I was lucky to have a relatively positive experience in group homes growing up. I formed lifelong relationships with people who I regard as siblings, and adults who have become parental figures post-care. After-all, for many of us, family is verb.
At the same time, everyone would tell you the system had made a mistake with my placement, and they were right. I should have been in foster care. But holding onto the feeling of safety and stability was far more important to me. I felt a freedom in my group-home structure that a home environment couldn't offer — you can just imagine what I went through if group homes were a breath of fresh air by comparison.
That's why I find movie portrayals of the system interesting. "Shazam!" is a new fantasy/science-fiction movie that follows Billy Batson, a 14-year-old boy-turned-super-hero with multiple placements in the foster-care system. He is eventually placed in what is identified as a "group home" setting, which serves as a backdrop for the movie's exploration of the meaning of family.
As a person who grew up in care, and specifically in the group-home system, I left the movie reflecting on the film's portrayal of what it referred to as a "group home." For Canadians who grew up in group homes, the depiction is not reflective of their reality. This is important to note, as it is easy to essentialize media narratives, like those in U.S. films, as reflective of all experiences.
From a local context, the structure Canadian audiences see in the movie is romanticized and more reflective of a family model structure like a foster home, although the social worker designated the placement as a group home. In the U.S., these terms are interchangeable; however, in Canada, these are distinct systems under the child welfare umbrella.
The home-model structure in the movie also had "parents" who were formerly in care themselves. In reality, people who are from care would experience a lot more scrutiny compared to non-care counterparts — whereas lived experience is often seen as an asset in other industries, here it becomes a liability looked upon with suspicion. This scrutiny can be unequal, as certain placements (like group homes) can facilitate more barriers or additional questions if looking to foster children, or even adopt.
In a world where the media is saturated with stories of adoption and foster care — and where young people from group homes are rendered invisible, or portrayed in negative ways — the movie's portrayal and use of the term, group home, offers an opportunity to discuss what group homes are in our local context and what they can or should be.
A shift in how we see group homes
The child welfare system is making a shift to an "intensive family-based care model," where it would have more family-based role modelling provided by social workers and child and youth workers, as opposed to parents as seen in traditional foster homes. This is a shift away from group home structures, however whether it will still feel and function like a highly structured group home is up to the persons who will reside in them.
When making this shift, it is important for our governments to work with people who have lived experience of group homes. We must remember, and be aware, that the terms "home," "family" and "care" have different definitions, and we need to acknowledge that institutionalized definitions can vary from the definitions of the human beings who live under the system.
All young people deserve care-based models that go beyond the standardized rules and regulations that take the humanity out of care. After all, is care really care without affection and encouraging healthy relationships? An improved model would draw on existing foster-care structures supported by child and youth workers, and take place in a more home-like environment with a single person or couple in a foster parent role.
It is important for people from these specifically structured group-home placements to have platforms to discuss their experiences and responses to media narratives, such as the one in "Shazam!", without being drowned out by placements that are traditionally affiliated with "more love" (like foster homes).
People who have extensive lived experience(s) from these placements should not be drowned out, or spoken for, by those in alternative placements such as foster care, and/or those who are from adoption. There are people with mixed experiences as well; however, we need to nurture safe spaces for those from placements affiliated with "less care" — those who were, or are, often labeled as "problematic, "unadoptable" or "not fosterable" — to be placed at the centre of discussing themes related to their lives.
And we need to work to include this population as key stakeholders, decision makers, and experts in systemic shifts and changes. Voices are vital.
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