The Group Home Experience
By Donna Weston
Children learn best from example; the trouble is they don't know a good example from a bad one.
Children need love especially when they don't deserve it.
"Children Learn What They Live"
If children live with criticism,
They learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility,
They learn to fight.
If children live with fear,
They learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity,
They learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule,
They learn to be shy.
If children live with jealousy,
They learn what envy is.
If children live with shame,
They learn to feel guilty.
-Dorothy L. Nolte
A group home is a place of refuge for many children who are displaced from their homes for reasons ranging from sexual abuse, abandonment and neglect. The children may suffer emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems that range from moderate to severe (1). The group home promises to help children, whose emotional fissures run deep and whose lives are so troubled, that they are unable to function in a traditional home. Most of the children in group homes have been placed there through social service agencies, juvenile courts and probation departments. They require protection, supervision, support, education, consistency of environment and stimulation (2). It is the group homeís job to fulfill these needs. The purpose of the home is to provide the children with safe and stable living conditions, in which to recover from the abuses suffered or to be rehabilitated from delinquent behaviors.
The homes are designed in structure and concept, to reestablish and often times, build a sense of home by providing basic needs such as a bed, nutritious meals, guidance and schedules. It is believed that in this setting, the children will be able to restructure their lives and learn how to live, what society considers, normally and healthy. To some critics, group homes provide nothing more than the illusion of helping troubled children (3). They are great at providing physiological needs, but fail at providing much else.
In my opinion, while the group home concept has very good intentions, it leaves room for many things to go wrong. To test my theory, in February 2001, I began my study of the Mt. Anne group home for girls, in Queens, New York. This particular group home houses adolescent girls, of all ethnic backgrounds, between the ages of 14 to 21. My study has convinced me that while the home is a great improvement emotionally and physically for the girls, it is a breeding ground for psychological, emotional and social problems. According to psychiatric researcher and consultants, young people in the care system have a higher risk of psychiatric ill health than that of any other easily identified group in our society (4).
My tour of the home left me with a vacant feeling. An on-duty counselor who is a good friend, of a trusted friend granted me a 30-minute unauthorized tour. As I approached the Mt. Anne house for girls, it didnít appear to be different from any other three-family converted house. There were circulars stuffed in the gate next to a sign that requested that none be left, a neighborhood cat, taking a leisurely stretch on the front door steps, a candy wrapper that was not disposed of properly, on the walkway, and a mailbox stuffed full of the dayís delivery. The outside of the house gave no indication of the lack of warmth and personality that I would encounter upon entering.
When I stepped inside the doorway, I was confronted by the scent of an industrial antiseptic cleanser, which seemed to permeate the house. The first thing that I saw was a counselor/guard seated at a table, under a huge white cafeteria clock. The weary counselor/guard is awaiting her relief. Her job is to document the time that each girl returns home. I felt as if I had just entered a prison.
As I glance to the left, I notice a big red fire alarm, a fire extinguisher and an in case of fire notice against the wall. These symbols of alarm, urgency and emergency at once put me in a defensive mode. I left the entryway to enter the dining room where the counselor/guard was sitting. There are corkboards hanging on two of the white walls in this room. Posted on them, held in place by colored thumbtacks, are cooking and cleaning schedules, appointments for doctors and therapists, curfews based on age and miscellaneous items.
The furniture in that room, which included a dining table, china closet and chairs, is a nondescript, over-sized, low-end model offered by an unknown company. They have absolutely no personality and are not very comfortable. This dining room felt more like a cafeteria. A few paintings of flowers, which hang on the wall, boasted of no particular talent. Next to these paintings was a poster demonstrating the Heimlich maneuver. The floor was covered in a commercial off-white tile that led into and covers the kitchen floor.
Padlocks that were not installed by the manufacturer replaced the proud school artwork held in place by whimsical magnets, that one would normally find on a refrigerator door. This locking away of food is a denial of oneís basic physiological need for sustenance. Only the ingredients needed to prepare that evening's meal were left out on the counter. The only unlocked cupboard contained plastic dinnerware and cups. It seems obvious that the girls were not trusted to handle glassware. I wondered whether it was feared that the girls would hurt the dishes or each other. A young girl was in the kitchen cooking dinner for the household. It was her night.
