Life fraught with uncertainty for youth in public
When families fail, we, the community, effectively
become the children’s parents. This is a fact of life, whether we choose
to recognize it or not. Given the conveniences of modern life, most of
us tend to assume that some public agency is taking care of kids whose
And are they? How well?
A community’s ability to care for unparented children
— or anyone weak, hungry, widowed or imprisoned, for that matter — is a
measure of its strength and success as a community.
Over the summer this column will put faces to
youngsters who, through no fault of their own, wind up in state care.
The Department of Children, Youth and Families has a caseload of roughly
9,000. DCYF supports many of these children in their family’s homes, but
others go into foster care, group homes and elsewhere.
Recently, I visited a group home in a leafy
neighborhood where I had dinner with eight girls between the ages of 13
and 17. Each girl has a complicated story of how she came into
state care, and to protect confidentiality, the staff was reluctant to
give details beyond what the girls revealed. The overarching issues for
parents are substance abuse and poor mental health. Some youths are
homeless. One girl has no family — mom died, now grandmother is sick,
and there just isn’t anyone else. Another girl sighed and said,
“My mom just didn’t know how to be a mom.”
So they came into the care of the state.
Group homes tend to be in tony neighborhoods and large
enough to accommodate, say, eight teenagers, an administrative office
and a room dedicated to family and individual therapy. At this home,
four girls share each of the two upstairs bathrooms — a major point of
friction between them. They sleep in two doubles, one triple and one
single. All but one bedroom was reasonably neat — “We’re working on this
one,” said my guide — and all were decorated with the usual riot of
teen-girl taste for too much stuff on the walls and too much bubble-gum
The living room doubles as a place for group therapy,
called “house meetings,” where staff and girls deal with issues of
living together. Often girls call the staff members “mom,” and many
girls stay in touch with the house staff, including a clinical social
worker, after they leave. We sat at a huge dining table and ate salad
and homemade lasagna. One girl assisted the cook and set the table.
Others cleared and did the dishes. Yet another swept the floor. The
girls and staff eat together as a family each night and chat about what
happened that day and in school. I heard “please” and “thank you” among
adolescent digs and shy answers to my questions. Two girls never spoke.
A girl who wanted to be called Jeli said that living
in a group home “is like living with a lot of annoying sisters. It can
be fun, but it sucks when you leave because you get so attached to the
They talked about their myriad residential placements.
Some had been in several foster homes, or “kinship-care” with
grandmothers, or in John Hope Settlement House, St. Mary’s, or other
group homes. One had been to the Training School. Since 2003, one girl
had gone to 10 different schools. Her entry into what everyone calls
“the system” began when her school called the state with concerns about
her care and well-being. After DCYF visited and investigated the family,
she was taken into state care directly from English class.
Another girl interjected, “Yeah? I got pulled out of
Previously, most of these girls were in a “secure”
residential facility, a locked house where they are evaluated for 90
days and educated on site.
Many of these youngsters need a giant dose of order.
Using the same techniques as high-end therapeutic boarding schools,
secure facilities dole out privileges as currency exchanged for
compliance with the rules. Only when adults clamp down hard on teen
freedom, restoring it incrementally as reward for cooperation, do older
teens get control of themselves. Some never do.
One girl said, “I’m different than the others because
I’m here for my own issues.”
She’d been a wild child and gotten involved with
drugs. But precisely because her problems were actually within her
control, she has the best shot of actually going home.
Some girls passionately hope that any day now, their
mothers are going to get good apartments and, as one said, “get me outta
In private, staff members shake their heads and say
that most of the parents are far from ready to bring their daughters
home anytime soon.
Two 17-year-olds were about to enter state-supported
independent living programs — apartments shared with others, which
included some counseling, medical insurance and education. But to save
money, the General Assembly just kicked the kids 18 and older out of the
system, so the house staff members are trying to figure out how to send
these girls to an independent life with no support at all.
Publicly financed social services are always subject
to the whims of policymakers and budgets. This is only one reason it’s
important to see these girls as individuals and not numbers and dollars.
Their lives are at stake.
Currently 325 children live in group homes and 334 are
in residential (secure) facilities. The community must get more involved
in their care.
24 June 2007