By Lisa Woodard, Wood’s Homes Houseparent (Strathmore, AB)
“What is a houseparent and why would you do this?” “How do you manage to have a social life?” “Aren’t you worried about your safety?”
As a houseparent for the past two years, these are a few of the questions I was frequently asked. I was always surprised and sometimes taken back that ‘outsiders’ saw my chosen profession as a ‘death sentence’, or so to speak. So, with that in mind, I thought I’d write a blog based on a few misconceptions, and add a bit of the heart and soul that goes into being a houseparent.
First, you must have a love and passion for working with ‘at-risk’ youth, followed by some patience and understanding. Remember, these kids aren’t with us because they are ‘bad’; they are with us because many of them never experienced the healthy family unit that most of us had the privilege of experiencing. A houseparent can never replace a child’s natural family, but can offer a live-in parental-type figure or caregiver while the child is in group care. That kind of consistency in a system (one that sees a lot of change where children lack a sense of control over decisions in their life and environment) can be pretty powerful at the end of the day! Proper parenting in terms of support, guidance, compassion, healthy boundaries and role modelling are just a few examples of the ‘professional parenting’ a houseparent can offer – imagine that kind of impact – that’s a pretty cool job!
Second, you do have a life! The program is designed so you have support staff (Youth and Family Counsellors) in a group care setting. Staff are there to help with providing structure, natural and logical consequences, planning activities and organizing appointments. With the assistance of staff, you are allowed to leave the program – you’re not in jail! So, if you want to meet up with friends for coffee, attend a yoga class or go to a family function, you are able to do so. As well, you have 2 -3 days off a month plus vacation time, and your family and friends are welcome to visit in the home. Is the job perfect? No. Sometimes it’s difficult getting used to people coming in and out of your house but, if you use your time accordingly, practice good communication and understand that the role of a houseparent is a lifestyle, then you should be able to create a life for yourself outside of the program.
Thirdly, yes, it’s a safe place to live! I preferred to work and live with teens, and that can be a unique challenge in itself; however, because of your special relationship that develops from living together, you might find a different level of respect grows. As a result, increased respect can lead to a better chance of getting requests met and youth following house rules/expectations, which can sometimes be easier more so than for staff. On the other hand, having support staff available to help diffuse conflict, mediate difficult situations and offer suggestions, demonstrates how working as a team is crucial in this environment. There is ample ongoing training; compulsive and optional, provided to staff and houseparent, along with protocol for managing crisis and addressing safety concerns. It’s important to remember that unlike a foster placement, group care is typically not looked at as a permanent home. Once the youth have ‘worked’ the program, they must graduate to their ‘next step’, whether that be independent living, another Wood’s program, foster care, adoption or home. These good-byes can be the hardest for a houseparent, but there is comfort in knowing that perhaps you had a small positive impact and, in the process, they taught you a few things about life and yourself.
Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your friends, family and community – let’s work together!