The living room was a counterfeit. It was occupied by a few girls watching a 19-inch color television, which was bolted down to the cabinet that supported it. The three girls were each seated in one of the three, no-frills couches that furnished the room. There were no embarrassing, brown-hued pictures of a younger version of one of the girls, wearing a flowered blouse that was once in fashion, hanging on the wall. There were no pictures of a group of people: man, woman, two kids, who all shared the same eyes and nose. Instead there were group pictures of obviously, unrelated girls, fake-smiling for a camera that took their pictures at the sites of mandatory, scheduled house trips. The tables held magazines, which included Good Housekeeping and Readerís Digest. There were a few plants, which grew out of control, near the window. The floor in this room is a wood tile, covered by an ugly and industrious center rug.
Just outside this room, there are two doors, which lead to the staff quarters. One of the rooms is an office that holds the only telephone in the house, the other a bedroom. I am not allowed admittance into either of these rooms. I climb a flight of stairs that led to the second floor. I entered a foyer that held a couch that was a replica of the one in the living room. I am told that this is a place where the girls often meet to resolve issues. There are five doors, one of which led to the bathroom. On the bathroom door there was a morning occupancy schedule. The antiseptic smell was much stronger here. The bathroom gives no evidence that 10 girls use it. The girls are not allowed to leave personal items in there. The bathroom is functional.
One of the girls, Lisa, allowed me to look inside her room. This is the only place in the house where I encountered any personality. Aside from the captain beds and armoire that are present in every room, they are all different. The girls are able to display personal items that are not offensive to their roommates. Lisa had posters of Jay-Z and Dru Hill on her side of the wall. There were also yellowing birthday and holiday cards taped to the wall. On the top of her armoire, along with a deodorant stick, soap, cheap perfume and hair accessories, was a much-handled picture of a woman who Lisa greatly resembled. When I asked who she was, Lisa told me it was her mother, whom she had not seen in years. There was no hint of nostalgia or pain in her voice.
My half-hour was up and I had to leave the house. The counselor did not want her relief person to find me there. I didnít get a chance to see the basement that housed the recreation room and the workroom, but I had seen enough. The tour had left me feeling very cold. I was anxious to get home to my noisy, cluttered house, with my daughter on the telephone and the television playing as loudly as the stereo.
The house profoundly affected me but I realized that I was looking at the house through the eye of a financially successful young woman who had come to expect the finer things that life had to offer, and my finances could afford. I wanted to know how the house affected the girls.
In conducting interviews with the girls of Mt. Anne's, I chose not to ask them the reason they were in the group home. I felt that this information was too personal, and was not necessary for me to conduct my study. I was only concerned with the girlís perception of their previous home and current one. In some cases, the girls did reveal very personal feelings about their previous home and when I thought it was relevant to my study, I included the information.
The Housesí effect on the girls
I would like to introduce two girls who were affected by the house, but in opposite ways. However, they both prove my belief that the group home creates as many problems as it solves.
According to the Homeless International Organization, the continuing uncertainty caused by the threat of eviction or living in impermanent accommodation is detrimental to childrenís well being. Children can often suffer from the effects of feeling rootless and or roofless, implying an unsettled situation hardly conducive to social development or formal education (5).Lisa came from a home that was so impoverished, she was actually happy to be in the house. She had become accustomed to living in public shelters and welfare funded hotels. The condition of these rudimentary facilities was unclean and dangerous and threatened her well being. She was always very fearful for her safety and never felt comfortable. Six months was the longest time she had ever resided in one place. The constant chaos of relocation left her feeling unbalanced and insecure. The group home gave her freedom from these hindrances, as well as yearned for stability. The group home was a great improvement from the places she had lived. Lisa stated that the furnishings in the home, are much nicer and cleaner than that which occupied the other places in which she lived. The homes that she lived in were sparsely furnished. The walls of the buildings were usually covered with vulgar graffiti.
The group home is her first exposure to a decorated home. She was particularly fond of a painting of pastel colored flowers and says that every time she looked at the picture, it made her feel sunny and happy. These feelings were a major departure from her usually morbid and gloomy outlook. Lisa even appreciated the corkboards that covered the dining room walls. She pointed out that the appointments and schedules that littered the corkboards were the first form of order and structure that she had ever known. She now feels a sense of consistency and safety.
She seems to be flourishing in this environment. Even though she misses her brother and two sisters, she does not look forward to returning home. She often daydreams about her family all living together in the house. She says that the house would be perfect for her family. Lisa believes that being in the house would be able to solve all of her familyís problems. She does not realize that the concept of the house, is what is bringing order into her life and that it can be replicated. She has unrealistic expectations of the house, which causes me to wonder how she will adjust when it is time for her to leave.
