CARROLLWOOD — Since the 1940s, abused, abandoned and neglected teens have found refuge at Lake Magdalene, a group foster home run by Hillsborough County.
Children battling drug problems, depression and anxiety live in cottages on the 23-acre campus. They have the run of the dining hall and learning center. Therapists are on hand to treat the children, many of whom have been rejected by other foster homes.
"We take a lot of the children that other folks won’t take," said Carl Harness, the county’s chief human services administrator.
But the future of the home and other group homes is in doubt because of a new federal law that some child welfare professionals say will blow up the existing foster care system.
The Family First Prevention Services Act prioritizes keeping children out of foster care. It makes more money available for in-home counseling and parenting classes for families at risk of having children removed.
And beginning late next year, the government will only pay for children to stay in group homes for up to two weeks.
At Lake Magdalene, children stay for an average of about 18 months. Some live there until they age out of foster care.
The new law may also make it tougher for communities like Hillsborough that have relied on group homes to cope with an influx of children being removed. It could mean fewer group homes and those that remain will only cater to children with severe medical or behavioral needs.
"For certain we will not look the same this time next year and I doubt very few group homes will look the same," said Brad Gregory, CEO of A Kid’s Place, a Brandon group home. "It’s going to impact everyone."
Group homes traditionally accommodate foster children with special medical needs, pregnant or mothering girls, and those with mental or behavioral problems.
But they are expensive. Daily rates in Hillsborough range between about $100 and $190 per day per child with federal subsidies paying for up to half of that.
By contrast, traditional foster parents receive a stipend of about $450 per month per child.
The expense means the homes are intended only as a stop gap, a place where children get intensive therapy and counseling until stable enough to be placed with foster parents.
But critics, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, say states routinely place children in group homes because they have no other beds.
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found the average stay in a group home is eight months. And children in group homes typically spend longer in foster care than those housed with foster parents.
Exemptions in the new law mean children with severe therapeutic needs can stay in group homes for up to six months.
But the homes, which already satisfy state licensing rules, will also have to pay to get accredited by a national organization to qualify.
States can opt out of the law for up to two years. But they would then forfeit the additional federal funding for programs like parenting classes and abuse counseling that could keep more children out of foster care.
It’s unclear if Lake Magdalene’s mission of caring for children considered at risk of ending up in juvenile justice system would qualify for federal subsidies under the new law.
Eckerd Connects, the nonprofit contracted to run foster care in Hillsborough, pays the county $160 per day per child. The county also uses its own funds to pay for additional on-site services like therapists and for perks like field trips and job training.
County officials say the approach works. Lake Magdalene children have a 90 percent attendance rate at school.
"We do get outcomes for our children," Harness said. "With the extra money that Hillsborough County provides, we go well and above what other agencies provide."
With future funding in doubt, the county has already spent $190,000 for a study on how it might revamp the home and its Children’s Services department.
Among the options considered were for the county to drop out of foster care completely or to turn the home into an assessment center where children who have been bounced from home to home are evaluated over two weeks.
"Whether we decide to get out of the business or partner in a different way, that has not been decided at this point," Harness said.
With up to 60 beds, A Kid’s Place is the largest group home in Hillsborough.
The home makes it a priority to keep siblings together in foster care. About one-third of siblings in foster care are separated because many foster parents only have room or want to care for one or two children. That can add to abandonment anxiety.
The group home has already paid $10,000 to seek national accreditation to try for funding under the new law, Gregory said.
He fears fewer group homes will mean more children are separated from their siblings. A bigger concern is where the county will place children when traditional foster beds run out.
"In Hillsborough, there are more children in out-of-home care than there are beds available," he said. "With the new law, what happens to children not eligible for residential treatment?"
Joshua House, a group home in Lutz, cares for traumatized children who have just been removed from their parents. Some arrive with their belongings in pillow cases.
Executive Director DeDe Grundel fears that putting those children straight into a traditional foster home may result in more foster parents quitting.
"They tend to destroy a foster home placement," she said. "We want to stabilize the child, meet their healing needs and have them be successful on their next placement."
The only alternative for many group homes under the new law will be to re-purpose as either mental health or therapeutic homes, Grundel said.
"Every single group home is trying to put together a strategic plan and figure out where they will put themselves," she said.
The federal bill, which was drafted by U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is supported by Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization focused on children’s rights.
Executive Director Christina Spudeas said group homes are costly and often fail to turn around troubled children who would be better in a traditional home setting.
Additional training can be given to foster parents so they can care for children with behavioral issues, she said. Therapy and other services can be provided in-home.
"To me, the group homes are build them and they come," Spudeas said. "It’s harder to find the people trained to be therapeutic foster parents and give them the support, but that’s what’s best for our children."
Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.