Rules that box you in
The program the children follow is very simple. The rules on the other hand are not, and I will explain why. Here is a list of the following rules the residents must follow:
- No eating on the couch, living room, bedroom, or kitchen counter
- No feet on the couch
- No room visiting (this includes standing in front of another child’s bedroom door)
- No cottage visiting (children cannot visit any child in front of or inside another child’s cottage. Keep in mind the 13-16-year-old cottage is connected to the 17-21-year-old cottage. The little kid cottage is about 100 feet separated.)
- No cussing
- No fighting
- No running
- No touching another child or staff member (such as roughhousing or hugging)
- No leaving your room before 6:30 am or after 10 pm (unless you have to go to the bathroom, then straight back to your room)
- No handling the remote (only staff)
- One person at a time in the communal bathroom
- Keep the bathroom door open (except bathroom stall door)
- Letting staff know when you want to go outside
- No wondering off where staff can’t see you.
- Always be with a staff member on campus grounds
- Following redirects within 3 warnings
- Pool rules: no splashing, no touching, no jumping inside the pool, no running, no touching the rope, and no yelling.
The rules are a part of the children’s program. If a child breaks a rule, the level system (which is based on a point system) can immediately be dropped to the next grade level. Depending on the rule that is broken (ex. refusing to go to school), they can immediately be put on suspension. That means level “S” for 72 hours, then back to their original level, but to do that the child would literally have to do everything perfectly.
- Cleanroom every day (floor, bed, counter perfectly and once a week change their sheets)
- Do laundry on your specific day
- Chore every day (Rotating chores every week between windows, floors, indoor trash, bathroom, cleaning dining tables and chairs, the sweeping front door outside along with taking out outdoor trash, and wiping the kitchen counter.)
- Morning and evening hygiene
- Attend school
- Attend any other “therapeutic activity”
Listed below are some of the daily duties a treatment counselor might do:
Treatment Counselors daily duties
- Write in the daily logbook every 15 minutes
- Watch the hallway (one staff must always be in the hallway) even if there’s only one child in the cottage
- Monitor where the residents are at all times, that includes both in the daily logbook or white bulletin board
- Redirect the program rules no room visiting—whether that’s going inside another child’s room or just standing in front of another child’s door (as staff must stand next to both children talking until the child visiting leaves their door or exits their room)
- Redirect no running
- Redirect when there is more than one child in the communal bathroom (as one staff member will stand in front of the always open bathroom door)
- Redirect no eating in the living room couch or when a child takes food in their bedroom. (When inside they can only eat at the dining table.)
- Redirect when the child leaves the cottage without asking for permission
- Redirect no feet on the couch
- Redirect no touching the remote
- Redirect no inappropriate language
- Redirect the child to clean their room by making their bed, sweeping their floor, and cleaning their counter
- Contraband search anytime the child leaves the facility without a staff member (the child must take off their shoes, empty out pockets, or backpack if they had one)
- Redirect or prompt at least three times for their daily chore and morning or evening hygiene (Keep in mind everything the children need, they must ask a staff member, because everything is locked up. If they want to do their hygiene, they must ask staff for their hygiene box. If they want to do their chore, the child must ask the staff for the broom or cleaning chemical. If you make a staff member clean, the staff can easily become resentful and make your experience in their own way tougher (please read my story about Alex). On the other hand, even if you do everything right, it doesn’t matter. Staff will treat any child like they are dangerous, criminals, harmful or terrible delinquents—” or why else would they be there?” Staff after reading or hearing about their history, formed implicit or explicit biases based on their trauma or mental health diagnosis.
- Writing in their point sheet, personal property inventory, individual, restraint, visitor, and phone log.
- Keeping track of the meal count, the weekly cottage inventory, and shift exchange log, etc.
- Writing S.I.R’s or F.Y.I’s when the child runs away, destroys property, fights, becomes disrespectful, refuses school, steals, appears under the influence of contraband, anything and everything that will get the child in trouble (I was once asked to write a S.I.R. when a child accidentally spilled orange juice. The cup of orange juice was tipped over by the ball the resident was playing with, ran off the table, and fell on my shirt. Regretfully, I had to write a S.I.R.)
- Dating food items
- Keeping cottage clean
- Restraining when the child is in danger to themselves or others, runs away or destroys property.
