Child Welfare

New Report on the Experiences and Perspectives of Young People who Lived in Congregate Care

August 24, 2021 | National

We know children do best when placed with families, preferably their own relatives. Yet, there remains an over-reliance on institutional placementsthat is out-of-home, non-family placementsin the child welfare system. 

While the number of children living in congregate care has been steadily decreasing, more than 43,000 youth lived in institutional placements in 2018. These placements disproportionately impact Black youth, other youth of color, older youth, and pregnant and parenting teens. 

Think of Us’ new report, “Away From Home: Youth Experiences of Institutional Placements in Foster Care,” highlights the experiences of young people who lived in these institutional placements. 

To ensure the lived experiences of young people and an understanding of institutional placements from youths’ perspectives are included in the growing research on institutional placements, Think of Us conducted a qualitative study using interviews and cultural probes to hear from young people with recent histories in institutional placements. 

Key findings of the report include:

  • Though institutional placements were perceived as a last resort, many experienced them as a first placement in foster careoften because case workers believed there were no other placement options for them.
  • Youth were provided the bare minimum clothing necessities, limiting their self-expression, and did not have access to reliably sufficient and culturally sensitive hygiene, hair, and skin products.
  • Youth felt the staff lacked sufficient training and accountability, and they often experienced discrimination as well as mental, physical, and sexual abuse by staff. 
  • Many youth reported a lack of educational stability, support, and resources, and they often exited care without adequate life skills.
  • The instability and restrictions of institutional placements made it almost impossible to build and maintain friendships and the youth often felt isolated.
  • Institutional placements relied on overly harsh and unproductive discipline and youth frequently compared institutional placements to prisonfeeling confined, restricted, and degraded. 

Recommendations include:

  • Eliminate institutions. Based on their findings and the growing body of research on the harms of institutional placements, Think of Us highlights the need to shift away from downsizing institutions to working to fully eliminate the need for institutions altogether;
  • Ask youth where they want to live and do everything possible to make that a reality;
  • Avoid foster care placements when possible by focusing on prevention;
  • Expand the definition of kin and improve licensing and support for kinship placements;
  • Make foster family placements more stable and culturally appropriate;
  • Accommodate youths’ preferences as institutional placements are being phased out; and
  • Center lived experience in the research, design, and implementation of policy changes.

It’s time to build up a future in which these harmful institutional placements no longer exist. 

With growing research on the harms of institutional placements and continued calls to action from young people who experienced these placements, we must ensure young people impacted by the child welfare system have the resources they need to thrive with their relatives or in a family-like setting.

Find the full report, a summary and discussion guide, and a recording of the national readout of the report here