Lost Potential: Group Homes and the Struggle for Success
Empowering Foster Kids for Future Success
Let me share a story from one summer, just before high school. In our group home, we had three foster care children: Matthew (freshman), Johnathan (freshman), and Angel (sophomore), who were about to embark on a new chapter in a new high school. This new school was in an unknown area, and they wouldn’t have the support and comfort of their former middle-school friends, except for Johnathan, who was a returning resident at the STRTP for the second time.
As the first day of school approached, you could see the nerves creeping in. The mix of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety affected them strongly, just like any typical teenager. They all began meticulously planning their first-day outfits, seeking validation from the staff, asking, “What do you think?” It warmed my heart to see their enthusiasm for school, so I asked, “Do you need any school supplies?” All three of them answered, “I don’t have a backpack.”
I sent an email to the house mom (cottage manager) passing along their request since it was kinda tricky to catch her during my shift, which ran from Sunday through Wednesday. Unfortunately, she wasn’t the most responsive or pleasant person to deal with.
As the days went by and high school’s start loomed closer, Alex, Johnathan, and Matthew casually asked me once more, “Miss, do you have a backpack for me? I still need one.” I quickly passed on their message to the house mom, but it seemed like she wasn’t rushing to get them backpacks.
On the first day of school, the residents came up to me in the morning, wondering if I’d managed to get the backpacks for them. I had to disappointingly tell them that the house mom didn’t respond. I didn’t have the backpacks for them! However, later today, I was going to remind the house mom once more about the backpacks. The kids had to go to their first day of high school without the necessary backpacks, and it left me feeling really upset.
The same day, I attended our 1 pm staff meeting, a daily gathering to discuss various issues and “hot spots” that needed addressing. One of my coworkers, who also worked in the same cottage, brought up the matter in front of our colleagues, saying, “We have three residents who still need backpacks!” The cottage manager’s response was unexpected: “You can take the one that’s on the chair!”
There was a table full of school supplies, and the staff member who had asked for the backpack assumed it was acceptable to place the supplies inside. However, as she started filling the backpack with items like pencils, paper, and folders, the cottage manager stepped in, saying, “Take everything out of the backpack! Those supplies do not belong to the residents; they are office supplies!” This left both of us confused, as the school supplies on the table seemed to be for a younger age group, not for the office staff. I didn’t get why scissors and glue were labeled as office stuff on the first day of school. Also, even though the activities calendar mentioned crafts, we never really did any craft activities. So, those supplies were a mystery.
None of the school supplies on the table were given to the students residing in the group home. So, with three empty backpacks, I tried to find some silver lining as I walked back to the cottage, thinking, “Okay, three empty backpacks. But hey, on the bright side, at least they got one!”
Over the next couple of days, I kept asking the youth, “Do you need anything for school?” Their responses stayed the same: “Yes, I need pencils, paper, and a notebook.” Instead of waiting for the cottage manager to buy these items or get them from the office supplies, I decided to purchase them myself because it seemed like the manager either didn’t want to spend money on the kids or would take forever to do so.
The kids needed the supplies this week, even if they didn’t always show much promise in school, according to my fellow colleagues. We didn’t need to assume the worst about every kid that walked into the STRTP. Looking back, I believe the cottage mom aimed to discourage people like me, who were advocating for the kids, from persistently asking because, truthfully, she didn’t want to allocate her budget toward the kids. She extended this behavior to the foster youth present there, conditioning them not to anticipate receiving a haircut, clothing allowance, or school supplies when they made requests, or as she saw it, when they demanded. She wanted them to know she was in charge, and she achieved this by exerting power and control over them through fund withholding. Consequently, everyone, including staff and residents, understood that they had to approach her for anything they needed.
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In the weeks and months preceding the school year, we had plenty of time to strategize and gather the essential supplies—if only the cottage mom had proactively inquired. Regrettably, her known attitude and approach, coupled with a lack of accountability in the group home, hindered this process.
As for what happened to all those school supplies laid out on the table, two potential scenarios come to mind.
Option #1: The school supplies were purchased in order to show licensing the receipt and a couple of months later refunded or kept in the office locked away from the residents.
Option #2: The school supplies could have been donated and given under the pretense they would be given to the boys at the group home, but were instead donated to the non-public school affiliated with the same organization.
But one thing is for sure, not one resident received any of those school supplies! And you might be wondering why. The group home felt anything you gave to the residents could be used as a weapon and for liability issues. They did not want to give them anything that they can use as a weapon to hurt themselves or to hurt someone else.