The rules would make anyone feel restricted, let alone a teenager or child. The children feel as if they were in jail because they are paying for their parent’s crimes. The only thing missing might as well be solitary confinement. Which some staff have implied and wished could happen, stating, “I wish they would let us use solitary confinement. They need it!”
I wish I was exaggerating, but I’ve heard multiple staff say, “These kids need to be locked up in a mental institution because this one or that one” (talking about some kids who claimed to be tough or had a history of mental abuse) will probably be going to jail!”
However, when rules are broken (depending on who is redirecting), staff will automatically place resident(s) on the level “S” (“S” meaning suspension or shut down). A suspension would typically last until the staff or cottage manager had a change of heart or when the resident’s behavior improved within 72 hours.
Here are some consequences when on the level “S.”
If you wanted to join an after-school program, get a job, or hang out after-school with your friends— the residents who were often on level “S” were told, “NO!” Their level system could be C one week, B another week, but S the third week. Staff think about their behavior consecutively, not week to week. Since the resident is often discouraged, the staff would say, “Weren’t you on level “S” last week? How about we work on being on level “A” for four weeks and you can ask me again.”
Learning from their previous experiences, the children don’t ask to join extracurricular activities after school, to walk around the mall, or to go to the movies with friends. This is because being on level “A” for four weeks was too hard.
(Side note: the facility didn’t want the children in afterschool programs anyway, even if they were on level: C, B, A, or L. Stating, “we don’t have enough staff to monitor the child after school” or using their point sheet, runaway history, or SIR reports against them. There was always a way to prove they were untrustworthy because that’s how group home minimizes their lability.)
Now when residents are on level “S”. they are not allowed to leave campus, attend the once a week (if that) off-grounds “outing”, or go inside the REC room where they would find computers, instruments, and a video game system attached to a larger mounted television. By the way, this TV audio system didn’t work, making it almost impossible to watch movies.
They also weren’t allowed inside the multi-purpose and recreation (MPR) room, where they would find a TV to set up their game system if they had one. There was no game system or DVD player in the MPR room, just a few video games, DVDs, books, and board games.
When this happened too many times, residents would eventually become bored from not leaving campus for a couple of months or be given any privileges. They give up on the program and run away. (Please click here to find out the 12 reasons foster teens run away[NT2] ).
Both rooms didn’t motivate the residents to be on a level. It was a shame because if you look at how much money a residential treatment center makes ($14,035.00 x 28 kids =$392,980), there are no excuses. The cottage house mom didn’t want to buy the boys an Xbox or PlayStation system for the MPR room in their cottage because she felt they didn’t deserve it!
Now the problem I feel here is that even though these rules sound easy enough, staff lack the ability to understand where the residents are coming from. Many of the staff do not have the emotional capacity to see things from another person’s point of view. Or if they do, refuse to understand the resident’s point of view.
Staff believes the kids deserve to be here because, in their minds, their foster parents must have quit on them due to bad behavior. Although I tried to understand the staff’s perspective, it was like cracking into a black box to which I had no access
And I believe it isn’t about where we stand. We are all capable of utilizing multiple perspectives. Treatment counselors can be strict and hard if it’s coming from a place of love. But did they genuinely give a shit or did they just want to make the children’s lives miserable? The staff demanded high standards but provided little support, flexibility, and warmth.
Going down the rabbit hole of a bad childhood
Now that I’ve explained the rules, let me take you down the rabbit hole of a child’s perspective. Imagine your own 14-year-old or 16 year-old-self. Can you live in an environment where you are constantly being told “Stop running! Stop room visiting. Don’t go in the bathroom, Roman is in there! Stop being annoying! Stop talking! You’re making me lose brain cells! Stop bouncing that ball! Pick you your mess! I still see some crumbs on the table. No feet on the couch! No touching the remote! Where are you going? Did you clean your room? Then you can’t leave the cottage. Stop drinking all the punch! Stop asking for things. Stop talking to the other kids in the other cottage. You know the rules!”
And when you do follow the rules, never being told, “Good job!” Let alone, a kind word of support. Nothing! How can residents care when staff themselves are incapable of caring? The rewards for being on a level aren’t motivating, so why would children listen to staff who are making their experience a living nightmare. Under these conditions, if you were a foster child living in a group home or residential treatment facility, would you be able to follow their rules?
