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Kids Are Dying in For-Profit Foster Care

It appears that for-profit foster care only serves to line the pockets of those who invest in it.

A bipartisan investigation held by the Senate Finance Committee dived deep into MENTOR, a for-profit network of foster care and group homes. The investigation made it strikingly clear that it is a place where profits matter far more to investors than child safety. 

The investigation found that, in the span of a decade, at least 86 children died in the MENTOR system. Of those deaths, there were only investigations for a mere 13. This is the case even though the vast majority — 70 percent, in fact — of the deaths were “unexpected.” And while for-profit foster care programs would be quick to point out that the number of deaths in group homes doesn’t outnumber the national average of child deaths, the investigation found that the number of deaths was actually more than 40 percent of that average.

In the wake of the damning report, Civitas Solutions, Inc, the company that owns MENTOR, had a slight dip in stock prices. That price quickly rebounded, however.

The issues with the for-profit foster care system echo the those that people have found in for-profit elementary schools such as charter programs and for-profit prisons. When profits are prioritized over the well-being of the communities the companies purport to serve, those communities suffer. And it is very clear in MENTOR that children are not doing well.

In 2013, LA Times reported that children living in private, for-profit foster care are 33 percent more likely to experience abuse, be it physical, sexual or emotional. For-profits were originally created to replace government-funded and run foster homes. For-profit programs are generally revered because they can cut the corners and costs that public systems can’t. But those corners are generally very important and critical for the wellbeing of children. And when corners are cut, cheaper fosters are considered, generally meaning that those who are supposed to care and provide for children are under qualified, not background-checked, and occasionally criminal.

Why the deaths at MENTOR weren’t investigated — and how difficult it was to find out that they had happened — is confounding and points to a larger problem. The Senate Committee’s investigation was sparked by a 2015 Buzzfeed investigation that found that not only had dozens of children died in foster care, but also that MENTOR routinely failed to properly vet their employees and foster parents. Even when they knew about one employee’s issues  — he admitted to being a long-term cocaine addict — they still hired him. A short time later, he killed a two-year-old placed in foster care under his supervision. The investigation also found that data collection about child well being and safety was alarmingly scattered, showing that organization isn’t a concern for MENTOR employees.

In response to the new investigations, senators have launched an effort to pass the “Family First Prevention Services Act,” which would help strengthen the regulations around foster-care programs and child welfare across the United States. Rather than sending children to group homes, federal foster care dollars would go directly to families related to the child in order to keep the kid at home, rather than entering a flawed system. Those dollars could be spent on mental health services, substance abuse programs, and parent training.

The bill also calls for more stringent licensing of non-family group-homes for children and would provide more support for evidence-backed programs like the Kinship Navigator program which allows states to receive partial funding for kids who remain with family members, payment incentives for adoption and legal guardianships, and other evidence-based abuse-prevention services. Those behind it hope that the released report will garner support for more action from lawmakers.