MOUNT PLEASANT, NY — Ronald Richter can measure the level of emotional disturbance among the children on his campus by the size of his window repair bill.
Richter is the executive director of the JCCA — a child welfare organization dating back to 1822 which includes a 200-year-old residential facility to care for foster kids ages 7-16 who have “dual diagnoses” of developmental delays and mental health challenges.
In the first half of 2022, Richter paid $30,000 to fix broken windows; in the same period this spring, the JCCA had to shell out $200,000.
What’s happened to increase the level of violence on the mostly serene, tree-lined, suburban JCCA campus?
According to Mr. Richter, the state has been sending him foster children with much greater needs—needs that JCCA is neither licensed nor equipped to handle.
The children who generally come to JCCA have often experienced abuse and or neglect by their families, followed by stints with foster families.
The combination of the trauma experienced at home and in foster care as well as their existing mental health needs means these kids can often act out.
Until recently, though, JCCA has been able to handle these behaviors — assigning additional staff to help in particular instances or transferring kids to places that can contend with their greater needs.
But now the state has nowhere else to send children with severe emotional disturbances.
In the past decade, more than half of the residential psychiatric beds for minors in New York State have been eliminated, the result of reduced funding from federal and state authorities, and private philanthropy.
Costs to maintain these facilities have increased owing to the tight labor market and skyrocketing insurance rates.
The result: from Pennsylvania to Michigan to California to Texas, thousands of foster children with severe mental health problems have nowhere to go — or are sent to offices, hotels, homeless shelters, and facilities like JCCA.
The Philadelphia Department of Human Services used its conference rooms to house more than 300 children last year, mixing teens with younger children.
A Philadelphia Inquirer report found instances of assault, vandalism, and even child trafficking.
Having lost more than 460 residential treatment beds in recent years, the Illinois Department of Children and Families has made 2,000 placements in shelters and offices between 2018 and 2022.
The DCFS director there has been held in contempt of court 12 times.
Facilities like JCCA that do remain open find themselves overwhelmed and understaffed. JCCA is forbidden from resorting to any kind of physical restraint (except when staff or a child are at risk of imminent harm) or even locking the gates to the campus, according to New York state law.
The consequences of these more violent children and teens coming to the campus have been devastating.
And not just for Richter’s staff and the other JCCA children losing out because faculty attention must be directed elsewhere.
But for the local community, as well.
According to the town of Mount Pleasant, during the first six months of 2023, the Mount Pleasant Police Department and/or the nearby Pleasantville Volunteer Ambulance Corps have responded to the JCCA campus for reports of “248 missing persons, 24 assaults, 23 vandalism incidents, 13 violent altercations/fights, 11 suicide or self-harm threats, countless emotionally disturbed children.”
There have been multiple incidents of robbery and burglary in the town as well.
In one incident, a psychologically disturbed resident stole a chicken from a coop in a resident’s yard and then “killed it by biting off its head while walking down the middle of a residential block.”
A letter from the New York State Coalition for Children’s Behavioral Health and the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies earlier this month begged Governor Hochul to do something.
According to the letter, JCCA’s campus is one of several experiencing “growing levels of violence on campuses and in communities; a rise in young people engaging in self-harm and suicide ideation; diversion of resources away from children who are appropriately placed …[and] increase calls to first responders.”
Greg McKay, a former homicide detective and former director of Arizona’s Department of Child Safety, says that he is not surprised to hear about both the behavior and the lack of resources to deal with it.
He says that since he first became a cop in 1992, “the prevalence and frequency of higher-level aberrant behavior among children has increased and resulted in kids coming to systems of care that are far beyond what these systems are meant to deal with.”
This past July, The Town of Mount Pleasant demanded that the state shut down JCCA altogether (the state has yet to reply).
But the answer to these problems both in New York and elsewhere is hardly to eliminate the few remaining places foster children can go.
How did we get here?
In the middle of the 20th century, orphanages were common.
But as more support was made available to impoverished families, the focus switched to keeping kids at home or with foster families.
At the same time, institutions for foster kids developed a reputation for being, at times, abusive, or only out for profit.