Unseen Struggles in a Group Home: A Story of Neglect
As a dedicated gardener, I’ve learned valuable life lessons from plants. I’ve learned that nurturing plants requires effort to help them grow, become strong, and thrive. However, I’ve also come to understand that once a plant withers and dies, simply replanting it in fertile soil won’t revive it. The challenge lies in providing the right care from the early stages, ensuring it receives the necessary nutrients, such as water and quality soil, to help it endure the trials of life.
In many ways, I see a parallel between plants and the children we have at the group home. These kids have the potential to grow into strong, healthy, and confident individuals, but, like the neglected plant, they face challenges. When the treatment counselors, managers, and directors fail to provide the love and attention these children need, their spirits slowly wither. This lack of nurturing leaves them ill-equipped to face the world with resilience, strength, and self-assuredness, especially when they’ve never experienced the love that teaches them these essential qualities.
The transitional youth who age out of congregate care face an uphill battle, as their spirits have already been broken. Children growing up require stability, love, support, and encouragement, none of which can be found in a group home. No one is there to help you when you fall or when you’ve scraped your knee or cut your elbows. No one is there to give you a band aid. The staff is going to tell you: “To get back up and keep on walking!” While some staff members may genuinely care, the majority seem to favor a tough love approach, believing it’s the best way to instill discipline. However, their actions often fall short of demonstrating genuine care, and this lack of empathy is noticeable to the children.
In certain situations, especially in front of licensing, volunteers, or others, staff members may appear less strict or authoritarian. However, the children do not feel safe with the staff in the group home. It’s a challenging environment that lacks the love and support necessary for these kids to flourish and thrive.
Foster children’s adolescent years matter!
Let’s imagine how we can set up our own children for success. What essential knowledge and skills would they need before they venture out on their own? As a parent, your role is to continuously encourage your teenager, reassuring them with the words, “You can do it!” You instill values like hard work, honesty, and doing the right thing in them. But what if a teenager is aging out of the foster care system and lacks the emotional support of a family member who can provide stability, love, support, and encouragement?
Before foster children reach the age of 18, it’s crucial to address any depression and anxiety stemming from the instability of their time in foster care. It’s a pivotal step before they take flight into the world. It’s my belief that, as a nation, we’re not doing enough to prepare our foster youth for adulthood. Despite the existence of numerous programs and laws aimed at assisting these young people, individuals like the house mom in my backpack story can hinder a foster child’s potential and future success. I’m concerned that those in congregate care, who will be leaving at 18, might not possess the maturity required to thrive in the adult world.
For those who work with foster care children and share these concerns, I’ve provided some printable resources below. These materials are designed to help foster teens develop a strong and self-assured belief system before it’s too late. Before the transition to extended care, it’s important to focus on their individual NSP (Needs and Service Plan) goals, with an initial emphasis on areas where they can address anxiety and depression. This approach should concentrate on personal growth and emotional well-being. It’s time to make this process more personalized and meaningful by equipping children in the foster care system with practical tools to better prepare them for the challenges of the future.
Introducing the “Empower Your Future” Starter Pack – a collection of vibrant and essential binder printables designed to equip teens with the tools they need to confidently chart their path to success.
Here’s a brief description of each printable:
- Mood Tracker: A helpful tool for fostering emotional self-awareness, this tracker allows individuals to record their daily moods, facilitating self-reflection and emotional management.
- Calendar: A monthly calendars for planning and organizing important dates, appointments, and commitments throughout the year.
- Phone/Address Book: This printable helps foster teens maintain a contact list for their network of friends, mentors, and supportive individuals.
- Smart Goals: Smart Goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. This printable assists in setting clear and achievable goals, providing direction for future success.
- Positive Affirmations: This section offers a collection of positive affirmations to hang inside your room, serving as a source of self-confidence and inspiration.
- Gratitude Journal: Encourages the practice of gratitude by providing space to write down things they are thankful for. Gratitude journals can promote a positive mindset and mental well-being.
- Habit Tracker: This tool allows individuals to monitor and establish positive habits in various aspects of their lives, helping them build a strong foundation for the future.
These printables can serve as valuable resources in guiding foster teens towards self-improvement, emotional well-being, and success as they transition into adulthood.
Yearly Mood Tracker (PDF 376KB)
Monthly Mood Tracker- Snake (PDF 376KB)
Monthly Mood Tracker-Flowers (PDF 376KB)
Month Calendar (PDF 580 KB)
Weekly Planner (PDF 79 KB)
Phone/ Address Book(PDF 34 KB)
S.M.A.R.T Goals Worksheet (PDF 38 KB)
Affirmation-1 (PDF 598 KB)
Affirmation-2 (PDF 667 KB)
Gratitude Worksheet(PDF 44 KB)
Habit Tracker(PDF 50 KB)