Passing Through: My Experience in a Juvenile Girls Group Home

Two months before my sixteenth birthday my mom placed me in a juvenile delinquent home for girls which was housed in a private home in a regular neighborhood.

There were five other girls besides me, all with histories of behavior problems or their parents simply didn’t want them.

The house was made of cedar wood and giant Brown Recluse spiders used to hang out in the rafters which I found out later much to my horror. One crazy roommate I had thought it’d be cute once to put one of these creatures on my bed.

The first time I met the residents and staff before moving in, my mom and I were given a tour of the two-story home which included six bedrooms, three bathrooms, a rec room, dining area, big backyard, garage, small kitchen, and living room. The girls complimented me on my hair and I tried to act all tough like they were but I was scared inside and I didn’t belong in this place, either. I had just sabotaged my second foster home placement with a couple in their 30s who couldn’t have kids but always wanted to adopt. I was only in that home two months when my mom made the decision to have me placed in this facility after getting through the holidays with me at her house.

It was January 1982 and I and my familiar blue, battered suitcase were moving into yet another institution – the Cobb-Douglas Girls Group Home in Douglasville, Georgia. I was being transferred to Lithia Springs High School; a huge school which they later said if it ever caught fire would simply explode because of how it was built. The day I started there, a memorial service was being held for three students killed in a drunk-driving accident. They were drunk and high and one of the girls had been celebrating her 16th birthday.

It was bad enough that the name of the group home was written on the white van we rode around in, which meant that every time we got on or off the bus we were met with curious stares by the other kids. This place was on the level system, too, much like my other placements where you earned privileges and moved up or down a level depending on your behavior. A newbie like me started out on Punishment Level, not really good for the morale, I thought. This meant no privileges. The age bracket was 12-17 but even if you had your license you couldn’t have a car there. I pushed the envelope later that year when my sister and I advocated with the staff for me to be able to work my first real job at Six Flags, riding with an employee. The staff didn’t know what to think of me, an intellectual juvenile delinquent who worked in the summer and took acting lessons in Atlanta.

What was wrong with this picture?

I took the MARTA train twice a week to acting lessons in the city much to the bewilderment of the staff at the group home and though I couldn’t act my way out of a paper bag, according to my teacher, the experience was fun and helped me forget where I was living. Of course, in my job at Six Flags I got to forget even more and often tried to push things even further by coming in late and trying to stay for employee nights when they’d shut down the rides to the public and open them only to employees. One time I went to a midnight movie with a guy and thinking that the substitute house parent was cool, thought I wouldn’t get in trouble if I stayed out past curfew. I was wrong and was put on Punishment Level for this charade.

Another time I got stuck at a co-worker’s house after work when I didn’t have a ride home and had to spend the night there. I missed the first day of school as a result and once again got in trouble at the group home. In the fall I wanted to continue working there but the staff would have no part of it. But I applied anyway then had to bail at the last minute and tell my boss I couldn’t continue working there.

There were many odd girls at the group home. Beatrice, a religious fanatic, was overweight, shy, and had a speech impediment. She was not a juvenile delinquent; her parents just didn’t want her. She didn’t fit in with the other girls, of course and was always getting ostracized, even by staff. Sandra was a bleach-blonde who wanted to be a hairdresser. She was kind of hard around the edges, wore skin-tight Levis, and was loud. Very loud. She was also my roommate who once turned against me in a stupid argument. Pam was tall, thin, had frizzy hair and liked to smoke pot. She also had gotten into some hard drugs in the past and was pretty popular with the other girls. Denise was a short, thin girl with a sarcastic wit. Not attractive, wore a lot of makeup and liked to go around saying, “I hate it for you” rudely whenever someone complained about something.

Rhonda had Herpes, wound up living there with her younger sister, Kim later, and had a boyfriend who was a troublemaker. Tammy, my roommate, was shy, funny, odd, eccentric, and later tried to convince staff she was possessed by the devil. It worked and she was placed in a mental institute after a memorable night scaring the staff and girls half to death. Her sister, Reba, later came to live there too and she had a drug problem big time. She and Tammy were close. Dina was a chubby 13-year-old whose parents later gave her up to the state in a sudden decision that devastated her and she was moved later to a juvenile facility. Cindy, another resident, was perhaps my greatest enemy. She had bleach-blond hair, dated African-American boys, and was particularly hated at the windowless school we attended. She was best friends with one of the house parents’ daughters, Janet and the two of them would spend hours applying makeup, doing their hair, and gossiping, while listening to rap music. She wore skin tight jeans, heavy black eyeliner, and had a loud laugh that I can still remember today. Rachel was 13 and knew way too much for her age. You could tell at one time she used to be quite innocent but it was taken away too young.

The plan was for me to be there two years until I graduated from high school. I wound up only staying a year and a half and in that time saw a lot of girls come and go. I became known as the veteran since no one stayed more than a few months.

My saving grace was my sister, Cindy, who visited, called, wrote letters, and got the staff to let me come visit her in Florida twice. Once during spring break on a visit to her dorm in college I attended some classes with her, one of which was a Psychology class. The professor brought up the topic of group homes and asked the class if anyone knew what those were. They all sat in silence and I looked at my sister. I wasn’t about to raise my hand and say, “Yes, I’m quite familiar with them. I’m in one” so I just looked down at the floor, awkwardly. Cindy and I talked about it later and about how weird that experience was. She even went with me to acting lessons once when she was visiting for the summer. She also picked me up with her boyfriend when she visited from college and we’d all go out to eat and see a movie frequently.