Today, of the 425,000 children in the foster care system nationwide, only about 55,000 reside in institutional settings.
This is some 35% less than during the early 2000s — part of the larger push for deinstitutionalization across the nation.
Many political and philanthropic leaders came to believe that congregate care should be eliminated entirely.
In 2003, New York’s Administration for Children’s Services asked the Annie E. Casey Foundation to help reduce the number of teenagers placed in congregate-care facilities, eventually decreasing the number by 47 percent from 2002 to 2008.
But with fewer kids now housed in such facilities, there are far fewer resources or strategies to deal with kids who are exhibiting high levels of emotional disturbance who are still in them.
And in recent years politicians have only been making things worse.
The Family First Prevention Services Act, which passed with bipartisan support in 2018, restricted federal reimbursements to states for certain kinds of congregate care, such as those that lacked 24-hour medical staff (even though many of the kids like those at JCCA don’t necessarily need constant medical supervision).
The situation is further complicated by a regulation passed in the 1970s impacting access to Medicaid for facilities that are fully staffed — but also have more than 16 beds.
It’s a confusing and confounding situation that serves no one — especially troubled kids.
Supporters of Family First and other restrictions on congregate care argue that the kids they serve could be accommodated in “therapeutic” foster families who are specially trained and supported.
“Kids belong in families,” has been the refrain. But those additional homes never materialized, says Sean Hughes, the founder of Social Change Partners LLC, which advises states on child welfare issues.
The Family First law effectively “curtailed federal funding for congregate care without a commensurate investment in the development of alternative placements for children and youth with higher level challenges,” Hughes explains.
Unsurprisingly, kids like those at JCCA can require 24-hour supervision and can easily become a danger to themselves or others. And this only makes it even harder to attract foster families or adoption.
After all, what family wants to take in the teen who bit the head off a live chicken?
Nevertheless, just last month the governor of Oregon Tina Kotek said she would solve the problem of 75 kids sleeping in hotels (because there are no congregate care beds available) by recruiting more therapeutic foster homes.
But there was no explanation of where she would find these volunteers.
And so the unintended consequences of these utopian policies continue to pile up.
And they will eventually spill into our criminal justice system as well. As McKay notes, even though these kids “go out and commit atrocities in communities… juvenile justice systems won’t take them,” thanks in part to laws that “raise the age” or give only a slap on the wrist to younger offenders.
So, predicts McKay, they will return to a congregate care facility “until they murder someone and have to be locked up in an adult facility.”
Without enough beds in psychiatric facilities to handle these cases, “you will see more victimization in communities and more long-term incarceration of offenders that should have been prevented way back when.”
Of course, the solution is hardly to lock these kids up and throw away the key.
Rather, the state—in its role as guardian of these children–must provide foster kids who need them with intensive psychiatric rehabilitation services in secure residential facilities until they are no longer a threat to themselves or those around them.
Foster kids who fail to get these services are more likely to end up in jail, on the streets, using drugs, or even victims of trafficking.
JCCA–concerned both about the well-being of these kids as well as the safety of its neighbors–has appealed to the governor to expand its license to accommodate higher-needs kids.
They’ve asked to increase staff-to-child ratios, as well as for the ability to lock part of the facility — or at least specific cottages — to prevent at-risk kids from going into the local community.
But it’s been almost a year and the state has barely responded to the application.
In the meantime, Mount Pleasant Town Supervisor Carl Fulgenzi says, “Everyone is endangered — children, staff, and neighbors. New York, he says, “has been turning a blind eye to this disturbing situation for too long.”
𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆: nypost.com
𝗙𝗼𝗿 𝗮𝗻𝘆 𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁𝘀 𝗿𝗲𝗴𝗮𝗿𝗱𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗗𝗠𝗖𝗔,
𝗣𝗹𝗲𝗮𝘀𝗲 𝘀𝗲𝗻𝗱 𝘂𝘀 𝗮𝗻 𝗲𝗺𝗮𝗶𝗹 𝗮𝘁 firstname.lastname@example.org