Over the course of my career, I have always had a paradoxical disposition toward group homes. On the one hand, I loved working in them and I believed firmly that it is in fact possible to provide for meaningful experiences for young people within the context of residential group care. On the other hand, except for very short periods of time, my experiences of working in group homes have consistently confirmed that this is no way to care for kids. More than once I came to the conclusion that residential group care is really a nuanced way of practicing institutional child abuse. This summer I have been making a special effort to reflect on this paradoxical disposition. What, I asked myself, is it about group care that I find so objectionable? I am getting closer to answer this question, in part because I have made a major structural shift in my thinking. For the longest time I followed what the literature prescribes: try and figure out how to do it right. Now I have come to the conclusion that it is not really a matter of doing it right; it is instead a matter to getting rid of some of the most stupid ideas that have become entrenched in residential group care and that consistently serve to bastardize what otherwise could be a good service. So this month I thought I would write about three such stupid ideas, in the hopes that you will provide suggestions for additional ideas that qualify for the “Dominion of Absolute Stupidity”.
The behaviour contract
At some point, I figure, a child and youth worker somewhere in the world went out to buy a new car. That process required him to sign a contract in which he obliged himself to make the appropriate monthly payments or risk losing the car. Right afterwards, he went to his group home and was greeted by a young person with a profane expression. So he thought to himself that if he had to oblige himself to make regular payments or else suffer the consequence, this young person ought to do the same. Thus we now have the behavior contract used as a standard tool in group homes across the world. The logic seems impeccable: you did something wrong, so you need to oblige yourself to not do that again. And just to make sure you understand your obligation, you will sign a document that says that you have obliged yourself, and as part of this document I will tell you what happens if you break your obligation. This way, there will be no complaining if and when you do screw up and receive your consequence.
While this may have been the thinking when the behavior contract was first introduced, it has now morphed into something like this: you screwed up, and until you sign this contract, you are off program. Once I have exhausted your resistance and rendered you compliant, and you do in fact sign this contract, I will wave it in your face every time you even remotely get out of hand. The second I can nail you with a violation of your contract, I will impose the consequence the contract threatened, and even if this does not make any sense whatsoever, I have no choice but to do so since that’s what the contract stipulates. Sure, such a contract has no legal standing and is really just a piece of paper that no one outside of this group home cares about, and sure, the context of your behavior this time is completely different from last time, and yes, it is true that it would make much more sense for us to talk about what’s going on rather than for me to retreat to the office so that I can write on the board that you are now subject to the consequence as stipulated in the contract, but a contract is a contract, and therefore we will proceed in this way instead. At any rate, breaching your contract results in me getting into my new car more quickly than sitting with you to discuss the issues.
Early bed times
Early bed times, or EBTs, are a favourite consequence used to punish kids when they are uncooperative in the evenings. EBTs are often seen as natural or logical consequences; the thinking is that if you are doing bad things in the evening, you ought to go to bed earlier the next day so that you – ??? What exactly is the thinking behind EBTs? Kids who get out of hand as bed time approaches are no more likely to be calm and cooperative if they go to bed half an hour earlier the next day. In most cases, bedtime struggles are related either to an anxiety about sleeping, darkness, being alone, nightmares or the like, or such struggles relate to over-stimulation when the whole group of kids is asked to settle down for bed at the same time. In either case, sending the kid to bed earlier the next day doesn’t quite seem to address the problem. In fact, in the first case, it exacerbates the problem because it adds half an hour to the nightmares, anxiety, being alone, etc. And if it really is about over-stimulation, why are we sending kids to bed earlier? Why not send them to bed later so that they don’t have to deal with the whole group trying to settle down at the same time?
In my experience, the most productive time with any young person is late at night when the house has settled down, clean up is in progress, and all is quiet. Kids who struggle at bedtime ought to stay up later, spend some calm time with staff, maybe help with the clean up (which most kids gratefully do in exchange for avoiding the anxieties associated with group bedtimes) and prepare for the next day. EBTs serve no other purpose than to prevent this invaluable opportunity for relational engagement to occur.
Grounding after returning from AWOL
Leaving the group home without permission is not good; that much I can agree with (although in extremely bad group homes, escaping the oppression of the program might be good). Coming back to the safety of the group home after having been missing for a while is very good. Surely few people would argue with that. Why, then, do we impose blanket consequences on kids for doing something very good, even if doing so necessitates doing something bad first? It seems to me that the best way to encourage kids not to come back is to tell them that if you do come back you will face consequences. Most kids do eventually come back, but I suspect that they stay away longer because they want to delay their consequence; I certainly would. Somehow we have become stuck in our belief that we must nail kids for running away, because if we don't, all the kids are going to run away all the time. This logic is ridiculous. If kids really wanted to run away, why wouldn’t they do so, come back when they felt like it, refuse their consequence and run away again? The logic that we must 'consequence' kids for running away is based on the insecurity of residential staff and group home programs generally. It presumes that kids really don’t want to be there in the first place, and the only way to keep them there is to threaten them with consequences if they leave. If things are really that bad, my advice is to close the group home. Alternatively, think about why kids don’t want to be there, and then work with them to make being at the group home a better experience than being on the streets.
Well, there you have it. Three residential group care ideas that belong in the Dominion of Stupidity; there surely are many others. I think it would be fun to create a discussion thread on CYC-Net that exposes some of our dumbest practices from across the world. We all know that we participate in this stupidity from time to time, and sometimes regularly. Perhaps if we give voice to what needs to be eliminated from residential group care, we will begin to understand the potential of this way of caring for kids to actually be useful.