You call this home?
Brandy, 16, feels like the foster care system cares more about rules than the kids.
You have to ask permission for everything, like to get food from the fridge, cook, watch TV, use the phone, go in the backyard or take a shower (the staff say there is a schedule). How can you feel at home when you have to ask to eat or can’t go outside unless you have a staff member with you? It makes me feel like I’m in jail.
My group home staff were like my mothers
My mom and I don’t get along. When I lived with her, we were always at each other’s throats, fighting and arguing. When things got really bad, she’d kick me out at night with nowhere to go but the park. It made me really mad that she did that. Every day I would come home sad that I had to come back to that crap. So finally, a year and a half ago I moved out of my house and went into foster care.
It’s hard for the foster care system to find foster homes for teenagers because most foster parents want young kids, so a social worker asked me if I wanted to live with a family member or go to a group home. At my family members’ houses there would still be drama and arguing so I chose to go to a group home. I was in a group home when I was in sixth grade because the foster care system said my mom wasn’t taking proper care of me. I liked it—it was like a regular house. We could cook, eat or take a shower when we wanted and didn’t have to ask to watch TV. I thought it would be like it was before, so I decided to move into a group home again.
This time, I’m not around negative comments from my mom, but the group home isn’t 100 percent better.
My group home is a big house where six girls who are in foster care live with staff members who change shifts every eight to 10 hours. The staff is responsible for watching us, making sure the house is clean and cooking dinner. Each girl has a roommate. We have chores and eat together at the dinner table, but that’s about all my group home has in common with living like a family.
There are some good things. I get a therapist to talk to and I know the group home can’t kick me out, like my mom would. I also like getting to know the girls who move in. I like hearing their stories, like this girl who was born in Mexico and she and her brother came to Los Angeles with a family member and were left on the streets until the foster care system took them in. It made me so sad. Listening to their stories is like watching a movie or reading a book—it takes my mind off my situation.
But in a group home there are too many rules and no freedom to do what normal teenagers do, like hang out with friends. And most of the staff members are not respectful.
You have to ask permission for everything, like to get food from the fridge, cook, watch TV, use the phone, go in the backyard or take a shower (the staff say there is a schedule). How can you feel at home when you have to ask to eat or can’t go outside unless you have a staff member with you? It makes me feel like I’m in jail. All the signs on the wall—like a list of employee responsibilities, no smoking allowed—and having to ask for everything, it’s like a freakin’ institution. It feels like a place where people go to work instead of a normal home.
Also, the clothing allowance is $50 a month, which isn’t that bad if I save it. But what really bugs me is my weekly allowance is only $7 to $10. Being a teenager I have a lot of expenses, like hygiene products, my cell phone, movies and buying something from the mall. Seven dollars doesn’t get me anywhere. That buys me takeout one day or a matinee. Once I even stole Clean & Clear face wash and concealer because I had only $2 in my pocket.
I talked to the other girls in my group home for this story and they felt just like me. That’s when you know it’s true. My roommate, Shante, said, “I can’t do what I would be able to do if I was with my parents. I feel like I’m on lockdown.”
I interviewed another housemate, Desirae, who suggested ways to make the group home better. She said, “Minimize some of the rules and restrictions, take us out more to places we enjoy, [give us] a responsible amount of money per week and make us feel at home instead of in jail. Give us more freedom and let us enjoy our lives as being kids.”
During the school year we can’t go out after school, unless we have an educational activity and then we have to be home by 7 p.m. We can go out on the weekends but we have to be back by 10 p.m. A couple months ago, we were tired of being stuck in the house so the girls and I asked one of the staff, “Can we go walking somewhere?” She walked with us around the block, but every time we asked again they said no. On hot days we would ask one of the staff if we could go swimming at the Coliseum pool and she always said no.
To be trapped in the house all day, where should I begin? It’s so boring because we can’t even play around with each other. One time the other girls and I were sitting at the table, laughing, when one of the staff said, “If you don’t be quiet you’re all getting consequences.” (A consequence is a punishment.) We’re supposed to sit there and be bored all day? In my family, we had our fun at the dinner table because that’s when everyone was together. We weren’t going to take turns laughing in order to be quiet so that day we all got a consequence.
It bothers me that if you want to get away for a little while, you can’t. One time I noticed that my Pussycat Dolls and Eminem CDs were missing. I looked in my old roommate’s CD case and found them. I told the staff that they needed to do a “room check,” which is when they check a room looking for stuff we’re not supposed to have or missing items. Before the staff came in, my roommate stuffed my CDs into her dresser drawer and when the staff found them, she accused me of trying to get her in trouble.
