DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. -- In many ways, Children's Village resembles an idyllic college campus, with its abundant open spaces, handsome buildings, brand-new activities center and Olympic-size pool.
Yet the child-welfare professionals who run the 180-acre complex in this New York City suburb are committed to a seemingly paradoxical goal: They want fewer foster children settling in to make the residential cottages their home.
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"The longer kids stay in institutions, the less capable they are of reintegrating into society," said Children's Village CEO Jeremy Kohomban. "We need to use the residential system as a short-term emergency room, then get kids back to the community."
At the forefront of a nationwide effort to improve the foster care system, Kohomban and his team have steadily shifted the focus of Children's Village, which was founded in 1851. The Dobbs Ferry campus now has fewer than 100 beds set aside for foster children, down from 275 in 2004.
Over the same period, the charity's caseload of children receiving services in their own New York-area neighborhoods rose from 1,367 to more than 4,400. These services range from in-home therapy for some troubled kids to parenting classes for their mothers and fathers.
That shift reflects a growing consensus within the child-welfare field that institutional settings for foster children -- while sometimes necessary -- should be used sparingly. With varying success, most states have tried to move in that direction, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, recently proposed a bill that would cut off federal funding for long-term placements in group homes.
Hatch says youths in group homes are often targeted by sex traffickers and pimps. Other problems include abuse by staff, youth-on-youth sex abuse, overuse of psychotropic medication, and restrictive rules that prompt many youths to run away.
According to the latest national statistics, there were 397,000 children in foster care as of September 2012, including 58,000 -- or 15 percent -- in some form of institutional setting. There are two main forms of group care -- residential treatment centers like Children's Village which accommodate children with serious emotional or behavioral problems, and group homes housing children for whom no foster family can be found.
As recently as 1999, there were more than 100,000 children in group care, about 18 percent of that year's foster care population of 567,000. In the ensuing 15 years, most states have shortened stays in foster care, expedited adoptions and expanded preventive support for troubled families so more children avoid being removed from home in the first place.
While pleased that group-care numbers have fallen, many child-welfare activists want the trend to accelerate.
"In congregate care, children are cut off," said Celeste Bodner, who advocates for foster youth as head of a nonprofit called Foster Club. "They deserve to continue their childhood in as normal a setting as possible, instead of pulling them out and sticking them in a bubble."
To lower group-care numbers, states have two main options: providing more preventive support for fragile families and recruiting more people -- including relatives -- to serve as foster parents. It's generally the older children who are hardest to place with families, and thus the likeliest candidates for group homes.
"There's not enough work done on developing foster families for teens, so group homes become the default option," said Tracey Feild, a child-welfare specialist with the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She said 57 percent of teens in foster care spend time in group settings, where they're often deprived of normal activities such as organized sports or learning to drive.
"What happens in a group home is all youths are treated exactly the same," Feild said. "There's not a lot of room for individual development."
According to Casey Foundation figures, some states, such as Kansas, now have 5 percent or less of their foster children in group care, while others -- including Colorado, Connecticut and Rhode Island -- have more than 20 percent.
Jacque Mata-Lemons, now a 22-year-old college student, spent six years in a group home in Lubbock, Texas. She excelled at school work and earned some privileges, yet chafed at the extensive restrictions.
Use of telephones, TV and the Internet was limited, as were extracurricular activities at school and visits to friends' homes, Mata-Lemons said. When her mother -- a drug addict who served time in jail -- died seven years ago, Mata-Lemons said the group home staff wouldn't let her go the funeral.
"A lot of the kids compared it to a prison," she said.
At the Children's Village campus in Dobbs Ferry, the young residents are governed by various rules, including mandatory chores, but also have their own school -- which competes in basketball, softball and track -- as well as the activities center and a popular program teaching how to train service dogs.
Yet Children's Village has taken numerous steps to shift away from long-term residential care, with a goal of limiting most stays to less than six months.
For children who do need to be removed from their own home, the charity has intensified efforts to find relatives or neighbors to provide a foster home nearby. Vincent Madera, who oversees these efforts, says his team has even hired a private investigator in its quest for suitable foster parents.
Anthony Robinson, now 18, came to Children's Village four years ago, bristling with anger at a time when his mother was unable to care for him. Over a two-year-stay, he blossomed into a successful athlete and student, but finally, at age 16, was pressured by the staff to move to a group home in New York City in order to develop more self-reliance.
"It was hard to transition out," Robinson said. "But it's taught me that life is not always going to be like the campus, where everything was given to me."
Nonetheless, Robinson has insisted on completing high school at the Dobbs Ferry facility, a two-hour commute each way from his group home. He plans to enroll this fall at a college in upstate New York.
Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the New York-based advocacy group Children's Rights, says group care should be limited to "only those extraordinary situations when it is absolutely needed."
She believes more pressure could be put on the states to recruit and support qualified foster families.
"Notwithstanding this huge infusion of federal money, the government is not holding states accountable," she said. "The states are left on their own to do it well or poorly and abusively. It's the luck of the draw for the kids."