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The Cost of Running Group Homes for Youth Needs To Change

This past week, I learned that a residential treatment program for youth (aka group home) in Welland, Ontario will be shutting its doors permanently at the end of November. Outside of my personal history growing up in group homes, this signals a much wider (and troublesome) trend in the world of child and youth workers.

While most people begin their weekend feeling happy that the work week is over and leisure time is beginning, I have begun my two carefree days feeling devastated. I learned through the media that a residential treatment program for youth (aka group home) in Welland, Ontario run by Family And Children's Services (FACS) Niagara will be shutting its doors permanently at the end of November. The story in the St. Catharines Standard says approximately 45 staff will be affected with at least 20 receiving layoff notices.

Many aspects of this story have invoked emotion in me. For starters Children's Aid Societies, parents, and other services providers will lack one less place to potentially place children and youth. Children will possibly be placed further away from their families but also crucial members of their treatment teams, therefore adding a potential barrier.

The other issue that troubles me is that valuable staff will be laid off. As somebody who lived in 8 group homes (though I was never a client of FACS) I am well aware of the challenges facing agencies such as FACS. When I was living in group homes it wasn't uncommon to have 6-8 full-time child and youth workers with the rest of the staffing needs being supplemented by non-unionized casual on-call workers. I'm hearing of more and more agencies using casual workers simply because they're more cost effective.

Some of my best relationships and memories were with casual workers. It was like catching up with an old friend sometimes, it was a nice change of pace. But at times casual workers were also detrimental to my recovery. Some of them lacked experience while others were unfamiliar as to how to properly treat me when there were no full-timers on the floor.

But this post isn't about casual child and youth workers, it is about the funding crisis plaguing agencies housing some of societies most vulnerable children. While no firm figures have been released many of the executives who work in child welfare that I know tell me that it costs approximately $200/day to house just 1 youth in a group home. FACS says it was costing them $3-million/year to keep the residence open.

Child welfare agencies receive the bulk of their funding from the provincial government. However, year after year funding remains at the same level while non-negotiable operational costs tend to rise. More and more agencies are turning to the corporate sector and individuals to raise money. Everywhere I look I see yet another agency hosting another fundraising gala or golf tournament, it's beginning to feel overwhelming. Perhaps more agencies are seeking their share of the pie.

The number of beds for children and youth with complex emotional and mental health treatment needs is not enough, wait lists continue to rise. One idea I've heard is consolidation of agencies and services in which I'm strictly opposed to. I also believe agencies are doing their absolute best to run their operations with as little money as possible.

However, it still doesn't feel like how agencies spend their money is the issue. This is a system-wide challenge. Is there any way to operate residential programs more efficiently and at a lower cost? Until we answer this question more agencies will permanently close down group homes ultimately depriving vulnerable children and youth of much needed services.

The funding and operating structure of residential programs is at an all-time crisis and it is only getting worse. I urge child welfare executives, the provincial government and other stakeholders to examine this issue immediately. Until they do, it will only get worse!

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