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Ohio Agencies Prepare For Federal Overhaul Of Foster Care Reimbursement

Huckleberry House
Adora Namigadde
/
WOSU
Huckleberry House is a crisis emergency shelter for runaway and homeless youth of Central Ohio.

Everyone who works in foster care agrees that it’s ideal to place children in kinship care, meaning with relatives, friends or neighbors who are familiar to them. Foster home placement is the next step. But when that option is not available, children are placed in group homes or congregate settings. Experts say they’re an outdated model that doesn’t best serve kids who need foster care the most.

Foster care experts agree that a piece of legislation taking effect October 1 will overhaul the foster care system.

“The Family First Act is the most important child welfare reform law since probably the last 20 years,” Ohio Children’s Alliance President Mark Mecum said.

Mecum’s agency is getting ready for when the Family First Prevention Services Act takes effect this October. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, county agencies and private organizations have been gearing up for its implementation.

“There’s really two big categories of work,” Mecum said. “There are new standards for congregate care settings or group homes. And then there’s new flexibility to use what normally was called foster care money to prevent kids from entering foster care in the first place.”

The Public Children’s Services Association of Ohio is the member association for the state’s 85 county children’s service agencies. Scott Britton, the organization’s assistant director, said a big financial change will disincentive agencies from sending kids to group homes:

Under the Family First Act, there will not be federal reimbursement available anymore for group home care.

With limited exceptions, the federal government will not reimburse states for children placed in group care settings for more than two weeks.

Mark Mecum
Adora Namigadde
Mark Mecum is the president and CEO of Ohio Children's Alliance, a statewide child advocacy organization.

Federal Government Withdrawing Reimbursement For Group Homes

“We want kids to be in the least restrictive environment. Ideally, that means keeping them home with their parents,” Britton said. “If it’s not safe to keep them home, then the first place we’d like to look is kin.”

When kinship care isn’t available, agencies turn to foster home placement. And if that's not available, they turn to group homes. Ohio is one of nine states that has state-supervised but county-administered children’s services programs. Britton says that means counties run their agencies independently. Because foster care isn’t centralized in Ohio, group homes have different meanings. Britton said people generally use the term in reference to non-family foster care settings.

“We’re a reactive system by nature,” Britton explained. “We are not designed to go in and provide programs on the front end. To prevent we rely on home visiting programs and community behavioral health.”

The federal government defines a group home as more than six foster kids in a family setting or more than 25 in an institution, and that’s what stands to lose federal money this fall.

Britton said while group homes are not ideal, they play a vital role in the system.

“It’s an exciting transformation because the numbers we’ve seen since 2013. You know, custody numbers have shot through the roof,” Britton said. “We went from about 12,000 children in foster care on any given day in the state to now more than 15,000 in foster care on any given day.”

Advocates say Franklin County has a large number of group foster homes. WOSU tried to confirm the number with Franklin County Children’s Services and The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, but both declined to comment for this story or did not return WOSU’s calls.

Pushing Out Group Homes Could Do More Harm Than Good

Even though group care isn’t ideal, ACTION Ohio Communications Director Lisa Dickson said closing group homes isn’t the solution.

“Because the fact is, there aren’t enough foster placements. There especially are not enough foster placements for teens,” Dickson said. “So we know we have this huge problem, you don’t have enough foster homes for teens. With the best of intentions, you can shut down these group homes, and then where will the teens go?”

Dickson referenced a case in Cuyahoga County last year where a 17-year-old boy was found sleeping in the county’s division of children’s and family services offices for more than a month while awaiting foster care placement.

“If maybe the energy and passion was focused less on shutting down group homes and more on, ‘how do we get people excited about fostering teens? How do we help them become less anxious about it?” Dickson said.

Gov. Mike DeWine issued an Ohio Children’s Services Transformation Advisory Council in 2019, and the group issued 37 recommendations last year – including establishing an ombudsman office to independently investigate children’s complaints, create a consistent statewide onboarding program and establish a Foster Youth Bill of Rights.