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Broken Bonds: Group homes sometimes help teens needing foster care
Option is usually a last resort
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Shakaria Evans works in a meeting room with inspirational phrases on the wall at Jesse’s House. Evans is the program director at the Cumming nonprofit home for girls.

How to help

Jesse’s House, which serves between 40 and 80 girls each year, relies partially on in-kind and monetary donations for its operations. About a quarter of its residents are from Hall County.

To find out the current need, email volunteer@jesseshouse.org or visit www.jesseshouse.org.

They can’t provide what a home and family do. What they can provide is support, and that comes in many forms, from intensive psychological treatment to help with homework.

These homes, residential care facilities for teens in custody of state agencies including the Division of Family and Children Services, are sometimes used as a last resort when no appropriate foster home can be found. Other times, they are used for children whose problems run too deep to be addressed in foster care.

The type of oversight at each home varies depending on the needs of the kids there, but even the least restrictive group homes lack the freedom most teens take for granted.

“It’s very structured,” said Amber Black, executive director of Jesse’s House, a group home for girls in Cumming. “DFCS tells us who they can be in contact with and who they cannot … They don’t get to be like regular teenagers. They don’t get to go out with friends.”

Jesse’s House is located in Forsyth County, but around a quarter of its residents come from Hall County, more than any other county they serve outside of Forsyth. There are no DFCS group homes in Hall County, so every child put into group care must go to another county, away from their schools and from the family members with whom they are trying to reunite.

The home is a basic care facility for kids with mild to moderate emotional and behavioral issues, but DFCS also contracts with residential facilities for the care of children with more serious problems, from psychiatric disorders to developmental disabilities.

All group homes are required to provide room, board and watchful oversight, but the type of oversight residents receive is based on the severity of their needs. Children with medical problems go to homes equipped to help, while kids with severe emotional or behavioral issues go to maximum oversight facilities.

At Youth Villages’ Inner Harbour campus in Douglasville, there is both a group home and a psychiatric residential treatment facility. Both provide maximum oversight, but the psychiatric facility is designed to provide intensive therapy to seriously troubled children.

Children who are in parent or state custody come to the facility, “because they are in need of a treatment environment that can maintain their behaviors and their mental health needs that can’t be maintained in the community,” said Marsha Stewart, assistant director of managed care and referral services for Youth Villages.

Children go to an on-site school and participate in daily activities designed to provide psychiatric help, from participating in a community garden to working with horses. The 1,200-acre campus has a ropes course, a lake, a dog kennel and hiking trails, among other activities all used to assist in therapy. The activities are used to teach mental health.

“There’s always a reason we’re doing what we’re doing, even though it may look like fun,” Stewart said. “All of these are therapeutic activities … It’s like a normal day for any child, but we’re throwing in therapeutic supports.”

Residents, who may come from either state or parent custody, also participate in more traditional therapies like counseling. In one form or another, therapy is taking place throughout the waking hours, with nursing care provided around the clock.

Girls at Jesse’s House don’t require such intensive care, but activities are still planned to help them learn and grow.

They learn independent living skills like cooking and doing laundry, and go on outings to learn things like how to rent an apartment.

“We just want to give them skills that they may not have been taught at home,” said Black. Some of the girls come from backgrounds of severe neglect.

“We had one girl who had 18 cavities and needed four root canals,” Black said. “We see a lot of neglect cases and a lot of deprivation cases. We also get kids who have been abused (or) witnessed domestic violence … To us, it’s all the same. They’re not being cared for and they don’t feel that they’re safe at home.”

The job of Jesse’s House, Black said, is to provide that care.

“While they’re here, we take care of everything,” she said. “So we make sure they get to the dentist. We take them to court hearings. We go to parent-teacher conferences and we monitor grades.”

They also want the girls to have fun, and take them on outings to places like the zoo.

“Just to do some fun stuff that they won’t probably have those activities when they get home,” Black said.

The girls are also encouraged to join school organizations.

“We try to do some things to keep them feeling socialized in the way that they would like to,” Black said, but they have to do so in a way that prohibits “negative peer influence.”

In addition to providing care for kids, group homes are part of the process of reunification, a major goal of the foster care system.

“(We’re) improving them as a whole person,” Stewart said of Inner Harbour. “We’re also trying to improve a whole family unit.” This applies, she said, whether or not a child is in state custody, and parents are involved as long as the state does not withhold their permission to visit the campus.

When reunification efforts are not successful, children may be adopted, emancipated or may age out of the system, but the skills children learn while in group care are designed to help them in either case.

But it’s not all about skill-building. It’s also about providing an environment where children can feel safe and secure, something they may not have ever had.

“We try to make it very homelike,” Black said of Jesse’s House. “That’s why we call ourselves a shelter. We really want to be that safe home for them. We want them to feel comfortable and we want them to feel nurtured.”

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