TREATING KIDS IN THE COMMUNITY WORKS IN THEORY, BUT NOT ALWAYS IN PRACTICE
IF the lock-'em-up approach doesn't help most troubled children, what does? The choice among juvenile-justice reformers is almost unanimous: community-based care. In many states across the United States, group homes are emerging as the popular option for supervising kids in their home communities. These facilities, ideally situated in residential neighborhoods, provide specific treatment 24 hours a day for delinquent, abused, or neglected youths.Skip to next paragraph
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In California, group homes are virtually the only alternative to incarceration or foster care. With the largest group home network in the nation, the state can house up to 14,000 children in these facilities at any one time. Since 1979, the number of group homes here has proliferated from 774 to 1,396.
No one knows, however, whether group homes are any more effective than institutions at turning young offenders from crime.
``It's too early to tell anything,'' says Peter Greenwood of the RAND Corporation. The juvenile-justice researcher, in a first-of-its-kind study, is comparing rearrest rates of Los Angeles County youths placed in group homes with rearrest rates of kids sentenced to California Youth Authority institutions. The verdict won't be in on group homes, he says, for at least another 18 months.
Are these facilities better for troubled kids than incarceration is?
``There's no excuse for the California Youth Authority,'' claims group-home administrator Leslie Acoca, echoing the view of juvenile-justice reformers that group homes are at least safer and more humane than institutions. But in California, any good brought on by the system is masked by a plethora of problems - and some tragedies:
Local opposition. Neighborhoods often resist group homes, citing concerns about public safety, property values, and the quality of care for the kids. The result is usually a local political battle between City Hall and group-home operators. Other times, group homes get pushed to rural, out-of-sight locations, and off the public's mind.
Staff problems. Group homes generally suffer from high staff turnover, the ``biggest weakness'' of the industry, says Tom Coleman, a group-home program director in Marin County, Calif. The people who work most closely with kids - the line staff - are underpaid, overworked, and poorly trained, experts say. The turnover problem adds instability to the teen-agers' already-unstable lives, critics say.
Out-of-county placements. As many as 75 percent of all children in group homes are placed out of their home counties, undermining the rationale of community-based care. ``You can't include families in the treatment when the kid is taken out of county,'' says administrator Acoca, who heads one of the few group homes in California that admits only in-county kids. ``When the kid does come back, he has no support'' to help him deal with the very family or neighborhood problems that initially landed him in the system, she says.
Officials who defend this practice, however, cite lack of bed space, reluctance of local group homes to take local youths, or the need to get youngsters away from bad influences.
Poor monitoring. California does not adequately monitor group homes. Although the Department of Social Services has made improvements in recent years, it is still short-staffed, according to the most recent report from the state auditor general's office. As a result placement agencies ``do not report all incidents to the department, because the department's lack of sufficient staff does not permit it to act upon information,'' the report found.