What is Congregate Care in Virginia?

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Congregate Care in the Foster Care System

As of 2020, approximately 407,493 children resided in the foster care service in the United States. That includes over 5,000 children in the state of Virginia alone. 

The number of foster children has been steadily decreasing in recent years. Still, the sheer amount of children who need foster care is astounding. State services try to place children in families as soon as possible, but some require them to go to congregate care.

What Is Congregate Care? 

The term "congregate care" summarizes any out-of-home placement for foster children. Congregate care could include group homes, residential facilities, emergency shelters, psychiatric institutions, or in-patient hospitals.

Congregate care is ideal for the temporary placement of children, particularly those requiring behavioral or mental health services. Children must receive these services and find families before they age out of the foster care system. 

In congregate care, children receive close supervision and structured routines. These structures help them to overcome mental and behavioral struggles. 

Ideally, congregate care should be a short-term care solution. Children in congregate care facilities still have the potential for in-home placements and adoption. 

Children in Congregate Care

The number of children in congregate care is declining, down 37% in the last ten years. Approximately 55,000 children currently reside in a group home, residential facility, institution, or shelter. This accounts for about 13.5% of the children in foster care services. 

Congregate care may become the safest solution for children who are dangerous to themselves or others. The average age of children entering this type of care is 14. As children enter puberty, they experience more behavioral and mental health challenges.

The racial distribution of children in congregate care is disproportionate to children in the general population and the in-home foster service. Of children in congregate care:

  • 40% are white
  • 30% are African American
  • 20% are Hispanic
  • 1.6% are American Indian/Alaskan Native
  • >1% are Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, or Asian 

African American children are the most disproportionately represented in congregate care. 13% of the general population and 23% of children in foster service are African American, compared to 30% of congregate care children. 

Group care placements are also disproportionately male. About 62% of children in congregate care services are male, while 37% are female. In all foster care services, about 52% are male, while 48% are female. 

Duration of Congregate Care 

Most children will spend less than one year in congregate care. Even so, about 24% of children will remain in this level of care for over a year. Most children will spend an average of eight months in congregate care placements. 

Why Are Children Placed in Congregate Care?

There are many reasons why a child might be given congregate care placement. For the most part, foster care services try to put children in family-based care, but placements can take time. Not every child receives the urgent care they need from a family setting. 

Common Mental Health Concerns

Children in foster care are at much higher risk for mental illness than the general population. More than one in five foster children have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rates of major depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders, and eating disorders are also remarkably high. 

Not every foster family knows how to help children with significant mental health concerns. After receiving adequate mental services, it's more likely that these children will find families. Congregate care may be the safest option if these children present a danger to themselves or others in a family placement. 

Behavioral Concerns

Children adopted from institutional settings may have more difficulty empathizing with others. Many foster children have suffered abuse, neglect, and instability, and their trust in others is significantly damaged. 

Behavioral problems for foster children can include:

  • Anger or aggression
  • Defiance of authority
  • Manipulative tactics
  • Emotional walls 
  • Insecurity and distrust 
  • Violent behaviors 
  • Running away from home

At their core, all children desire to be loved, accepted, and supported. Unfortunately, the lasting effects of trauma can be severe in foster children. It takes a unique foster family to remind a child that they are loved and adored, no matter what.  

Effects of Congregate Care

Children in congregate care services receive less one-on-one attention and guidance from adults in most residential care settings. As a result, many of these children find it difficult to trust adults and their peers. They are also more likely to struggle in family placements and develop negative outlooks on life, which will, in time, be a challenge for adoptive parents and a child's success in the foster care and adoption system.

Juvenile Delinquency

Youth who have been in congregate care at least once are 2.5 times more likely to become delinquent. Children in group care are generally less successful as adults than their peers in in-family foster care. These children struggle more with academics and are more likely to drop out. 

Risk for Abuse

Children removed from their homes and placed in congregate care are not necessarily protected from further trauma and child abuse. In 2019, there were more than 9,700 reports of abuse and neglect in facilities. Children in group homes are more likely to experience repeated physical abuse than those in foster homes. 

Longer Foster Care Terms

On average, children living in congregate care will spend more time in the foster care program. While most other children stay in foster care for 21 months, children placed in congregate care will remain for an average of 28 months. 

Children with a history of congregate care placement have more difficulty adjusting to family life. These children are more likely to struggle with behavioral and mental health problems. As a result, they may frequently transition between foster families and back into congregate care. 

Recent Reforms in Foster Care Service

The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) takes two approaches to limit this care in foster services. The FFPSA focuses on keeping foster candidate children with their parents or relatives. Instead of immediately placing children in congregate care or residential treatment, relatives must meet care requirements within 30 days. 

The FFPSA also emphasizes placing a foster child with in-home families rather than relying on congregate care settings. Under this act, the federal government will reimburse state institutions that can re-home a child within two weeks. Exceptions apply to children needing residential or in-patient treatment. 

Efforts are also underway to make foster families better equipped to handle children with mental illness and behavioral issues. One suggestion is to fund treatments while the child resides with a placement family. 

You Can Make a Difference

The most important takeaway is this: children need forever families. Although congregate care systems provide temporary help to children, all children do best when raised by trustworthy adults in intimate, family-based settings. 

Foster parents are essential for keeping children on the path to success. It takes a particular person to provide stability and love for a child in need. Somebody out there needs your support; you have the opportunity to become their hero. 

Do you want to make a difference in a child's life? Click here to learn more about becoming a foster parent in Virginia.

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