Sarnia-Lambton’s Children’s Aid Society is being lauded for breaking with convention and stopping the practice of placing children in group homes.
The agency’s commitment to place children and youth only with families, and not group homes, has far-reaching implications for their welfare and safety, experts say.
A handful of Ontario’s 50 children’s aid societies have stopped group-home placements off and on, but the local CAS is the only one that has managed to maintain the practice, said Kiaras Gharabaghi, a professor at Ryerson University specializing in child and youth residential care.
“Sarnia-Lambton’s agency is by far the most successful. It has the potential to initiate change right across the province,” he said.
In 2015 a decision was made locally to stop using group care, said Dawn Flegel, executive director of the local CAS. It took years to slowly adapt new policies and strategies that favour placement of children with kin families.
“We knew we needed to make a huge shift,” Flegel said. “Eighteen months ago, we knocked it out of the park.”
For decades, group home placements were commonplace at every Children’s Aid Society. But a growing sense that group care was harming children caused a switch in attitude.
Studies show many group homes, largely run by private, for-profit operators, are understaffed with untrained employees.
“We talked to many young people who said their experiences growing up in care were not great on the whole,” said Flegel.
“One young person said he’d rather be in jail than a group home. That has stuck with me.”
Flegel said not every group home experience is bad, but many have been negative for children in care.
“What came out loud and clear was a complete lack of belonging,” she said. “They had no rights.”
Even a simple act like going to the fridge to get an apple was off limits.”
Statistics show youth growing up in group homes are less likely to graduate from high school, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system later in life, suffer homelessness, and have mental health and addiction problems.
By 2015, group home placements at the Sarnia-Lambton CAS were less frequent, but nine children remained in group care. Another 73 were in foster homes and 92 lived in kinship homes.
This year, none are in group homes and the trend is leaning heavily toward kinship placements. Forty children are in foster homes and another 141 with kin families.
Many other Ontario CAS’s in recent years have focused on finding placements with extended “kin” family, or other families known to the children. Some have successfully trended away from group homes but only Sarnia-Lambton has completely stopped using them for an extended period.
Gharabaghi, a professor in the School of Child and Youth Care, approached the local CAS to study its strategies.
While his research is ongoing, Gharabaghi said he can already confirm certain things.
“In Sarnia there is an ingrained understanding that group home care will not happen,” he said. “To make that happen has taken extremely innovative leadership and a concerted effort on the part of the staff.
“I believe Sarnia is paving the way for the province to think differently.”
The Sarnia-Lambton CAS also found cost savings by not using group homes, Flegel said.
Ten years ago, the local agency spent $17.2 million a year. Last year, it spent $15.2 million.
Some of the savings have been invested in more staff, including three new “family finders” hired to seek out extended family members and work with them on potential placements.
“We’ve also doubled the number of support staff going into homes to help families,” Flegel said.