as it related to COVID-19.