Over the twenty plus years of my professional career in the field, I must have worked at least one shift in about 50 different residential group care programs, operated by multiple sectors, including the publically funded children's mental health sector, the publically funded child welfare sector, the youth justice sector (which has both public and private residential custody programs) and the private sector. Over the past four years, the majority of my research as an academic has focused on residential group care as well, and as a result, I must have been physically present in at least another 50 programs. While I have the utmost respect for the child and youth workers, the supervisors and the agency administrators who are committed to providing the best service possible, I have to say that I have reached the end of my tolerance toward a common ailment in the residential group care sector: the vast majority of the programs I have seen are unbelievably ugly and utterly unsuited for the purpose of housing six, eight or sometimes more young people. Some group homes are far too small to accommodate the number of youth who live there. Often the houses are badly lit and appear stingy and dark. Many of the houses stink. The carpets are rotten. The couches are ripped. The bedroom furniture has profane writing on it. There is broken equipment in the recreation room. The mattresses on the beds are uncomfortable cheap foam things. There are rarely any pictures on the walls, and where there are pictures, they are often damaged and almost never representative of the cultural and life style diversity of the urban areas where the homes are located. The list could go on. I do want to acknowledge that I have seen some group care programs that place enormous emphasis on the need for beautiful spaces. They feature spacious areas for the youth to relax and hang out, nicely furnished bedrooms, good quality furniture and many other positive features. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.
I believe that it is time to get tough on group care operators, regardless of what sector they belong to. What we need, at least in Canada and other highly affluent societies, is a much stronger regulatory regiment that includes both expectations and enforcement. Here is what I would propose:
Group care operators must provide at minimum 400 square feet of above ground living space for every resident.
Operators must submit to their licensing body a set of procedures that speak to the upkeep of the home, including a schedule for the replacement of furniture, bedding, carpets and other items subject to significant wear and tear.
Mattresses used in resident bedrooms must meet the highest ergonomics standards available for that jurisdiction.
The home d–cor must be reviewed with the residents at least twice a year, and evidence of resident participation in the interior design of the home must be available.
Available technology must be employed to eliminate odors related to the cohabitation of large groups.
Every home must reflect through physical representation (pictures, art, music , etc.) the cultural and life style diversity of its community, or, where residents are placed from other communities, of the current group of residents.
All bedrooms and all common spaces above ground must meet a set standard for brightness through natural light sources.
All recreational equipment must be in working order or be removed if broken (and replaced where appropriate) within 24 hours.
No more than 4 residents share a full bathroom.
The above standards are enforced through unannounced inspections at least twice a year; the consequence for failing to meet a standard is a set monetary fine for the first time, and withdrawal of the license to operate the second time if found to not meet the standards within 12 months of the original violation.
I always hate to use the proverbial stick to ensure that those entrusted with caring for vulnerable kids actually ensure a decent living scenario for the kids. But far more importantly, I hate the disrespect, the insult and the embarrassment of knowing that in one of the wealthiest societies in the world, the most vulnerable children and youth are housed in........holes.