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Federal law change could threaten group homes, officials say

GILLETTE — Another federal law change is leading to some questions in Wyoming about youth and putting the future of group homes and crisis shelters at risk.

At least that’s the assessment of two Gillette officials who asked the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee last week to delay work on a bill to establish creation of a Family First Prevention Services Act.

YES House Executive Director Sheri England and Rep. Scott Clem, a Gillette Republican and former coordinator of the boys home at the YES House, spoke against producing a draft bill to meet those federal standards, which would take effect Oct. 1, 2021.

While they support the focus behind Family First and the proposed act — keeping children in their homes first and foremost when possible — they also fear the legislation may force group homes and crisis shelters in the state to close.

The Gillette-based Wyoming Youth Services Association also released a position paper on the issue. While implementation of the act will strengthen some prevention services for youth and their families, it also may limit care for others because funding would be shifted from group homes and residential treatment centers to prevention services.

Rene Kemper, mayor of Douglas and executive director of Youth Development Services there, said the paper outlines positive results from the changing federal focus on family issues and work to keep children in their own homes. At the same time, the act brings a lot of questions and worries.

England and Kemper both asked the Judiciary Committee to delay work on the act so its implications could be considered more fully.

The work not only will increase costs because of its use of independent evaluators and a requirement for an additional hearing — one with the independent evaluator after 30 days and another with a judge after 60 days.

Kemper said it’s important to evaluate the role of the independent evaluators, judges and teams.

“One of my biggest concerns is the unintended consequences of the act,” Kemper said. “In group homes, it could reduce the number of crisis shelter beds in the state.”

The federal requirements also would reimburse a program for a youth’s stay in group homes to no more than 14 days. The cost for any more days would fall on the state or local level.

“That’s not very reasonable when you’re talking about rural Wyoming,” Kemper said. “As a mayor, I’m concerned about reducing services at the state or local level.”

Keeping families together in their homes also is a focus of YES House programs, England said.

“But what if it takes longer” than 14 days, she asked. “The unintended consequences may be that we cut our crisis shelters or group homes to go to. What if there’s no place for them?”

The average stay for children in group homes in Wyoming is three months.

“Kids may be placed into detention more often,” England said. “I think we owe it to our children to take our time.”

“If they’re only willing to pay for 14 days, we can’t provide the services. That’s not enough time to provide the services,” Kemper said. “I’ve done the job for 29 years. We are making permanent changes in these kids’ lives, but not when we’re limited to a 14-day timeline.”

Clem said since he resigned from his job at the YES House earlier this year to become a full-time minister in Gillette, “I don’t really have a dog in this fight.”

But the proposed act “does greatly concern me because it would disrupt the continuum of care.”

He added that a first-time juvenile delinquent sent to the group home may take more than 14 days just to start speaking to staff, depending on how upset or stubborn he or she is.

He worries how the new prevention act would affect the continuum of care, although that isn’t known yet.

A lot of times with abuse or neglect, they’re placed in a facility while awaiting adjudication, Clem said.

“These are kids who’ve not been successful in foster care and they’re sent back to a crisis shelter, unfortunately, because they’re not safe in the community,” he said.

He asked what will happen to children involved in a diversion program or neglect cases if a court takes more time to determine the best course of action for that child.

“More and more will be in jail,” he said. “There is always going to be a need for a group home. I believe this will put our children at risk. ... This is going to have a significant impact.”

Even the Judiciary Committee was divided on the issue, voting 7-7 on a proposal to move a draft bill on the issue forward. As a result, the draft bill will move forward and the discussion likely will continue.

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