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Juvenile group homes are 'tough operations'

Statewide, there are 112 group foster homes, with space for about 840 children. Most are privately run, funded by county taxpayers, and licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health and Family Services.

On average, 57 Dane County children are in group foster homes at any given time, county officials say. More than half are sent to facilities in other counties that treat particular problems. The others go to five Dane County facilities, including the three run by Walden Homes.

The county pays about $130 a day for each child's care for in-county placements; out-of-county placements cost more. On average, it costs county taxpayers about $58,000 a year for each kid in a group foster home.

These days, group foster home placements are something of a last resort. Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted toward providing resources to keep troubled kids in their homes or in individual foster family settings.

Kids are ordered by county judges into group foster homes after they've been declared delinquent
or in need of protection, often because their families or legal guardians have thrown in the towel. Many have emotional problems, run-ins with the law and histories of abuse.

Jim Moeser, the veteran administrator of Dane County Juvenile Court, acknowledges that, for some kids, group home placement is a step away from juvenile jail. "These are tough operations," he says. For kids under 16, the goal is to stabilize them for longer-term settings, such as a foster family or a reunion with their biological family. Older kids are prepared for independence.

Residents of juvenile group homes are paired with mentors, undergo tutoring and participate in counseling. All are assigned a county social worker who is their primary resource between the home, outside services and school. Successful homes require sound mentoring, compassionate understanding and tight discipline.

"Any time you put six or eight kids with their own emotional difficulties together, you're going to have challenges," says Moeser. "But it seems that the challenges have gotten harder over the years."

One challenge is finding qualified, committed staff. Most group home workers are young, and low pay leads to high turnover. Many leave for better jobs in criminal justice, social work and rehabilitative psychology.

"Staffing level and quality certainly has been a concern," says Moeser. "And as kids have gotten tougher, I think that's even more apparent."

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