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Opinion: Kids heal better in safe homes than in institutional care, but that means challenges

Buckle up, Colorado. Child welfare will ask families to do even more in the coming years. Pressure on families will spike as the federal Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which aims to place children in nurturing homes instead of residential facilities, kicks off in Colorado. 

FFPSA’s groundbreaking legislation means that, starting in October 2021, residential facilities will be allowed 16 total spots for children. Barring any legislative changes or delays, Colorado must reduce capacity at 51 residential facilities, collectively licensed to support 1,664 children in residential care.  

Facilities like Tennyson Center for Children will no longer be able to support a range of 24 to 32 children. Sadly, Colorado places more children per capita in residential facilities than almost any other state in the U.S.  

Edward D. Breslin and Hope Forti

We all know this goes against what is best for children: healing in safe homes. The state is rightly trying to improve.

Child therapists worry, however, about what this dramatic reduction of space will mean for children whose backgrounds and trauma make it harder for them to live in family-like settings. Children will have fewer residential options and will need homes in which to heal.  And children do heal better in homes.  

While there is a role for residential facilities, it must be rare, short, and include transitions to homes so that children never need to return to such intensive residential interventions. 

Enter families. With reduced congregate care options, foster/adoptive families, relative caregivers and biological parents will be asked to care for kids who would previously stay at residential facilities. All three types of families need better support if we want to depend on them to fill this gap.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

First, foster families. In our lived experience, we know foster parents often have great intentions but burn out quickly. It’s not hard to imagine why. 

In a residential facility, a child has a team of therapists, teachers and counselors focused on each detail of mental, physical, and educational health. When kids transfer to foster care, we expect a foster parent to become the sole hub for the child, coordinating therapy, education, nutrition, and social life. 

That’s too much to expect of a volunteer who opens their heart and home — someone we in effect pay $1.50/hour (and who is often juggling a full-time career, often as a single parent). Ideally, some foster families will adopt these foster children, but not if they burn out. 

To make the shift from a residential facility to a family home, the foster parent needs to know that, instead of leaving work early (and getting the side-eye from her boss) to drive kids to therapy, her child’s therapist will show up at school twice a week and support the child and parent to succeed.

That’s a glimpse of what family support looks like.

Second, relative caregivers or kin – brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandparents – also need support as the child welfare system will ask them to raise children in their extended family.  We hear often from kin who tell us they feel pressured to take children despite minimal support, and this practice of pressure needs to convert to support.

Vulnerable grandparents, in particular, are being asked to do far more than they imagined to care for their grandchildren.  Age differences are significant, and the placement of a 6-year-old granddaughter with 74-year-old grandparents may make sense in the short term but often becomes less stable as the grandparents get older and it becomes extremely difficult to care for a child. 

Colorado’s county departments of human services are increasingly looking for creative ways to support kin, which is surprisingly hard to do because of federal red tape. Sadly, some of these caregivers are not even eligible for the foster reimbursement of $1.50/hour for their service of keeping a child out of an institution that costs the government hundreds of dollars a day.

That’s why we’re providing Families Together Neighbor volunteers for families helping children to heal. Instead of letting aging grandparents flounder in isolation, our Neighbors say, “I see you. Here’s my famous lasagna and a gift certificate for house repairs.”  That meal is a start, relations grow and isolation evaporates over time.

Lastly, and most exciting for us at Tennyson Center, biological parents will need better support as we rely on them to keep their children out of residential care. 

For decades, the U.S. has removed children from their biological parents quickly and without considering creative ways to keep kids safe at home. With poverty and neglect, not abuse, as the primary causes of child removal, we expect that the best way to reduce the need for residential care is to creatively keep families together, safely and supported. 

Many in Colorado are focused on this issue with increased vigor: Tennyson, Illuminate, the Colorado Partnership for Thriving Families, and many others. 

Unless a child truly needs the intensive stabilization of residential treatment, kids need to heal in homes.  Each type of home is, to borrow the term, neglected by the current system, and that narrative must change if we are to truly succeed in reducing residential bed capacity.

Residential care will become less necessary if we put the time, money and effort into making it harder to remove children from biological parents in the first place – especially when “neglect” is the driver rather than abuse.  

And if removed, by supporting foster and kinship families in radically new ways, knowing that home, not an institution, is where healing happens. 


Edward D. Breslin is the president and CEO of Tennyson Center for Children in Denver. Hope Forti is director of Families Together at Tennyson Center.


The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to opinion@coloradosun.com.

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