Problems Faced by Adolescents in Group Homes
Jane’s father has always drunk heavily. Her mother is aware of the abuse, but lets it go on because she herself is a drug addict. Jane in a narrative assignment for school writes about the problems in her daily family life: her life is tough, but her tone is optimistic, she has lived basically on her own since 14, but lived happily and well, relying on her parents only for legal signatures and a mailing address. Her teacher acts on the essay and informs Child Protective Services. Jane reluctantly tells CPS everything, then requests that at 16 she be declared independent and allowed to run her life as an adult. Jane argues that she needs to be declared an independent adult so that she can take work, pay rent in her name, set up bills in her name – do things she has always done in the name of her parents, a role as adult she has already followed. The request is not only denied, but Jane is placed in a group home against her will until the age of eighteen. Though Jane has been removed from a tough situation, her new, forced life is far worse because of the damage of living in a group home. The current system of placing adolescents in a group home without any say to their relocation adds psychological, emotional, and physical problems that can be worse than other styles of CPS arrangements.
Studies like the Romito-Escalon study of 1996 prove that psychological abuse has a stronger effect than physical abuse alone (Romito 1). Psychological abuse by parents often occurs when an outcome of the child’s behavior is not what they expected or hoped for, such as dropping out of school or early pregnancy (2). Parents may still intend to do right and set a good example, but they simply fail at self control or displace their anger into subtler, mental forms of mistreatment. This psychological abuse causes long-term effects on a person that can scar even worse than physical abuse and manifest in future repeated behavior. This is the basis of seeing group homes as a solution: take the adolescent away from abusive parents and perhaps the cycle of abuse gets broken. But what sometimes gets ignored is the fact that in group homes, abuse, now enforced by peers rather than parents, is sometimes
a norm of day to day living. The adolescents could start “lying, cheating, stealing, and disobeying in school as a result of peer pressure, instead of the misplaced anger that existed when the child lived with the bad parents” (Altshuler 13).
The adolescent is expected to be “straight edge” while “fitting in” with peers, but the behaviors that are rewarded, reinforced, and encouraged in a group home can be ones that are even more antisocial:
“In the Jorgenson home… Lisa, a twelve year old removed from a home where she was sexually abused…was trying to be straight edge in her new group home… was subjected to constant torment such as having condoms labeled “daddy’s home” put in her food, and having a tape of her mother, a prostitute, hired, videotaped, and humiliated by the brother of another girl in the group home, with the footage spliced into a movie at Christmas time” (Solnit 25).
Five years and three suicide attempts later, Lisa was fatally stabbed by a younger girl, a new girl in the group home, on whom Lisa had attempted the same style of torments. (25)
During the process of admittance into a foster family,
adolescents must see psychologists to learn how to talk about their problems
and to learn new methods of solving them.
Because the teenagers face problems all the time, they learn that
talking to others or asking for help is the best strategy for dealing with
problems. Problem solving skills, such
as getting advice, solving problems directly, and turning to family or other
adults for help, have been found to be higher in adolescents in foster
families than in group home housing arrangement (Altshuler
13). Group homes are required to
provide the same types of social services, but because of budget versus the
amount of adolescents in a typical group home, it is “not uncommon for less
than ten percent of group home members to receive the mandated psychological
One type of typical emotional problem is the sense of worthlessness that sometimes develops from lack of family involvement: “Limited or no family involvement can lead to a feeling of being unloved” (Altshuler 12). While some adolescents may get family visits once a week, others may not have any family, such as in the case of abandonment or if the parents are too much of a threat to the child. Having someone to love and love you back is important for positive self-esteem during the growth of children and adolescents (Solnit 16). However, there have been several cases where the “family figures” that run the group home, supposedly serving as role models of right and safety, are even more neglectful and abusive than the original abusive parents: “In the Chionda vs Sanders case, the group home owners were accused of encouraging their teen charges to run away, as long as they came back enough to sign for their monthly checks” (17).
Even lesser cases show the range of bad acts from some group home managers: “Armist Dior would tell the boys of her group home that they were the excrement keeping her back in life…” (17). In the case of Mortia Shepherd, the group home manager would “set some of the older girls to beat new home member ‘sinners’ until they agreed to pray for the good people of the world at least 4 hours a day” (Altshuler 33). Therapy trains the teen to disarm the feeling of uselessness as a false byproduct of their abuse, but when the same teen sees “good” adults doing the same scams and rotten behaviors often worse than their parents did, this feeling becomes damage through hopelessness, and finally acceptance, that to function they either are cruel predators or worthless prey in social situations.
Teens anywhere without a standard family model are more
likely to try to find parental-like love in an older boyfriend or
girlfriend. In a study done by the
them, abused them, pimped them, humiliated them, or got their thrills confusing and controlling them” (18). Many adolescents see their almost-always failure in these adult-minor relationships as their fault, until eventually they believe that what has happened to the family and all future adult abusive relationship is their fault. This displacement of blame can happen in any situation, but considering the statistics and opportunity of corruption in a group home, there is obvious evidence that the problem is more common in group home settings.
Physical problems are the most apparent problems found in group homes. Female adolescents in the state care often end up pregnant (Romito 1). This early pregnancy is due to the fact that the adolescents have low self-esteem and no confidence and are in large groups where their peers see the world through this same filter. Adolescents in group homes also have the highest reported use of smoking and use of illegal drugs compared to youth in foster homes and youth living with parents (Altshuler 13). This is an effect of peer pressure; adolescents in group homes must live with other peers and face their problems everyday. They are subjected to dealing with many problems, and use drugs and alcohol as ways to attempt to escape that reality.
Another physical problem often faced is eating disorders. Sexual abuse among females causes long-term consequences on health such as eating disorders (Romito 1). Low self-esteem is a major factor; females look at their bodies in disgust and the result is not eating, or when depressed, binge eating. Eating disorders are the greatest in group homes where “4.3% report it” compared to “2% in foster care and 1.2% in a regular family setting” (Altshuler 15).
Despite their intent to protect, group homes cause many problems with adolescents. Group homes provide shelter for those in need, but they cannot take place of foster parental guidance, grandparents or other family members who are willing to look after the child, or even being declared independent for older adolescents who demonstrate the ability to take care of themselves. People in
our society, including child care professionals, legislators, and judges believe that a parent is in the best position to provide for the well being and growth of a child, and the group home facilitator is the closest equivalent of that parent (University 3). But social workers in group homes do not have the parental bonds needed to support the adolescent into adulthood. As well meaning as they may be, they are still professionals, not parents, and need to always remember so – else risk their own sanity, not to mention their jobs. The benefits of group home living are excellent on paper, but as with many things involving CPS, paper results have nothing to do with reality.
Without the real support of emotionally involved family or foster parents, without the “your life is what you make it” attitude that can develop among strong willed older teens allowed to declare themselves independent, adolescents in group homes face more psychological, emotional, and physical problems. Group homes are a far failed “solution,” an illusion that good is being done for the abused at relatively “low” cost to taxpayers. The reality beyond the illusion soon becomes evident, however, when society faces new adults repeating onto others what was done to them, in increasingly worse ways: life lessons learned from the hostility and further abuse of the group home.
Altshuler, Sandra, and John Poertner. “Assessment of the Well-Being of Adolescents in
Three Substitute Care
Placement Types.” Feb.
2001. ProQuest Database.