We are missing the boat on CFS and youth warehousing in hotels

CFS is taking a beating these days following the tragic death of Tina Fontaine – and perhaps rightfully so – over the number of children placed in hotels. Everyone is raising hell wanting to know why so many kids end up in hotels and why there are not better safeguards in place once our young people are in the hotel rooms that CFS uses to warehouse them.  But no one is asking the really important question – why are hotels necessary to give young people in care a place to live?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the lack of permanent or long-term care options staffed with people skilled in creating effective treatment plans.  This means an action plan designed to foster healing and develop the skills young people need to make choices that will enable them to remain safe. The foster and group care system is seriously flawed, and does not receive enough support financially or through support services. There is not enough oversight of foster and group care homes to ensure that the best care possible is being provided.  More than once I have heard profit-motivated foster parents describe their homes as “three hots and a cot.”  Meals and a bed do not make a home for a child.

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However, thoughtful intervention, careful planning, and basic human caring do. These things are not as easy to achieve as one might think. In order to provide the best outcomes possible for the many children in the care of CFS, care providers must be ready and able to constantly advocate for services within the education and health systems. Care providers must be ready and able to come up with treatment plans that are regularly assessed. At assessment meetings strategies must be expanded upon or discarded based on real-world efficacy. Care providers must be ready and willing to establish long-term relationships – lasting bonds that allow children to feel safe, providing a platform from which they can grow.  In other words, extremely specialized skills are required in order for child and youth care to work.

These types of skills don’t come for free. When I started working in group homes, my wage was $15.00/hr. That first year, I was assaulted about fifty times. Not minor assaults, either.  Aggressive, emotionally impactful incidents that, eight years later, I still struggle with from time to time. Only those who feel really committed to the work stay for that kind of punishment while earning that kind of pay. Considering the top end of the scale is also woefully inadequate, is it any wonder that skilled staff rarely remain within the system for long because there are easier ways to make better money?  Ways that don’t stick with you for months, or even years.

It is time for us to pony up and recognize that if we want to prevent young people from ending up in hotels, we need to pay the piper in order to get there. Child and youth care work needs to be professionalized and remuneration needs to reflect that professional standard. Only then will the cream of the crop remain in the industry, creating dynamic and innovative environments in which our most desperate youth may begin to heal.

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The buck doesn’t really stop with CFS or the government, either. It stops with us. With all of us. Our lack of interest and tendency to constantly turn a blind eye towards the social problems that are pervasive in our city serve only to worsen them.  This isn’t the first time that tallies have been made and dollars have been counted regarding young people in the care of CFS living in hotels. The issue crops up periodically allowing those of us who have stable, emotionally healthy lives to get all wound up without actually doing anything.

We all want something done, but no one wants to shoulder the extra cost of professionalizing the foster and group-care systems.  We all get on our high horses and bleat about how awful it is that a young girl, with so much potential, was cut down too soon because systems x, y and z didn’t do their jobs properly.

It’s easier that way, I guess.  If we complain about how others didn’t do what they should have, then we don’t have to look in the mirror and take responsibility for our intermittent involvement in these issues.