The impact of child maltreatment is profound, placing children at serious risk in virtually all developmental domains (Cicchetti, 2013), both in childhood and across the lifespan. Moreover, the adverse effects of child maltreatment extend well beyond the child to affect families, communities, and even subsequent generations, often via a cycle of violence (Widom & Wilson, 2015). When maltreatment is sufficiently severe, and children are removed from home as a result, the negative effects of maltreatment may be compounded by further traumatic experiences, including children’s placement in restrictive, congregate care facilities. Evidence indicates that such placements further increase children’s risk for psychopathology, low educational attainment, and teen pregnancy, all of which may facilitate intergenerational cycles of violence and child welfare system involvement (e.g., US DHHS, 2017).
In response to this evidence, California enacted AB 403 in 2016. This legislation aims to reduce maltreated children’s placement in congregate care settings and increase their placement with foster families. It also requires existing group homes to transition into short-term, intensive treatment facilities and imposes a time restriction on youth’s stay in such facilities.
Although the goals of this law are well-intentioned, and informed by decades of research highlighting the adverse effects of congregate care on children’s functioning, practical concerns have emerged as this law has unfolded. At the most concrete level, there are not enough available foster families with whom children can be placed, requiring social service professionals to scramble to find any placement for children who otherwise might remain in congregate settings until a suitable placement can be identified. Available foster families, as well, often lack adequate skills, and have not received extensive training regarding the needs of these particularly vulnerable children. Thus, there is concern that children may bounce place to place as families realize that they do not have the capacity to handle the children now in their care. This may lead to high levels of placement instability, which, like congregate care, is predictive of multiple negative outcomes beyond the maltreatment itself, including externalizing problems (Newton et al., 2000). This potential for increased placement instability will need to be tracked as AB 403 continues to unfold.
Nonetheless, at the heart of this is an ongoing debate concerning what is worse for children and their outcomes: being placed in congregate care facilities or experiencing placement instability (a potential consequence of these policy changes)? In the present study, we began to address this debate using data collected from 127 children (ages 6-17; M = 13.45 years; 57% female) placed in a temporary residential facility due to substantiated maltreatment. Children completed measures assessing externalizing behaviors, and placement records were obtained for each child. Analyses tested whether placement in congregate care settings or rather placement instability was a more powerful predictor of children’s behavioral problems.
Findings revealed that children’s length of time in congregate care was marginally predictive of children’s externalizing problems, ps < .07. Specifically, spending a greater proportion of time in congregate care was associated with more behavioral problems, even after controlling for important demographic and placement characteristics. Placement instability, on the other hand, did not appear related to children’s behavioral problems. The present study offers some tentative evidence that congregate care placement may be more predictive of poorer functioning among children removed from home due to maltreatment than placement instability. However, given that results emerged at only trend levels, further research with larger samples and more complex analyses will be necessary. Such research has the potential to improve understanding of children’s experiences in out-of-home care and inform policy and intervention efforts.