Recently, someone asked on a comment if we could name something that Memphis is the best in.  We named several but we neglected to mention two that came to mind later: Church Health Center and Youth Villages.  We were reminded of the latter again this week when a New York Times blog spotlighted it:

It’s difficult to change systems even when they are widely acknowledged to be broken. That’s the situation facing the nation’s foster care system. According to the government’s most recent estimate, there were roughly 424,000 young people in foster care as of Sept. 30, 2009. Each year, about 30,000 of them turn 18 (or 21 in some states) and “age out” of foster care. What happens to them?

The results are not encouraging, according to a major study published in 2010. Although there are many wonderful foster parents and many foster care alumni who overcome tough odds, most struggle to live successfully as adults. By age 23 or 24, fewer than half of the former foster care youths in the study were working. Close to a quarter had no high school diploma or equivalency degree and only 6 percent had completed a two- or four-year post-secondary degree. Nearly 60 percent of males had been convicted of a crime and 77 percent of females had been pregnant.

When you are dealing with complicated social, emotional and mental health problems, there are no easy answers. But today there is a promising alternative to foster care that is gaining traction — although it faces an uphill battle because it represents a departure from long-held assumptions in our child welfare system. The idea is to help youths return to their original families wherever it is possible to do so safely by providing their parents, or in some cases other relatives, with an extensive array of in-home support services.

This approach may seem counterintuitive, given that child welfare agencies intervene when courts deem parents unfit to care for their children. However, evidence indicates that intensive in-home services can bring substantial changes in families — and produce more successful outcomes than out-of-home models like foster homes or institutional care. (The average foster care youth goes through more than three placement changes and 65 percent experience seven or more school changes (pdf). About a quarter suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, up to twice the rate for U.S. war veterans.)

One of the leading practitioners of the family-services approach is a Memphis-based organization called Youth Villages, which works in 11 states and the District of Columbia, focusing on kids who have serious emotional and behavioral problems. Youth Villages has provided more than 20,000 youths and their families with intensive in-home services to reunite families or prevent children from being placed in foster care. It works in tandem with child welfare, mental health and juvenile justice systems.

Youth Villages monitors outcomes for every child it serves and allows independent researchers access to its data. The organization reports that, two years after completing its in-home programs, 83 percent of youths served were living successfully in families, 85 percent were in school or had gained a high school or equivalency degree, and 82 percent reported no trouble with the law. Moreover, these services are less expensive than out-of-home care. In Massachusetts, for example, the average cost for Youth Villages’ four- to six-month Intercept program, which currently has a 78 percent success rate in the state, is $18,000 per youth. By contrast, one youth in residential care can cost the state more than $125,000 per year (the average length of a stay) — and the success rate is about 40 percent.

Youth Villages was established in 1986 to operate residential treatment centers for youth involved in Tennessee’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems. But in the late 1980s, Patrick W. Lawler, Youth Villages’ chief executive, began questioning whether they were actually helping the youth they were serving. Like most people in his field, Lawler assumed that residential treatment was the way to go. “When a child comes into juvenile court, the records show all the problems with the family as well as the child,” he recalled. “You deduce that the family is the problem. Get the kid out of the family, the kid will be better. It didn’t work out that way.”

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