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Millions of Youth Are Homeless for More Than Month At a Time, New Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Nearly one in 30 teens and one in 10 young adults experienced homelessness in the past year, a groundbreaking new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall interviewed more than 26,000 people from all over the country over the past year. They found that 4.3 percent of youths 13 to 17 years old reported at least one instance of homelessness; nearly 10 percent of young adults 18 to 25 years old had experienced homelessness.

The study, “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in America,” is one of the largest of its kind ever attempted. It also offers a wider look at what one researcher called the “spectrum” of homelessness — everything from sleeping on the streets to “couch surfing.”

“We are capturing homelessness that doesn’t fit with most people’s images of homelessness,” said Matt Morton, who helped lead the study. “The scale has not been highlighted. This helps capture the fluidity of it.”

The study, released today, is the first in a series of reports that Chapin Hill plans.

Morton and his co-authors estimate that at least 700,000 teenagers and 3.5 million young adults have been homeless in the past year. Nor was the experience all that temporary: Nearly three-quarters of youth surveyed were homeless for more than a month, the study reports.

The experiences may differ greatly, but the prevalence doesn’t seem to change much from cities to countryside, the study said. Some 9.6 percent of rural young adults experienced homelessness last year compared to 9.2 percent of urban young adults; 4.4 percent of rural teens suffered homelessness last year, compared to 4.2 percent of teens in urban America.

“It’s really a national problem,” Morton said.

Researchers also crunched the numbers behind youths’ homeless risk factors:

  • Education appeared to be the biggest factor. Youth without a high school diploma or GED had a 346 percent higher risk of winding up homeless than youth who stayed in school;
  • Unmarried young people with children were 200 percent more likely to suffer homelessness;
  • Youth in poor families were 162 percent more likely to experience homelessness;
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth were 120 percent more likely to wind up homeless;
  • African-American youth were 83 percent more likely to experience homelessness; and
  • Latino youth were 33 percent more likely to suffer homelessness.

Perhaps most alarming, Morton said, researchers found that nearly half the youths who went homeless in the previous year were doing so for the first time. For Morton, that means child welfare officials must engage early in preventing homelessness. “We cannot solve a problem that dynamic, that cyclical, without significant intervention upstream,” he said.

Whatever the report’s specific policy recommendations, it’s “a spectacular” way to open an important conversation, said Ruth Anne White, executive director of the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare in College Park, Maryland.

“Those numbers are sort of staggering. Even though I’m steeped in this, I’m just blown away,” she said. “I’m glad Chapin Hall got this on paper. This is kicking off a really important conversation.”

Despite researchers’ hopes that Congress will increase funding for and create new “housing interventions,” White is skeptical. Existing law may already be “flexible” enough for child welfare bureaucrats to get help to youths who need it, she said. What matter is getting the bureaucracy moving.

“There are kids that have dozens of foster care placements. In any event, it’s a very flexible stream of funding and I’m not sure why it doesn’t figure more prominently in the report,” she said.

“The main emphasis is to use existing funds,” White added. “I don’t think there’s any taxpayer who thinks that [funds] shouldn’t be automatically triggered when there’s a kid on the street. What are we doing with all that money?”

The report’s recommendations are:

  • “Conduct national estimates of youth homelessness biennially to track our progress in ending youth homelessness.
  • “Fund housing interventions, services and prevention efforts in accordance with the scale of youth homelessness, accounting for different needs.
  • “Federal policy should encourage assessment and service delivery decisions that are responsive to the diversity and fluidity circumstances among youth experiencing homelessness.
  • “Build prevention efforts in systems where youth likely to experience homelessness are in our care: child welfare, juvenile justice and education.”
  • “Acknowledge unique developmental and housing needs for a young population and adapt services to meet those needs.”
  • “Tailor supports for rural youth experiencing homelessness to account for more limited service infrastructure over a larger terrain.”
  • “Target strategies to address the disproportionate risk for homelessness among special subpopulations, including pregnant and parenting, LGBT, African-American and Hispanic youth, and young people without high school diplomas.”

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New LA Child Welfare Chief Bobby Cagle to Find High Demand, Too Few Foster Homes

LOS ANGELES — Bobby Cagle, a former foster child and caseworker, is set to take over as head of Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) starting Dec. 1 as part of ongoing efforts to curb long-running issues within the nation’s largest child welfare system.