My critics might believe that being in the house, is the best thing that could have happened to Lisa and I can not dispute the positive outcome of her stay there. On the surface, she appears to be a model citizen in the household. She generally obeys all the house rules and does not require much attention from the counselors. But she avoids contact with the other girls in the house and is in a sense living in her own little world. And that is a problem. Lisa is anti-social and does not feel totally comfortable interacting with people. Lisa won the privilege of sharing a room with one girl instead of two. She had never had a bed or space of her own and this was a luxury for her. She was proud of her space a kept her side of the room spotless. Lisa did not get along with her roommate because she considered her a slob. I had the privilege of viewing their room on my initial visit to the home. Aside from a few pieces of clothing left on her bed, the roommate did not seem to be unclean. I feel that Lisa uses that as an excuse to avoid developing a relationship with the girl.
An unhealthy dependence on rules and order suggest a compulsive disorder. Orderliness, perfectionism and a need for mental and interpersonal control preoccupy people with compulsive personality disorders (6). Only with specific actions can these individuals ensure their safety and reduce their anxiety (7). I am told by some of the other girls that if there are any discrepancies in any of the schedules or if things are not in proper order, that Lisa becomes extremely upset.
She has accepted the necessary physical change of her environment as the sole anecdote for the problems that landed her in the group home. Thus she tries to tightly control this environment. But Lisa needs to be made aware that the dysfunction's of her family, albeit her mothers, caused those conditions to begin with. It is only when this happens that she will be able to properly heal and unlearn behaviors that might land her in the same situation when she heads a household.
Jenelleís family home was not lavish, but she did not feel materially deprived. Aside from her family problems, she was happy at home. Unlike Lisa, the physical conditions of her family home were fine. She shared a room with her sister. They were very close and got along well by respecting each other's space. Jenelle misses her family, but realized that conditions at home were not healthy.
Jenelle hated that the house reminded her of school. She said that a fire alarm, clock and counselor sitting at the table are the same things she sees when she enters her school and the house. A feeling of dread overcomes her when she enters the home. The action unlocks the deeper feelings of dislike that she has toward school. Since moving into the house, Jenelle is now in a new school district, and desperately misses the school friends she has known since kindergarten. She has no friends in the new school and girls who are envious of her looks are constantly starting fights with her.
She also hates that the appliances are bolted down and cabinets have locks. It makes her feel that she is not trustworthy and that her housemates are not to be trusted. She is uncomfortable living in a house with girls who have criminal records, and is constantly arguing with the other girls. Jenelle never feels at ease and is constantly on the lookout for trouble. She feels as if she is being punished for the wrongs that were done to her.
Since she does not feel at home, she can never recharge from daily stress. Jenelle is never able to relax, has no outlet and feels that she may mentally break down. She says that sometimes she just wants to scream. If home is a place where one is supposed to be revitalized, renewed, understood and supported, then she is definitely not at home here. Jenelleís extreme sense of unhappiness and lack of enjoyment of life, which she has been experiencing since she entered the home, suggest that she is deeply depressed. Even though the causes of depression are not fully understood, it may be triggered by a number of things including a traumatic life event (8). Being placed in the home, which in Jenelleís opinion is hostile, after being separated from her family, was very traumatic for her. An environment of that nature is not healthy for someone in such a mental state. It should be considered that the girls are all in the home for different reasons and a focus should be placed on individual needs. I suggest that homes should be classified based on specific problems. My challengers might think that this classification might label the girls and cause even greater problems, however Jenelle's situation is testimony that mixing girls with different problems is not a good idea.
The home should have a main agenda based on the specific problem that the girls may have such as a home for abused girls or a home for delinquent girls. In this group setting the girls could better relate to and support each other. These support groups encourage stability and personal growth (9). They provide a support system among people with common experiences who can share common happenings, knowledge, strengths and hopes (10). This will speed the healing process.
The girls influence each other
In my opinion, mixing a group of girls with various emotional, psychological and social problems is a mix for disaster. Adolescence is a time when children are confused and trying to form a sense of identity (11). Preadolescents and adolescents are at an age when they are particularly susceptible to the influence of their peers. The dangers of giving in to such pressure ñ of allowing oneself to be misled ñ must be impressed on young people. Therefore, it is important to identify ways of avoiding situations in which teenagers are likely to be exposed to negative peer pressure (17). The group home, with its mix of girls with various emotional, psychological and social problems, is an environment where it would be impossible to avoid negative pressure.
