MONTPELIER, Vermont — The percentage of Vermont children in foster care who aren't being cared for by families is higher than the national average, according to a report released Tuesday that emphasizes the importance of children making lifetime links to families and using group placements as a last option.
The national Kids Count report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that 20 percent of Vermont children in state custody were placed in non-family settings, such as group homes, in 2013 compared with the national rate of 14 percent.
The Vermont Department for Children and Families' commissioner, Ken Schatz, said he is aware of the state's rate being higher and has asked department staff in collaboration with the Agency of Human Services to continue work already being done on the issue with a particular focus on whether the state is sending too many youths into group homes, known as residential care.
"There is active work going on to look at that system to see if in fact we can reduce the number of children and youth in residential care," Schatz said.
He pointed out that children in state custody include some who have been involved in delinquent behavior.
A number of other states also have juvenile justice populations handled by the same agency that handles child welfare cases, and some have high rates and others have low rates of children in group facilities, said Tracey Feild, director of child welfare strategy within the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy based in Baltimore.
"In a lot of ways it's still the same problem," Feild said. "The same problem is there's often very little reason for youth, especially youth which would include the juvenile justice population, to be placed into a group facility rather than into a foster family."
Nationally, 40 percent of young people who live in group placements while in child welfare systems have no behavioral or medical need to be in these restrictive settings, which threatens their well-being and potential for finding permanent homes, the report said. The placements also can harm a child's chances of developing strong nurturing attachments and be up to 10 times more expensive than placing a child with a relative or foster family, the report said.
The foundation recommends:
— increasing service options to ensure support so children can remain safely in families;
— public and private agencies do more to find families and make sure they have support to help children thrive;
— strengthening and keeping residential treatment short to prepare children to live with families; and
— requiring justification by child welfare systems and by courts for placing children in group placement.
Since 2013, the number of children in state custody in Vermont has risen 20 percent to 1,200, likely related to their parents' or caregivers' opiate addiction, Schatz said.
The state already has in place a multi-agency screening process before any child is sent to residential treatment and a range of excellent residential programs that do some good work with children, he said. The state also has ongoing efforts to recruit more foster parents, he said.