Two teens' harrowing stories of Ontario group homes
“Kids suffer more damage in group homes than they do when they’re living with their parents. That’s one thing the government and the public should know.”
Simon was removed from his home by the Children's Aid Society of Toronto and bounced around from group home to group home. He talks about his experience in group homes.
An expert panel has delivered a report to the Ontario government on the troubled state of residential care for our most vulnerable children. It will soon be made public. Rarely heard are the voices of the youth themselves. Here are the stories of Simon and Lindsay.
Simon’s story: Staffer ‘would try to pick fights’
Simon came home from high school on a fall day in 2013 to find police cars in front of his east-end Toronto home. His mother was “crying her eyes out.” Children’s aid, backed by police, had come to take Simon and his two younger sisters.
The Children’s Aid Society of Toronto had placed the family under supervision that April. Six months later, it decided matters had not improved.
In documents, the society said the children had missed about two years of school. Their home was a mess and the society feared for the children’s health. Parents were considered negligent, allowing their 12-year-old daughter to stay out until 1:30 a.m. and blocking attempts to help the children deal with “self-destructive” behaviour.
Simon calls the allegations “bizarre and false.” He blames a child protection worker he describes as inexperienced.
On one point, however, Simon and the society would likely agree: when children are taken from parents deemed neglectful or abusive, their group home care should be better than the care they left behind. Simon insists his was worse.
He was 16 and bounced to four group homes in one year. He says he saw staff repeatedly bullying and verbally abusing residents. “It was very scary,” says Simon, now 18. (The Star is not using his last name because his sisters remain in care.)
Simon’s longest stretch was at a Hanrahan Youth Services group home in Scarborough. He says he was so frightened by what he saw that he began to secretly record incidents with his iPod. One recording, which he posted online, captures a man — Simon identifies him as a Hanrahan staffer — shouting at a young male resident. The dispute began, Simon says, because the youth refused to respect house rules and go to his room at 9 p.m. It escalated, the man accusing the youth of telling housemates he would head-butt him. His voice full of anger and menace, the man dares a calm-sounding youth to do it.
“Head-butt me!” the man shouts. “I’m right here in front of you. Head-butt me! Do it! Do it!”
“You going to call the cops on me,” the youth says.
“Who will call the cops on you? For what? Head-butt me!” the man insists.
“You are a problem,” the youth replies.
The staffer, Simon says, “used to have these episodes every day with the kids. He would try to pick fights. He knew that if these kids punched him he would have the right to restrain them, and he would use excessive force. He would bang their head up against the floor and they would be bleeding.”
Simon also describes often being locked out of the home when he arrived after curfew.
Bob Hanrahan, who owns and operates Hanrahan Youth Services, said in an email he could not comment on Simon’s allegations “due to confidentiality restrictions.” Training for home staff, Hanrahan added, includes a course on managing aggressive behaviour.
Simon was moved to two other group homes, where he says bullying and the physical restraint of young residents were common. A third was the only one he could stomach.
On Oct. 27, 2014, a judge agreed to return him to his mother’s care.
“Kids suffer more damage in group homes than they do when they’re living with their parents,” Simon says. “That’s one thing the government and the public should know about group homes.”
Lindsay’s story: Enters home at 12, pregnant at 14
Lindsay’s family asked York Region Children’s Aid Society for help when she became too much to handle.
Lindsay, who is autistic, was “aggressive, specifically towards myself and her father,” says Elizabeth, Lindsay’s grandmother and primary caregiver at the time. “We were afraid that somebody was going to get hurt.”
In a voluntary arrangement, Lindsay was placed in a foster home, but her foster mom couldn’t deal with her either. Three months later, at age 12, she was moved to a co-ed group home in Scarborough, run by East Metro Youth Services.
It would be home for 21 months, until March 2015. Lindsay “grew up really fast,” says her father, Eric, whose struggles with depression made it impossible to be her main caregiver.
Lindsay says she was exposed to “drugs, parties, alcohol, abuse, self-harm. People with mental disabilities who weren’t being treated right.” (Names have been changed for this story because, by law, a minor in care cannot be identified.)
The group home accommodated eight young people up to age 18. Lindsay was the youngest. The kids often got in trouble with staff, says Lindsay, and punishment included extra chores and being “isolated in your room.” Lindsay and her family contacted the Star after Lindsay recognized an incident in a Star story. In that incident, Lindsay and another girl, upset with staff, left without permission and bounced a basketball down the street. “We weren’t doing anything illegal.”
They returned but were locked out. It was cold, so the other girl made a small fire in the backyard. Staff ordered it put out. The other girl complied, says Lindsay, and the two pounded on the door.
“It had been almost an hour,” says Lindsay. “I couldn’t feel my face. So we just kicked in the door.”
Police took the girls away in handcuffs. Lindsay was not charged; she says the other girl never returned.
Lindsay says police were often called when kids broke house rules. She describes most staff as yelling a lot and unable to properly deal with kids with mental health and behavioural issues.
In a statement to the Star, East Metro Youth Services said staff are yearly “offered specialized conflict resolution and de-escalation training,” which results in “minimized” need to call police. They are only called “if there is a danger of harm to residents or staff.”
A Star analysis of Toronto serious occurrence reports from 2013 shows that of 41 reports filed by Lindsay’s home, 13 involved police, or 32 per cent. That is below the average of 39 per cent for Toronto group homes that year.
Lindsay says the kids were unwatched for long periods at night and could sneak out, claiming “a lot” of sex among residents when she arrived in 2013. She says she was 13 when she first asked staff about getting birth control pills, which would require an appointment with a doctor. The appointment, she says, was never made.
At 14, Lindsay got pregnant by a fellow resident. In its statement, East Metro said condoms were always available, and all prescription medication requires signatures by resident and family or guardian. The agency would not comment on her case, but said: “Ultimately, it is an individual’s choice to use birth control measures. When a young person is worried she might be pregnant, pregnancy tests are provided in all cases, without exception.”
The home closed in March 2015. The agency says it was due to “reduced demands” driven, in part, by a greater push by children’s aid societies to find alternatives. It runs a second group home.
The closure disrupted the school year for Lindsay, who, earlier than planned, moved back home to live with her grandparents and father. She gave birth to a girl. The baby was adopted in a private arrangement and is doing well says Lindsay’s grandmother, Elizabeth.
Lindsay, however, “is struggling” with both school and post traumatic stress brought on by her experience at the group home, says Elizabeth. She also moved schools last fall after a student “grabbed her phone” and discovered photos of her with the baby. In the past three years, she has been to five different schools.
Elizabeth calls her granddaughter “one of the fortunate ex-group homers,” with a supportive family.
Although the family encountered some good people after calling on children’s aid for help, they say they would never ask for such help again.
“The children’s aid society,” says Lindsay’s dad, “sent me home a pregnant 14-year-old daughter.”
The Canadian Regime and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services should be investigated for human rights violations.