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Jonathan Pearson, a former foster youth, is the legislative coordinator at California Youth Connection, an organization made up of current and former foster youth who work to improve the foster care system. He spoke to L.A. Youth about group homes.

Why do foster youth live in group homes instead of in foster homes?

There are a number of answers. In the state of California there is a lack of foster homes and relative care placements (living with a relative or extended family member). L.A. County, as well, has one of the highest populations of foster youth who live in group homes throughout the state. Very often youth are placed in these group home facilities because that’s simply where they have a bed available. The sad and depressing thing and the thing that makes me angry is that youth often languish for a long period of time in these group homes.
    Group homes are supposed to be designed to be rehabilitative, and to house youth for a very short period of time and then return them to a family-based setting, but often this is not the case.

Is it mostly older foster youth?
In the majority of group homes the youth are older. About 8 percent of California’s foster youth are placed in group homes, but 30 percent of all teenagers in foster care are placed in group homes.

How many kids live in group homes in California and Los Angeles County?
As of July 1, 2006, there were about 6,500 foster youth in group homes in California. L.A. County had about 1,700 youth.

Is it a problem that there is no standard training for staff?
We had a policy conference in Modesto in August and our youth members came together. … Group homes was one of the four issues for the coming year. They focused on accountability for group homes and the need for conflict resolution training. That mirrors Brandy’s sentiments pretty much exactly, that this is something of huge concern for our members.
    (Jonathan said that the foster youth at the CYC conference recommended more unannounced visits by group home inspectors and making sure inspectors talk to the foster youth living in the group home to get their opinion on what the group home is like.
They also recommended that foster youth participate in the training that staff get and that staff should work on a trial basis before they are hired. These are among the recommendations that the CYC will try to get put into place next year.)

How much do staff get paid?
It varies. Some get paid a dollar or two dollars above minimum wage [which is $7.50 an hour]. It is definitely an issue. If you provide someone with a reasonable wage, you’re going to get a lot more candidates for employment that are probably going to be a lot more qualified.

Brandy believes group homes should provide foster youth with a caring environment and respect. Do you think that is happening?
The fact that group homes have staff that rotate on an eight-hour basis, that’s not conducive to creating a permanent and stable environment for youth in foster care. It’s not conducive to staff developing relationships with youth. Oftentimes that’s discouraged. They’re employed to basically watch and monitor youth to ensure that they’re safe. They’re not developing relationships, emotional support and connections that all youth, regardless of whether they’re in foster care or not, need in their lives.

Why are group homes so strict?
The group homes are structured to monitor and make sure the youth are safe. Because those are the two focuses, they restrict activities. I think it’s overly done. They create an environment of rules and regulations that is so restrictive, it really makes it hard for youth to experience things that youth normally experience.
That’s the sentiment of many of the youth in our organization. The group home placements are so restrictive that they don’t allow them to develop as teenagers, or allow them to develop the skills that they are going to need after they emancipate and exit the foster care system [at age 18]. It oftentimes sets them up for failure later down the road.