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How can we reduce congregate care placements? Lessons from South Carolina

Photo of Angela Jenkins
Photo of Angela Jenkins

In 2019, over 51% of teens in South Carolina’s foster care system lived in congregate care, also known as group homes. Two years later, there had been a 15% decrease in congregate care placements. And that’s where this conversation begins.

Angela Jenkins, MA, is a program coordinator II for the Office of Child Welfare Operations at the Department of Social Services (DSS) in South Carolina. She has a BA in psychology and a master’s degree in mental health counseling. During her 16 years with DSS, she’s worked in a multitude of roles. These led to her MPLD project, “Decreasing Congregate Care Placements While Increasing Permanency.” Her project focused on reducing congregate care placements for teens in foster care in South Carolina.

Project highlights:

  • In South Carolina, 1,304 teens ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old make up one-third of youth in foster care.
  • In 2019, over 51% of teens in the state foster care system lived in congregate care.
  • Through a collaboration between DSS and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there was a 15% decrease in congregate care placements within two years.
  • Transformational leadership and best-practice tip sheets were attributed to increasing permanency for teens in foster care.

We sat down with Angela to learn about her career and project to reduce congregate care placements.

Angela, what made you want to pursue a career in social services?

I grew up in a single-parent home. I watched my mom take in different kids from the neighborhood from time to time when their home life was not safe. She was never an official “fictive kinship placement” with DSS, but those parents trusted her to provide some sort of stability for their child or children while they got on their feet. The true meaning of “it takes a village to raise a child.”  Most of my childhood was sharing my mom with others.

Tell us more about your work at DSS.

As a Program Coordinator II, I manage different projects, one of them being Congregate Care Utilization Management. We’re trying to manage the length of stays in group homes, decrease disproportionate rates of youth of color in homes, and increase the least restrictive placements.

We’re doing more work on the front end, especially with our teens, in the assessment phase to where our teens aren’t automatically placed in group homes but rather with families (i.e., licensed foster care, kinship, or unlicensed kinship). 

How did you come up with your MPLD project idea? 

It was easy. We had an overwhelming amount of youth in congregate care. It was at a crisis level. It was easy, especially with disproportionality. Some counties were only placing youth in congregate care.

Our agency consulted with Annie E. Casey Foundation, and we developed expedited permanency meetings (EPMs). These are staff meetings that include the youth, along with DSS staff, the provider, and a supporting family member. At the meeting, we’re asking the youth who they would like us to look at for long-term placement. It could be a family member, fictive kin, or a foster home. The end goal is to have a permanency plan.

What was the goal of your project?

I wanted to present how expedited permanency meetings were working. To show that when you include youth in their permanency plans, it’s another resource to increase permanency. When you place youth in congregate care homes, sometimes they don’t want to leave if they have been there for a long time.

And you learned skills in an MPLD course to apply to this project. Tell us more about that.

There was one called “Transformational vs. Transactional.” A very interesting course that shows you a different perspective in social work. Namely, how to be more successful in our work. It showed that by having a transformational leader, the agency can accomplish more. That there’s always more room to grow. Over the 12 months of the program, I learned how to read data and interpret it.

I explained how our agency took a crisis and changed it through a transformational leader—a director who believed in changes and was willing to work those changes into our work. It led staff to accept change. We found an opportunity in a crisis.

Can you share the major data findings about congregate care placements?

In 2019, over 51% of our teens were in congregate care placements. Congregate care should be a short-term stay, lasting 30 to 60 days. We learned one youth was in a group home for 1,058 days. We want to establish that we are continuously looking for families for teens. Our workgroup is proposing that every 30 days, workers should facilitate a child and family team meeting to discuss different resources and reevaluate what efforts have been made.

And what are the issues with congregate care?

Potential issues include aging out without permanency, being separated from siblings, being unprepared for adulthood and returning to unsafe environments, and being at a high risk of running away or entering the juvenile system or criminal system. It also affects their mental health.

Group homes will always be needed, but they should only be used for youth who need a higher level of care that may be difficult for a foster family to provide. South Carolina has three levels of care for group homes. My workgroup focuses more on levels one and two where the youth have minimal behaviors, no special needs, and no criminal history. I believe that our youth who remain in these placements develop a sense of resentment toward the agency. They report feeling like they are being punished for adult behaviors that had them removed from their homes. Group homes are very structured and sometimes put more restraint on older teens, which in turn makes them act out.

In contrast, when teens are placed with a family, they have a better chance at permanency, having at least one caring adult to help them with the transition to adulthood. They also can have a sense of normalcy (i.e., learning how to drive, doing chores, hanging out with friends, going to prom, learning how to cook, engaging with family activities, and having their own room).

What changes were made based on your findings?

I developed a best-practice tip sheet for our case management staff. It was to help them better understand the options they have, rather than group homes being the first choice for placement.

We also engaged with teens on the front end by asking them who their emergency contact would be other than their parents. We asked who they considered to be a trusting adult before DSS became involved, who they spent most of their time with, what they know about the absent parent, or who they’d want to be placed with. These questions can help DSS staff understand the youth’s support network. We also incorporated these questions in our placement child and family team meetings (formerly known as EPMs).

When I interviewed these youth, they said if they had had that EPM earlier, they would have liked being in a family setting. They feel they were being punished for being in foster care—having to ask for a snack, use the phone. They said it felt very restrictive.

Tell us more about having teens participate.

Youth engagement provides autonomy for the youth. It restores their hope in the system that has otherwise not done any justice for them in the past. Youth engagement allows that voice to be in the room, heard firsthand and not summarized by agency staff. It allows the youth to take ownership and accountability for the goals they want to accomplish. It allows room for healthy communication even if there is conflict.

In January 2022, your project ended. What were the results of the changes you and your team implemented?

We got our percentage down to 12% of teens in congregate care through transformational leadership, talking with our staff about a family-first approach, having the placement child and family team meetings early on, and reassessing bio families to see what changes have happened and working with the family in the home.

You did this project as part of the AdoptUSKids MPLD program. What did you take away from being an MPLD fellow?

This experience was enlightening and an eye-opener for me as a social services professional. I learned a lot. One of the best leadership experiences courses I’ve had. It takes you out of your comfort zone.  It just opens your eyes up to the child welfare field other than the state government.

Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

Jamerika Haynes-Lewis

Jamerika Haynes-Lewis is a journalist and advocate for children and youth in foster care. She studied Communication at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. She is the former USA Ambassador Ms. 2021. Her platform was "A Chance to Succeed: Empowering Youth in Foster Care." She owns and runs Clever Jam Communications, a consulting firm offering strategic communications guidance, motivational speaking, and facilitation.