Due to peer pressure they are very easily influenced (11). It is very likely that the girls of Mt. Anne would influence each other negatively. Xenia and Tanya are prime example of this happening.
Xenia is an out of control teenager. She revealed to me that her divorced mom doesnít know how to handle her anymore. She also admits that her father who she rarely hears from since her parentís divorce spoiled her. Her offenses range from truancy, petty theft and running away. She is rebellious. Xenia was ordered to the home by the juvenile court. She shows no sign of trying to go back home. She is a bully, constantly harassing the other girls, and is clearly the dominant personality in the house. Xenia is also very manipulative and brown-noses to the counselors in the house. She is the favorite of most of the counselors and is usually allowed to get away with major offenses. She preys on the weaker girls and her latest victim is Tanya. Due to her delinquent behaviors in the house, Tanya is currently in jeopardy of being sent to an upstate facility, which the girls regard as a prison. But Tanya did not enter the house that way. She came into the house, an emotionally and physically wounded girl. She behaved awkwardly and the girls constantly teased and beguiled her, however she was desperate to make friends and endured the harassment. She had a low self-esteem and was anxious to bolster her self image and gain approval from others. Eventually Xenia took an interest in Tanya. Tanya was quite pleased and anxious to do whatever was necessary to keep Xenia interested. Tanya admits that at Xeniaís insistence and persuasion, she engaged in activities that Xenia herself, would have no part of. Tanya now misses curfew, uses marijuana and engages in sex with many different partners. She had become pregnant, but decided to abort the child. She did not seem ashamed of her current behavior and I sensed that she was proud of her new bad girl reputation.
Xenia is a bully. While most bullies are aggressive, some like Xenia are more reserved and manipulative and may not be recognized as harassors or tormentors. They try to control by smooth talking, saying the right thing at the right time and lying. This type of bully gets his or her power discreetly through cunning, manipulation and deception. They are concerned with their own pleasure, want power over others, find it difficult to see things from someone elseís perspective and usually feel pain inside, perhaps because of their own shortcomings. The typical victim of this type of bully is usually shy, sensitive and perhaps anxious or insecure (12). The group home, which house girls who are usually not at all secure, is a perfect environment in which a bully of this nature could thrive. One might say that many children are harassed daily in different situations and that they survive it, but I will reiterate that this type of personality should not be one that an emotionally fragile person should have to face at home. Home is for healing. By harassing others, Xenia is probably acting out of feelings of insecurity anger or loneliness and needs help with these issues, so that she can learn to channel her energies in more positive ways.
Tanya, the victim, has a need to maintain self-esteem. According to sociometer theory, the self-esteem motive does not function to maintain self-esteem but rather to minimize the likelihood of rejection. When people act in ways that protect or enhance their self-esteem, they are typically acting in ways that they believe will increase their relational value in otherís eyes and, thus, improve their chances of social acceptance. This system may lead people to do things that are not always beneficial, but it does so to protect their interpersonal relationships rather than their inner integrity (13).
I believe that any attentive adult, especially one, who is being paid to counsel troubled teenagers, should have noticed Tanya's self-esteem problems. They should have also noticed the change in her behavior and intervened. My critic might say that the counselors have other duties and cannot attend to all of the girls at once. But if that is the problem, then the homes need to be staffed with counselors who are more attentive and observant and their jobs should be far more than documenting arrival times and enforcing punishments. Extra staff may also solve the problem.
As I interviewed the girls in regard to their feelings about the counselors, I felt that they were a little guarded. I attributed this to the fact that I am the friend of a friend to one of the counselors. However, I was able to gather enough information to prove my suspicion that the counselors can be affecting the girls in a negative way.
Authority is the legal power of one person to give commands to others and to enforce regulations and exact obedience (17). While it is not the responsibility of the counselors to fill the role of a parent, it is only natural that because they are an authority figure, they would be regarded in some respect, as a parent. The exercising of authority by some individuals over others is one way in which society applies its values and standards to people's activities. In fact, giving some people authority over others is an expression of a societal value or set of values. It is for this reason that the counselors have to be careful not to misuse their authority as a pseudo parent to avoid creating rivalry problems in the household.
