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A trade association for organizations that make their living institutionalizing children peddles scare stories about what might happen if they can’t institutionalize quite so many children. That’s the reality behind the rhetoric in a recent column by Becky Miller Updike of the Colorado Association of Family and Children’s Agencies, a trade association for “residential child care facilities.”  But residential care simply doesn’t work.

review of the scholarly literature by the office of the U.S. Surgeon General found only “weak evidence” for the success of residential treatment.  A second review, by the University of North Carolina, found “when community-based services are available, they provide outcomes that are equivalent, at least (to residential treatment centers).”  Still another study, of children institutionalized for mental health problems, found that seven years after discharge from residential treatment, 75% of the children were back in the only settings they could understand: institutions. They were in psychiatric centers or jails.

There are far better alternatives.  There is nothing an institution can do that can’t be done better with Wraparound programs that bring everything a child needs right into the child’s own home or a foster home. In one video, Wraparound pioneer Karl Dennis explains how Wraparound kept safely at home a youth supposedly so difficult that even the local jail couldn’t handle him. 

But birth families and foster families don’t get that support because institutions have been so good at scarfing up all the money for programs that are as expensive as they are worthless.

As for any supposed “shortage” of foster homes, as Children’s Rights explains in its new report calling for a drastic reduction in institutionalization, the shortage wouldn’t exist if states stopped taking away children needlessly, often when family poverty is confused with neglect.

What really hurts Colorado’s most vulnerable youth is institutionalizing them, not the prospect of finally setting some of them free.  Colorado should move full-speed ahead to free them.

Richard Wexler

Executive director, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

Alexandria, Virginia

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