"What having been director [of the Division of Family and Children Services] in Georgia will do is give me a leg up on the fact that that is a very large system," Cagle said in an interview in his Atlanta office. "LA County is composed of about 10.2 million residents, almost the same size as Georgia, in a very compact area."

His first priorities are "assessment of the system and the relationships with the key stakeholders in the community that are really vital to us being able to do the work," he said.

The Board of Supervisors is already working on the size of caseloads and promoting kinship care, Cagle said. "The nice thing in LA is that the Board of Supervisors already arrived at the conclusion that kinship care is a vital component and that they need to move in that direction," he said. "My encouragement will just be joining into the chorus."

As for caseloads, "One of the things … that every system deals with is the size of caseloads," Cagle said. "The trauma you experience in everyday work, even at a normal size caseload, is multiplied when you look at caseloads that are too large."

Another major concern is "the number of visitations that have to occur as well as the difficulties they have with traffic and also the distance that children have to be transported to do the visitations," he said.

“Cagle has worked in child welfare, substance abuse, early education, and social services for nearly 30 years, which has prepared him to handle critical incidents, community engagement, the courts, and thrive within the unique challenges and opportunities of working in Los Angeles County,” said Supervisor Hilda L. Solis in a statement made at Cagle’s appointment in September.

She voted in favor of appointing him in a 3-2 vote of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Cagle will succeed former director Philip Browning, who retired after serving as director for five years.

The appointment comes four years after the 2013 death of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, who remained in his home despite several investigations into reports of abuse by his mother.

Since then, DCFS has continued to face challenges of mismanagement, high caseloads and a shortage of foster homes.

According to Wende Nichols-Julien, chief executive officer of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Los Angeles, the most pressing issue facing Cagle is the crisis of too few foster families and family environments for children.

DCFS serves more than 30,000 children each month, with more than half in out-of-home placement. This number is steadily rising each year while out-of-home resources are declining.  According to the DCFS 2015-16 Biennial Report, the number of foster care resources, including family and group homes, has dropped by 52 percent from 2005 to 2015.

“We need to meet the shortage of foster care placements head-on by recruiting but also partnering with and supporting families in an ongoing way,” said Amy Heibel, communications director of the Alliance for Children’s Rights.

As director of DCFS, Cagle will oversee nearly 4,800 social workers, 2,000 of whom were hired under Browning between 2015 and 2016 as part of the department’s effort to lower caseloads and reform the system following Fernandez’ death.

Cagle faced a similar situation on his appointment to his previous position as director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) in 2014 after two cases of children dying the previous year.

"The work is just very disturbing sometimes," Cagle said. "You see things done to children that you cannot even imagine …When I was a caseworker and my caseload got too large, I would lose sleep. … We have to recognize that those factors are all present anywhere that you’re doing social work in the child welfare system. … We have to do things to compensate for that the best we can."

Throughout the last three years, he has been applauded for his work at DFCS. While director, he was credited with reducing the state’s backlog of child protection investigations by ordering mandatory overtime for DFCS investigators, increasing staff and pay for frontline workers, decreasing caseloads and increasing reimbursements for foster parents.

During his leadership, the state also experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children in foster care, going from 7,600 in 2013 to 13,200 in 2016.

Tom C. Rawlings, director of the Georgia Office of the Child Advocate, thinks this increase is due to Cagle’s “stable and transparent” leadership, which led to a more efficient and responsive system.

“It’s not been what we’d hoped to see, but in some ways it’s been an indication of his success rather than his failure,” Rawlings said. “While we never like to see any dramatic increase because it means we’re taking too many children into care, in this case I think it actually means we have been better at recognizing cases.”

In April 2017, another high-profile child death hit DFCS when 10-year-old Kentae Williams died after reports of abuse by his adopted father. The case led to the firing of three DFCS workers, one of whom had only two years of experience on the job, a result of high caseworker turnover within DFCS, deputy division director Virginia Pryor said.

Declining to comment further on Cagle’s appointment, Solis said in her statement that her decision to approve him came from conversations with foster youth, who “told us that they wanted someone who is from foster care, is culturally competent, believes in safely keeping families together whenever possible, can build relationships in the community, and had skills and experience working across sectors.”

Solis also noted in her statement that child welfare advocates said they “wanted someone who had ‘on the ground’ experience in child welfare, a track record of public-private partnership, recognized the role of counsel and the courts, and held a genuine belief in strengthening at-risk families.”