The general consensus among the girls, was that the counselors, while not physically abusive, were emotionally and mentally abusive. I was satisfied that while there were male and female counselors, there was no sexual abuse going on. The girls felt that the counselors would play mind games with them and would often punish them, without just cause, by canceling telephone privileges and outings. They felt that some of the counselors had definite favorites, who received special treatment and were often allowed to escape punishment. They also felt that girls over the age of 18 were constantly harassed and often left the house. They say that the counselorís motivation is that the house receives less money for girls over 18. Most of the girls feel as if the counselors are not trustworthy or objective, and desperately miss a nurturing, mother figure in the house.
The counselors are showing favoritism among the girls and this is not healthy. When one child is singled out over another with reward or praise both children are being destroyed. Comparing one child to another makes one feels inferior and will provoke him/her to wrath in the process (14). They are also promoting rivalry, which encourages jealousy, anger, resentment and aggression (15). These emotions would only be magnified in a house occupied by girls who are already emotionally scarred. The emotional abuse displayed by the counselors coupled with their lack of interest for the girls, as displayed in the case of Tanya, is evidence that they are causing the girls psychological harm. When hiring counselors, the homes should consider psychological evaluations to select persons who harbor nurturing tendencies. To nurture is to "to promote and sustain the growth and development of" (16). The girls need a caring mother/father figure to cultivate their growth, not a biased warden, who will stunt it.
Group Home Survivor
Vickie Samson was consigned to the Mt. Anne Group home when she was 14. Now at the age of 30, she looks back at her experience and is able to determine exactly where the home went wrong. After a three hour long interview with Vickie, my conclusions were verified. The home created in her psychological, emotional and social problems, that she battles until this very day.
I agree with my adversaries who might say that the group home does teach some good values. Vickie confirmed this by stating the following:
"Now don't get me wrong, the house was good for some things. Like they taught me how to manage money, cook, clean and keep a household. I mean, Donna, you know, I am a single parent with three kids and I am doing pretty good. I mean, we ain't rich or nothing and I still get assistance, but my kids are clean, and they not starving. And my kids are good. And don't nobody mind watching them for me." I must admit that her children are very well behaved and respectful. They are ages 5, 7 and 9, and during the three hour interview, I hardly noticed they were there. "I am also a hard worker. I work from 8 in the morning to sometimes 8 at night and I still make my church meetings 2 nights a week. I take the kids to church right along with me. They know that everything I do is for them so they won't have to go through what I went through."
However, my theory that the home failed to provide solid guidance, which lead to serious emotional and social problems was confirmed by the following:
"What I didn't like about the house is that they made you feel like you were out there on your own. I never really felt that anyone cared for me. That's one of the reasons I started have sex at 15, because I felt that at least those boys cared about me. Most of the men that I see now, I know I see them to make me feel good about myself. And they didn't care what we did too each other. Sometimes they (the counselors) would have fun talking about all the drama that was going on in the house. We was stealing each other boyfriends, setting each other up to get in trouble smoking weed having sex in groups, all kind of stuff. It was like we was a bunch of animals going wild with no one to keep us in check and to tell us things about life and the future. Donna, you know, everybody needs guidance and we didn't have any. I am glad that the church is teaching me how to place limits on myself. And it's hard trying to do that once you used to do whatever you want to do. You know? Them counselors didn't care about us and I never trusted them and I still have a problem trusting people today. They wasn't the type of people to be watching us especially after a lot of us was abandoned by our own mothers. I felt like a criminal because they always locked stuff up like we were gonna steal something. Even though a lot of the girls did steal. You never felt comfortable with your stuff because as soon as you wasn't watching something would be missing. That's why I'm used to locking stuff up now in my own house."
My sentiments and conclusions about the changes necessary to change the outcome of living in the group home was echoed by the following statements:
"If I could change anything about the way they do things, I would make a more loving place, like a real home. I would have a mother living in there with the girls teaching them about morals, and about loving themselves and respecting other people. I would make sure that the girls would feel important and that they mattered and that this was a place where they were going to heal after the mess they had to deal with from there family."
The girls who are sent to this home have already suffered enough at the hands of people who are supposed to nurture them. The people they were supposed to trust have abused them. They are very fragile and vulnerable and need optimum guidance and nurturance, and the group home is falling short. Yes, some might think that they are better off because at least their father isn't having sex with them anymore or at least they have food to eat now or at least they are not being beaten anymore. And I agree their family home was definitely harmful for them, but the group homes are only providing very basic and physical needs. Who could consider these horrible new conditions much better, when they are contributing to the damage that has already been done to them?
These girls need love, guidance, an open ear, someone that cares, a strong shoulder, understanding and refrigerators with no locks. They need a real home, where they can finally put down their armor and battle gear, and truly start the healing process.
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