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  • Close to 57,000 American kids in the foster system reside in a group setting on any given day. Tweet This
  • Kids in the foster system are happier and have better outcomes if they live in families rather than group settings. Tweet This

The vast majority of American children in the child welfare system live with foster families. Yet one in seven of them, and one in three of the system's teens—close to 57,000 young people in all on a given day—reside in a group setting. A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests those numbers are higher than they need to be.

Foster families tend to draw the spotlight only in the event of neglect or abuse. Although adjusting to a new family, and often a temporary one, is doubtless hard in the best of situations, surveys of children living with foster parents show that the vast majority are happy: "More than 90 percent 'like who they are living with' and 'feel like part of the family,'" the report notes. Children in the welfare system are most likely to rate their experiences positively if they are living with kin, and least likely to do so if they are in a group facility. Kids in family care also have better educational and behavioral outcomes, and they are better protected from abuse:

Compared with children placed in the care of families, children in group homes were more likely to test below or far below in basic English and mathematics, more likely to drop out and less likely to graduate from high school. A 2008 study found that youth in group placements were 2.4 times as likely to be arrested, compared with similar youth living with foster families. Furthermore, placing already traumatized children in group settings can put them at greater risk of further physical abuse, when compared with children placed in families.

On top of that, group placements cost up to ten times more than family placements.

In light of these numbers, why do so many kids languish in group settings? One major reason is a shortage of suitable foster families—a problem child welfare agencies can largely remedy through better recruitment and preparation of foster families, both kin and non-kin. Plenty of kids in the child welfare system only reside in group homes temporarily, but having more foster families available could make their stays much shorter or ideally not necessary at all.

The situation is more complicated for other children: almost six in ten of those in group settings have documented clinical or behavioral problems. Indeed, for some teens, it was a behavioral challenge—not parental abuse or neglect—that caused them to enter the foster care system in the first place. A separate AECF report suggests more can be done to help struggling parents address their teenage kids' issues without sending them to group homes. For instance, the child welfare system can help parents learn to manage teens' problems more effectively and draw on existing resources in their extended families and broader communities.

For teens and younger children with the most serious mental health or behavioral issues, a temporary stay of up to six months in a residential treatment facility may be appropriate. The AECF likens residential facilities to emergency rooms: they should aim to resolve patients' problems in a timely manner to enable their return home, rather than serve as homes themselves. With access to intensive support and therapy, even children with grave emotional and behavioral problems can do well with trained foster families.Kids in foster care have typically weathered many difficulties prior to entering the child welfare system. It is unjust to them—not to mention unwise for society as a whole—to consign them to group homes without good reason.