I couldn’t escape the drama
My roommate and I started arguing and she said, “If you really feel that way, step outside right now.” I wanted to so bad but it was right after I was named Girl of the Year by my group home, which is an award for showing improvement. I wasn’t going to ruin that because of her. So I asked the staff, “Can I please leave because I’m really going to sock that girl.” They said, “You can’t go anywhere.” I was mad. You should be able to remove yourself from a situation like that, at least for a little bit. Instead I sat in my room and folded my clothes, while my roommate sat on her bed. I would have rather been walking or somewhere else away from her.
But even on days when I’m at my boiling point and want to leave my group home, I don’t have anywhere to go because I don’t want to go back to my mom’s house. So when I come home from school I stay in my room. I read or listen to rock music but I’m mad as hell. One of my favorite songs is “Glycerine” by Bush. When I’m really mad or depressed, I put it on repeat and lay on my bed with my headphones on and the lights off. All the sad and negative things come to my head and I think about how I’ve overcome them and how it’s going to make me that much stronger in life.
It’s really hard living where you feel like people don’t care for you. If I was feeling sad, I wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to most of the staff because I think they wouldn’t care.
There are a few staff members who are good and are really there for us. Ms. Sherea is teaching me how to drive when her shift is over. Ms. Monique, she’s young and so cool and laid back, like she lets us play the radio in the van, but she has her limits, too. Last spring, Ms. Menava, the house social worker and staff supervisor, said I was doing good so she took me to the spa to get my toenails painted, fake nails and my eyebrows plucked.
But some of the staff members don’t treat it like a serious job; they only work there for a paycheck. I asked one of the staff, “If you have a PhD. why do you work here?” She said, “This job is just gas money.” To come to work with a positive attitude, you have to like what you’re doing. If it’s just gas money you’re going to have a negative attitude.
The staff who don’t care make living in my group home worse, not better. Respect is the main thing. A lot of times the girls don’t give respect to the staff because they’re dealing with all kinds of issues, because of being taken out of their house and being away from their families. The staff should make it easier for us knowing what we’re going through. Instead, the staff will argue just to get the last word. If one of the girls says to the staff, “Shut up,” the staff isn’t supposed to respond, “No, you shut up, don’t tell me to shut up.” They’re supposed to be teaching us not to argue, but what they’re teaching us is to argue.
The other night, I was singing and a staff person said, “Stop that, that’s annoying and obnoxious.” I was mad. I said, “Can you ask first?” She said no and wrote me up for being disrespectful to staff. Later that night I wanted to go to bed and she was sitting at the table with the light on. We can’t have our door closed, so I said, “Can you please turn off that light, me and my roommate can’t sleep when the light is on.” She said, “When I’m ready.” Ten minutes later she finally turned off the light.
There are all these rules posted about girls treating staff with respect. Where are the rules that say staff should treat us with respect?
Small changes could make a big difference
I don’t want the group home director to think I’m talking bad about her group home. I appreciate everything she does. She makes sure we have what we need and talks to us about right and wrong. But she doesn’t always know what her staff does.
It’s not just my group home that has problems. A year ago I was at a meeting with California Youth Connection (CYC), which is a group that advocates for foster kids, and the topic was group homes. My friend Myriam said, “I hate being in my group home.” The CYC workers asked why. Everybody yelled out reasons. One of the girls said the staff are rude and need more training. I said that my staff sometimes cusses at us. I had a staff who said, “Get the f— out of the van.” It’s ridiculous that all these kids have had similar experiences. The foster care system says a group home is like a home but none of these kids thinks so.
Then a person from the CYC said there should be staff training with input from the kids. The room was like the floor of the stock market when the traders start yelling. All of us shouted “Yeah!” I was thinking, “Maybe we’re getting somewhere.” At a CYC conference in August, that was one of their suggestions. Hopefully the foster care system will take this into consideration and make it happen.
The staff should have training with input from foster kids to let them know how we’d like to be treated. All that teenagers want is respect and they’ll give it in return. The staff should also get consequences, just like the kids. Then if they get too many they’re fired. These are not impossible solutions, they’re simple things the system can do.
Not all group homes are bad. But a lot of group homes are not run with as much care as they should be. Group homes should be a place where foster youth can grow up, feel like they belong and get help with their issues of being away from their families. But all they are is a place to sleep. A group home doesn’t feel like a home.
Click on the "My group home staff were like my mothers" link above the story to read Tray’s story telling of his positive group home experiences.
Other stories by this writer … An unexpected friendship. Brandy, 16, has so much fun hanging out with her mentor, and she helps her with her problems, too. (May – June 2007)