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Receiving Home: Turning children into human teddy bears

THE PEOPLE AT THE CHILDREN’S RECEIVING HOME OF SACRAMENTO MEAN WELL. BUT THEIR PROGRAM HURTS CHILDREN, WASTES MONEY, IMPEDES REAL REFORM, AND HASN’T HAD AN OBJECTIVE EVALUATION IN 66 YEARS.

They are among the most sacred cows in all of child welfare, and no wonder. Donors love them. They can get a plaque on the wall for giving money or furniture or, if they’re really rich, donating a whole building. The volunteers love them. They can turn real flesh-and-blood human beings into human teddy bears who exist for the volunteers’ gratification and convenience, even as they convince themselves they’re helping children. When they get bored with their human teddy bears, they simply hand them back to the shift staff.

In short, they’re good for everyone but the children.

They are "shelters" – those first-stop parking place institutions in many communities where children are deposited for a few days or a week or a month or longer, to be examined and "assessed" by "trained staff" in order to prepare them for exactly what they would have gotten without the shelters – usually a succession of foster homes.

Like most people in child welfare, the people who run shelters, and the people who volunteer there mean well. They’ve done a great job of convincing themselves that they’re really helping children. But they’re not. Shelters do nothing for children. Shelters are exercises in adult self-indulgence and adult self-delusion.

As with any form of orphanage, and that’s really what shelters are, a whole rationalization industry has grown up around them.  And there may be no shelter in America that has perfected the art of rationalizing adult self-interest better than the Children’s Receiving Home of Sacramento County. The fake “Home” is the first stop for many children torn from their real homes in Sacramento, Yolo, Nevada and El Dorado Counties.

It is an institution that has scarfed up taxpayer dollars for 66 years without once being subject to an independent objective evaluation to see if it does children any good – or, as is more likely, actually does many of them harm.

Not only does the “home” risk harming the children passing through, their PR machine has been quick to undermine better alternatives, by demonizing all birth parents and attacking any attempt to curb Sacramento County’s outrageous rate of tearing children from their homes.

That PR machine is so slick that, if you don’t want to volunteer, but might be lured into making a donation, the Receiving Home still will oblige any adult with a guided tour – just as if you were visiting the zoo. (Even better, in fact. While the Sacramento Zoo charges at least $10.00, you can tour the Receiving Home for free.)

In a county where there is so much wrong with child welfare, a remarkable amount of what’s wrong can be traced back to the Children’s Receiving Home.

THE HARM OF INSTITUTIONS

While there is much about which child welfare scholars disagree, on one point there is near unanimity – it does enormous harm to institutionalize children, even for a short time. And the younger the child, the greater the harm. So there is no excuse for taking children as young as one year old and institutionalizing them for an average of 35 to 40 days.

This is where the rationalizations kick in:

"How can you call us an institution?" the people who run the institution say. "We have ‘cottages’ and they’re so pretty. We’re so homelike."

Whenever somebody says his or her institution is homelike, I think of the stuff I sometimes put on bread when I’m trying to lose weight. It may be called "buttery spread" or "buttery light" but it always tastes like liquid plastic. I can tell the difference between “buttery light” and butter. And children know the difference between "homelike" and home.

"Our shelter provides ‘stability’" the operators will say, so children don’t move from foster home to foster home. But it’s the people in a child’s life that create stability, not the bricks and mortar. A child in a shelter endures a multiple placement whenever the shift changes. She endures multiple placement when the weekend workers replace the weekday workers. And she endures multiple placement when the volunteer who seemed so interested in her last week has something better to do to this week and doesn’t show up.

The parking place industry will come back with claims that they can "assess" children and "stabilize" them, so that they can find the right foster home for the child when he or she leaves.

But they have no evidence for this.

On the contrary, the only “evidence” the Receiving Home offers for success is the word of their own Mental Health team which, according to the "Home"’s website, provides “after care” to “a certain amount [sic] of kids.” They also sometimes hear from the children’s county social workers. But the obvious bias aside, this doesn’t tell us if the children are doing better because of the Children’s Receiving Home or because they’ve left the Children’s Receiving Home.

The other substitute for “evidence” is a throwback to the 19th Century. Back then, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children would build public support – and raise money – by using the worst horror stories they could find, sometimes complete with “before” and “after” pictures. They knew full well such cases bore no resemblance to the children they typically took from their families – mostly impoverished immigrant children whose poverty was confused with "neglect."

Similarly, after 66 years and thousands of children passing through, the Children’s Receiving Home manages to come up with three “testimonials” from former residents – one dating back to 1974 – talking about the horrors of their lives with their own parents and how the "Home" supposedly rescued them. (You can bet there soon will be more among the comments at the end of this post – one thing the Receiving Home does superbly is promote itself.)

I don’t doubt that the stories are true. But even in these cases, the children got nothing they wouldn’t have gotten in a good foster home. And these cases bear no resemblance either to typical cases or typical outcomes for children who pass through shelters. Rather, they serve a double-barred PR purpose: They demonize birth parents, helping to keep the take-the-child-and-run frenzy going in Sacramento County, and, of course, they portray the Receiving Home as a success – by ignoring the fact that the many children who passed through the "Home" only to wind up as adults in jails, psych wards and homeless shelters aren’t likely to write a tribute or stop by for a nostalgic visit.

People who run a program and really want to know if their program is working commission independent outside evaluations comparing people who go through the program to people who don’t. But apparently, the receiving home has gone 66 years without ever doing that – at least they make no mention of any such study.

