The following editorial by OACAS Executive Director Jeanette Lewis was published in the Belleville Intelligencer on March 29, 2007.
Many children in group homes live in a system with inconsistent standards of quality, are supervised by caregivers with limited professional training and are unable to access necessary mental health support. As indicated by a recent report from Ontario’s Child Advocate, it is clear the group care system is not achieving the results expected by those who are served by it, those who work in it, and those who pay for it.
Our children and youth in care have the right to receive high quality support and care – no matter where they live. The responsibility must be shared by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services that licenses homes, monitors standards, inspects and sets the rates for these homes; the Children’s Aid Societies that have entrusted young people to their care; the group homes themselves; and the public who need to be better informed about group homes and speak up for needed improvements.
Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies work diligently to find family-based care for children, including adoption, kinship or foster care. In fact, approximately 85 per cent of children in the care of Children’s Aid Societies are in family-based care. However, many children have needs that cannot be met in family settings – and sometimes, family settings are not available.
In such circumstances, children and youth are placed in group homes, which are operated in three ways: by Children’s Aid Societies, by non-profit organizations governed by community volunteer boards or by private, for-profit operators.
While some private operators provide a thriving and healthy atmosphere for our youth and children in care, unfortunately others view it primarily as a business and may not provide the high quality care, fully-trained staff and clinical support deserved by its residents. It is particularly challenging to monitor the quality of services provided by these residences.
The Ministry of Children and Youth Services is responsible for the licences and regulations under which group homes operate and for setting the daily rates paid for care. Annual inspections conducted by the ministry determine compliance with minimal acceptable standards, including staffing ratios, physical facilities and services provided. These inspections concentrate on the physical conditions and the state of the infrastructure, rather than on quality of care.
Ministry licensing should become more rigorous, with unannounced inspections and graduated levels of licensing to reflect the competencies of individual homes and objective standards of performance. This would assist Children’s Aid Societies and families in making better-informed decisions on where to place children, especially those who are traumatized and require mental health and specialized educational supports.
Ontario’s group homes provide shelter and support for vulnerable young people, many of whom are seriously emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Group home staff often face the challenge of dealing with escalating circumstances where youth may become a danger to themselves or to others, and where there is no support available in the residence. Caregivers need crisis management training and de-escalation techniques, as well as support from management and from the external community, to meet the needs of children in their care.
We believe that caregivers must have demonstrated competencies to confidently manage and support the emotional and physical needs of the young people in their care. They must receive comprehensive training in managing the safety, nutrition and health of residents. We believe that such training for staff would reduce the need for police involvement as back-up for insufficient resources in many residences. Children in group care are entitled to the best resources available to improve their quality of life and relationships.
Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies deal with children and youth who have witnessed or have been subjected to abuse and neglect, often leading to mental and emotional stress. Many youth in group homes need specialized treatment for aggression, substance abuse, anxiety and depression. We believe trained mental health practitioners must be available to help youth when needed, especially during evenings and weekends when resources are stretched.
Many young people entering group homes clearly benefit from the care and support offered by these residences. However, if group homes are to fulfill expectations, more resources must be provided.
As a society, we need to do everything we can to offer children family-based care. For those children and youth where group homes are the only alternative, the Ontario government must take the lead to strengthen licensing, develop and monitor higher standards for quality of care, require employment of trained staff with demonstrated competencies, and increase availability of clinical resources in these residences. Ontario’s most vulnerable children and youth deserve no less.
Jeanette Lewis is the executive director of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.