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Why are beds empty at Watson Children's Shelter?

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In 2009, the Watson Children's Shelter launched a capital campaign in the hope that it could build a new facility to accommodate the abused, neglected and abandoned children it had been turning away for lack of space. The organization sought $4.5 million, making the capital campaign—which it called "One is Not Enough"—Missoula's most ambitious since the Missoula Art Museum's fundraiser a few years before. Watson ultimately reached its goal, with a big assist from Montana's congressional delegation, which secured $1.25 million in federal appropriations. It held a ribbon-cutting ceremony outside its new 17,000-square-foot facility, on Buckhouse Lane, in July 2010.

It turns out, though, that one might've been enough.

Or almost enough.

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"We're serving more kids at the two places," says shelter director Fran Albrecht, "it's just that it's not at the higher level that we anticipated."

So where are all the other kids Watson Children's Shelter had been turning away?

Montana's Child and Family Services is referring fewer and fewer of them to group homes, therapeutic group homes and temporary shelters like Watson. CFS statistics show that in the western region, which includes Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Missoula, Ravalli and Sanders counties, the number of referrals dropped by about a third between the fall of 2009 and last month. The same trend is occurring across the state. Watson's referrals have fluctuated between a high of 25 and a low of eight in recent months, which makes it difficult for Watson to plan longterm.

The change appears to be due to a shift in philosophy within human services agencies. Hank Hudson, who oversees CFS within the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, says the focus has turned to "family-based and family-focused services" aimed at placing abused and neglected children "in the least restrictive, most home-like setting possible."

"What we know from both research and talking with the kids and the families themselves is that there's a certain trauma, a certain injury that's done when children are removed from their families," Hudson says. "And even when those families are struggling or [do not have] what we would consider very effective or safe parents, the kids hurt when they're taken away from those families...It's amazing that children who have been in foster care for a great length of time, and children who have suffered some pretty serious maltreatment, still try to find their birth parents, still try to make that connection...We're very cognizant that the removal of a child from their home causes its own problems and its own issues."

Sarah Corbally, CFS administrator and acting bureau chief, says the shift in philosophy reflects a shift at the federal level. Her agency receives guidance from the Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2008, the feds reviewed the state's cases, examining, among other things, whether or not children removed from their homes could have safely remained there. "Responding to the results of our 2008 federal review has, I think, been some of the reason that there might be fewer of these kids going into [group homes]," Corbally says.

Federal agencies are responding to recent legislation, like the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, which sought to improve outcomes for children in foster care, in part by helping them reconnect with family members.

Hudson and Corbally believe outcomes are indeed improving.

"One of the things we don't like to have happen is to have kids spend huge amounts of their childhood in foster care without a 'forever family,'" Hudson says. "Making sure we don't have kids aging out of foster care is one of our goals, and I think we're getting better at that."

Family-focused services are cheaper, too, but despite a tight budget, Corbally says placements are "based on the kids' needs, not money."

Adds Hudson: "It's less expensive to make the right decision first, right off the bat. We pay less for family foster care than we do for group care. But if we place a child too low down the continuum and he bounces back up, that's not a savings. Plus, it's not good for the child or the family. So what's most cost-effective is to make the right decision at the outset."

James Caringi of the University of Montana School of Social Work says shelters like Watson play a crucial role in providing safe havens for children at risk, but he, too, accepts the research that shows the importance of maintaining family connections. "I think there's evidence that shows removing kids unto itself is traumatic," he says, "so if you can keep them in the home—and they're safe—it probably is a better way to go." Caringi points to the work done by the National Institute for Permanent Family Connectedness, which finds that conventional child welfare practices do not consistently ensure that children are provided the benefit of a loving family.

Albrecht is skeptical of the trend. "I don't know if [the state is] ready to move to a model like that without services in place to truly support those families," she says, "and my concern is that children will be damaged along the way."

In any case, Albrecht has responded to the empty beds in Watson Children's Shelter's original facility, near Fort Missoula, by applying for a dual license, which will allow the facility to operate as a youth shelter and group home. She says she expects that to happen in about a month.

"I hate to talk about it this way," she says, "but it will help us to stabilize those numbers...We're adjusting to their paradigm shift and meeting a different need."

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