I think every child is different. We had one resident, his name was Elijah Stover. He had a perfect level for four consecutive weeks— level “A,”. He was given leadership level “L.” It didn’t matter. Although Elijah had a perfect point score and followed his program, staff demonized him as a little sociopath in the making. As staff learned about his history of abuse and behavior at his previous foster placement, biases both implicit and explicit were formed.
The staff thought it was weird Elijah Stover was close to me. They said, “You better watch out for him. One day he’s going to snap and he’s going to hurt you!” Because Elijah kept to himself, but not with me.
So many people that work inside of congregate care (group homes, residential treatment, institutions) are so unsympathetic because they are not as attached. They’re detached. They just look at them as a full bed. They don’t look at the person. They don’t sympathize enough with the person. To look at a 16-year-old and understand their mental state, history of abuse, everything he’s gone through.
Elijah followed his program, regardless of how hard staff tried to dock his points or made his experience difficult for no reason. I admired that. He never told on the other boys in the cottage if they were smoking or doing something they weren’t supposed to do. Elijah never gossiped. He kept himself and others from fighting. He never sucked up to the cottage mom or staff to get something he needed, like his allowance money or enzyme lotion.
Elijah was nice with the little kids in our cottage and treated everyone with respect, including some staff who restricted him from doing what he enjoyed. This included stopping him from waking up early to take a longer shower before school, waiting outside to go to school, doing laundry when it was not his day even if the washer machines were empty. It also included removing points on his point sheet when he didn’t want to go to the outings because he didn’t get along with one of the residents who was going. They also limited how many eggs he served himself when none of the other residents ate breakfast.
Elijah never lost his cool. He walked away when the staff or the other kids pushed his buttons. He was quiet, saved his allowance money, and did his homework. He never hung out with the kids who got in trouble, Elijah was intelligent, mature, and well-behaved. He was adaptable and cooperative, as he learned to survive in the group home. Elijah was a good kid.
I didn’t think Elijah was a sociopath because I don’t know what type of abuse he suffered either from his home or previous foster placement. After all, Eli demonstrated so much self-control here at the group home that the behavior described in his report was so out of character of him. I always wondered what was his point of view, his part of the story, that was unwritten in his report.
Since I was kind to Elijah, he confided in me and shared how he was feeling. I believe these kids were receptive to me because I treated them with respect and tried to build rapport with each one of them. I would say the majority of the people I worked with were angry, resentful, rigid, and punitive. Elijah told me, “I can’t wait till I leave this facility but they won’t move me, because I am easy to work with. But when I leave, I want to get revenge!” Elijah talked to me about becoming a lawyer.
The logo to Fostering Teen Voices is dedicated to Elijah Stover and all children who wished they could get revenge because of how the staff at treatment centers or group homes managed them. Not by harm, because those were the types of thoughts the staff inflicted on the children. But by amplifying their experiences and using their voice to bring about change!
Life is all about the lens we look through
Now imagine with me if you had a bad start in life. In your head, you believe, “It’s a pity I’m around. I don’t deserve to exist. My parents don’t want me, maybe there is something wrong with me, because…
- …when I cry, they call me spoiled.
- …when I am difficult, they call it attention-seeking.
- …when I don’t succeed, they take it personally.
- …when I am messy, they call me disgusting.
- …when I am strong, they’re threatened.
- …when I am weak, they belittle me.”
Now think about the rules. Can you follow them taking into account your bad childhood and current living situation in a group home? Where staff lack mindfulness, kindness, and human dignity to be flexible, warm, and supportive?
This is the problem I find with most of my coworkers. Although the staff have the mental capacity, they didn’t have the will to understand foster children’s trauma or the background history of how and why they got here. I believe people are capable of imagining and understanding at a far greater capacity than we give them and ourselves credit for. And a lot of the reason why if somebody doesn’t want to understand has more to do with them for whatever reason not being able to process or accept that information.
It’s not that they’re incapable. It has more to do with them not wanting to. They did not want to go down the rabbit hole of their client’s perspective. Simply put, they did not care, regardless if the organizations slapped them with the title of “therapeutic” treatment counselor or when they talk among themselves and say, “I work here because I care for the children.”
The lines of tough love are really blurred when staff thinks it’s normal to abuse teens, using physical, emotional, and psychological abuse to justify in their mind that their behavior is what any loving person would do. While also sharing with each other, “You see all these kids?” Scanning the grounds with their eyes as if to point to each one, “None of them would be here if they didn’t deserve to be!”