And I doubt they’d want to commission one now, especially after what happened in Connecticut.

WHAT REAL RESEARCH TELLS US ABOUT SHELTERS

Connecticut state set up a network of such shelters in 1995, in the wake of a foster-care panic – a sudden spike in the number of children taken from their parents in the wake of a high-profile child abuse death. These are modern, state-of-the-art facilities providing the best of what the shelter industry has to offer.

But a comprehensive study of the shelters by Yale University and the Connecticut child welfare agency itself found that the rationalizations of the shelter industry didn’t stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, the children who went through the shelters tended to have worse outcomes than those who didn’t. The only thing she shelters were good at was wasting huge sums of money. (As usual, in child welfare, the worse the option for children, the more it costs).

But the shelters are still up and running. Because in child welfare, research is no match for political clout and adult self-indulgence. Take away our human teddy bears? Never! As the Hartford Courant put it:

Three years after a study that showed short-term group homes for first-time foster children are a costly failure, the state Department of Children and Families is still funneling hundreds of children through the facilities each year.

So instead of making the lives of foster children more stable, shelters like the Children’s Receiving Home force them to endure only more turmoil. First they’re institutionalized, cared for by an ever-changing cast of shift nstaff. Then, at the Receiving Home, for about half the children after 35 to 40 days they’re uprooted again to begin the same journey through foster care they would have endured anyway. (What happens to the other half is even more revealing, and I’ll get to that below.)

They’ve also probably had to change schools twice, since children at the Receiving Home attend the "Home"’s own school, instead of the one they were in when they were taken from their families.

VOTING WITH THEIR FEET

So it’s no wonder so many children at the Receiving Home vote with their feet.

According to a 2007 Sacramento Bee story, a significant proportion of the county’s runaways are running from the Children’s Receiving Home. There were 680 reported incidents of running away in 2006 and 310 in the first half of 2007.

Of course the Receiving Home will blame the parents, they’ll blame the kids, they’ll blame the fact that they can’t lock the children in and force them to endure the place. They’ll blame everything but the fact that children should not be institutionalized.

Researchers know better. According to the Bee story:

Researchers have shed light on why the youths flee the large care homes – generally at higher rates than from foster homes and their own homes. The facilities are less personal, have rotating staff members and are more restrictive than a traditional home environment, said Andrea Nesmith, a researcher at the Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

The final rationalization is the one in which the shelter operators admit shelters are a lousy option but, supposedly, there simply is no alternative. There just aren’t enough foster homes, they say. But the "shortage" is artificial, caused by taking away too many children. And shelters often are in the forefront of keeping it that way.

That’s certainly the case in Sacramento County. With some counties apparently starting to wise up and park fewer children at the shelter, the Children’s Receiving Home responded to the threat to its existence with demagoguery – attacking even a minimal effort to keep more children safely in their own homes.

According to a Sacramento Bee story in April, the "Home"’s CEO, David Ballard, sent a letter condemning what he claimed was

CPS’ current policy of keeping as many children as possible out of foster care regardless of the dangers involved. As a result, we are admitting less than half the number of children as a year ago – another severe drop in revenue that directly affects our ability to function.

Leaving aside the revealing characterization of the children as "revenue," the fact is, there is no such policy. On the contrary, Sacramento takes away children at the highest rate in the state among counties large enough to measure.

Indeed, the fact that the real policy of Sacramento County boils down to “take the child and run” can be seen in another revealing statistic straight from the Children’s Receiving Home website: After being institutionalized for an average of 35 to 40 days, half the children go back to their own homes. Odds are, if they could go home in 35 to 40 days, most of them never needed to be taken in the first place – if the help the families needed had simply been brought into the home.

And why didn’t that happen? In part because the money to do it is being wasted on the enormous expense of parking children at the Children’s Receiving Home.

GOOD CHILD WELFARE SYSTEMS CURB SHELTERS

In fact, there is no need to park children, particularly young children, in shelters. Better child welfare systems know it.

In Alabama, the system has been rebuilt to emphasize keeping children out of foster care in the first place. Today, Alabama takes children at a rate less than half the rate in Sacramento County, the reforms have been so successful that they made the front page of The New York Times and an independent court monitor found that the reforms improved child safety. It happened as a result of a suit brought by the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (co-counsel for plaintiffs is a member of the NCCPR Board of Directors). The lawsuit led to a consent decree that puts strict limits on shelters.

New Jersey is successfully implementing a consent decree that is, if anything, even more far-reaching. It bans placement of children under age 13 in shelters, period. And it’s succeeding. During the entire second half of 2009, in the entire State of New Jersey, one child under age 13 was placed in a shelter. Not one percent – one child.

It’s possible because, like Alabama, New Jersey significantly cut the number of children taken away in the first place. And, as in Alabama, an independent court-appointed monitor confirms that the decline in removals has been accompanied by a dramatic improvement in child safety.

By taking fewer children needlessly, these states have more options for children who really need to be taken from their homes – without turning those children into human teddy bears.

But not in Sacramento. It seems the attacks on family preservation (aided and abetted, of course, by the Sacramento Bee) and all the usual rationalizations worked again. According to the Receiving Home website, they were able to “minimize” county budget cuts.

That can only be a double blow for the region’s vulnerable children: More of them will be institutionalized, and fewer of them will get the help they really need, because something else had to be cut to save the county’s worthless, but oh-so-politically appealing, parking place shelter.

Former journalist Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org 

 

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