Cagle is noted for his work with early childhood education as former commissioner of Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. He has also expressed understanding of issues affecting immigrant children, LGBTQ youth and homelessness within the child welfare system.

“[Cagle] was the only candidate who emphasized the disproportionate harms facing LGBT youth in the system,” Solis said in her statement.

Still, the landscape Cagle faces in Los Angeles County is shaky, and undergoing recurring scrutiny.

A report by the California State Los Angeles School of Criminalistics and Criminal Justice and the Children’s Data Network at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work analyzed the connection between children touched by DCFS and the proportion of youth with probation involvement.

The study found that four out of five probation-involved youth in Los Angeles had received at least one referral to child protective services for suspected maltreatment, many with their first referral during early childhood.

Los Angeles County has one of the largest juvenile justice systems in the country, with more than half the juvenile justice population with open mental health cases in 2015. The relationship between early childhood mental health and youth incarceration is one researchers are now investigating as reason for better child welfare practices.

“We must be mindful of the maltreatment and family instability these youth have experienced,” said Emily Putnam-Hornstein, director of Children’s Data Network and co-author of the report. “LA County is deeply engaged in prevention planning — the momentum is really tremendous. Continued leadership from DCFS under Director Cagle will be critical.”

Heibel agreed the child welfare system has an important role to play in preventative care and as a continuum of care for children and young people.

“We know that children thrive when they can maintain healthy connections and grow up in stable homes that can provide for all of their needs and help them recover from trauma,” she said. “Under Cagle’s leadership, we hope that we will continue to make progress toward supporting caregivers who step up to provide stable, loving homes for children who cannot remain with their biological parents.”

Roger Newton contributed to this story.

This story has been updated.


Hello. The national Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund like our work so much that they have agreed to match donations of up to $1,000 per person. They will spend up to $28,000 through the end of December.

So this would be an especially good time to donate to the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Any money you give us up to $1,000 will be doubled.

Our independent journalism on the juvenile justice system takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But we believe it’s crucial — and we think you agree.

Thanks for listening.

Contribute Now

Queer Youth Must Get Sexual Health Care While Incarcerated

As “bathroom bills,” military transgender bans and elimination of protections for LGBTQ federal employees demonstrate, we are a long way from a society in which coming out is a realistic option for all. The truth of this likely hits youth the hardest, who still risk family rejection, bullying, even homelessness for coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer.

The least we can do is demand that LGBTQ youth’s needs are concretely recognized in the agencies and systems created to serve young people. Does your local school district include LGBTQ-supportive sexual health literacy? If not, press your local schools to get sexual health literacy out of the closet and into a regular curriculum. By doing this, you not only increase understanding among all youth about a vital aspect of being human, but you will increase health and decrease bullying of LGBTQ youth.

It is intolerable that such programs largely don’t exist in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems where queer youth are represented at more than twice the rate of their numbers nationwide, and where they rely on system officials for their most basic needs, including sexual health care. How do young people in these facilities thrive when their very existence is denied or treated as aberrant?

October is national Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM). If awareness leads to action, we will see increased advocacy to decrease the number of young people caught up in the so-called justice system. In recognition of the reality that that number is sadly substantial, the Center for HIV Law and Policy’s focus for YJAM is on policy changes that would make future National Coming Out Days (Oct. 11) a safe option for all the young people in detention facilities across the country.

Access to scientifically sound sexual health care would be a very good start. What’s more, it’s part of the essential care detention facilities are obligated to provide to young people in custody. When youth detention facilities fail to provide a basic part of essential health care, we should hold them accountable.

Comprehensive, LGBTQ-affirming sexual health care includes sexually transmitted infection diagnosis, treatment and prevention, including access to condoms and other forms of birth control, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, and sexual health literacy programming that promotes understanding of the full spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. It includes guided instruction on healthy sexual attitudes, relationships and behaviors. It includes addressing mental health substance abuse. And it includes services that address the violence based on discriminatory views and stereotypes of various sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions.

Professional standards and expert consensus support provision of these health services for all youth. In view of the ballooning rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly among young people, sexual health care is also smart public health policy.

To learn more about what you can do to uphold the sexual health rights of youth in detention, check out Teen SENSE, a project of The Center for HIV Law and Policy.

Pepis Rodriguez is a staff attorney for The Center for HIV Law and Policy.