The group home had two sets of house parents – one for weekdays, one for weekends. Nancy and Robert, the weekenders, had a six-year-old bright redheaded, freckled son, John who played softball. He was full of energy and all the girls liked him like a little brother. Nancy chain smoked, had favorite girls who she allowed to do different things, and had a memorable laugh herself. Her husband was quiet and just went along with whatever she said. Sandy and her husband, a couple of old Hippies, worked the weekday shift. I didn’t get along with her spouse at all. He liked to embarrass me in school by saying hi to me which at the time in my teenaged frame of mind was the equivalent of saying, “Hi, I’m your house parent,” something I didn’t want anyone to know. He also taught math, my worst subject. They had a baby girl and later, one on the way. To this day cranberry juice and bagels and cream cheese remind me of Sandy and her husband. She was quiet but her husband was loud and he was the main one who enforced the rules. If Sandy observed something or found out about something she didn’t like, she’d just tell him and he’d take care of it.

The housekeeper was a large African-American woman named Willie and she didn’t like me either although she liked telling my mom and step dad that she was fond of me. She used to get so mad at some of the girls when they interrupted her cleaning by walking across her freshly mopped kitchen floor. She hated when they lay out on the deck with baby oil to sun and had the radio blaring and she liked locking them out during those times. Once in awhile we’d get substitute house parents for a weekend when one of the other couples had something going on, but this was rare. On one of these auspicious occasions we had a female couple, also Hippies, who were so laid-back and made vegetarian dishes all weekend, took us to see “The World According to Garp” and to a health food store, the latter of which none of us had ever been to. We didn’t know what to think about them but we liked them.

Too bad we never saw them again.

In between school, group therapy (which I hated), individual counseling, field trips to movies, bowling, shopping, the store, swimming, softball games, and various other events, I got really good at playing Bumper Pool in the basement of the house, something we did to pass the time a lot. In that area was a stereo, washer, dryer, storage area, bathroom, furniture, and fridge with two bedrooms adjoining the living room area. Smoking wasn’t allowed in the bedrooms but the smokers always sneaked around and did it anyway. If they were caught they got put on Punishment Level.

We took turns cooking and grocery shopping was always a chore. Willie wasn’t physically fit to unload the van when she would shop so we all had to carry in the bags she bought up two or three small flights of stairs. Then we had to put everything away which took awhile.

Everyone always fought over the one TV. we had in the living room so I rarely got to watch anything I wanted.

Then there was the counseling staff who managed the facility. Debbie was a chipper one who always had a smile on her face and would tell you whatever complaint you had wasn’t valid. Dale, the director of the home, later worked with my sister and told him, “I never could figure out Terri. She was an intellectual delinquent.” Martha was a counselor I started seeing at 12. Donna was the receptionist with a wild streak who had a little girl she was raising on her own.

Once we girls all got to go to Six Flags before I started working there and it was tolerable. During this time period I also tried out for plays in school and was taking drama with aspirations of being an actress to add to my ambition of being a writer one day. But I had no acting talent and was just deluding myself. I also tried out for majorettes, another dream of mine, but didn’t make the cut. The tryout song was “Another One Bites the Dust.”

I never told my friends where I lived until I absolutely had to, but then I didn’t have many friends anyway but tended to befriend teachers. One guidance counselor I had at school wound up letting me visit her home frequently and hang out with her and her kids. I even went with her husband once to pick his son up at the airport. His son was in an international boys’ choir, attended a private performing arts school, and had a major role in our high school production of “The Music Man” in which I played a townsperson.

During the spring of my sophomore year of high school I went “parking” with a guy I liked and we kissed but that was it. I later got in trouble for staying out too late. I just wanted a normal teenage life really but every time the bus dropped me off I’d walk a block so the other kids wouldn’t see where I lived. Sandra, one of the residents, used to laugh at me and tell me that the people on the bus knew about us and that I was wasting my time. Another time I tried to get out of a camping trip we were going on but they corralled me anyway and I had a miserable time. My step dad let the cat out of the bag when a house parent called the house and found out I’d gotten a ride there without their permission. Again I was just trying to lead a normal life. I was treated like the Black Plague during the whole camping trip by the staff and other girls making for a long weekend.

In the fall I tried my best to fit in when mini skirts and baby doll shoes came back in style but I could never pull off the look even though I was skinny. What looked good in a magazine never looked good on me somehow.

I became friends with a drill team member, Penny, who I admired. She was gorgeous, outgoing, an overachiever, and popular. I don’t know why she talked to me but she did. Once I called her over the holidays and she told me her life wasn’t so perfect because her dad was cheating on her mom. That Christmas, my first one at the group home, we all got tons of stuff and I went home to visit my mom and step dad just for a few days. I hated going back to that home and it was so hard when it came time to return. I started seeing girls leave all the time after they worked their way up to the high levels and I realized no matter how much I worked I was never going to get to leave because I signed a contract saying I’d stay two years.

I began to feel like, “What was the point?” and that life was futile.

In January 1983 I marked my one-year anniversary in the group home, much to my depressed state. At this point nothing could really scare me except the girl in the home named Cindy, who I was so thrilled with later at the news she was leaving. When she left it was like a weight had been lifted. She was such a bully and could give me looks that would kill. Anything and everything ticked her off. A girl named Sharon came on board later that year. She had a juvenile record but we got to be good friends. She was dating a guy named David, whose mom later wanted to adopt me and have me date her son. Sharon who was about 15, seemed nice enough, not at all like a juvenile delinquent would be but she was always in conflict with staff which wasn’t hard to do anyway.

I found out at one point that the staff was writing lies about me in their daily logs – all kinds of things not just about me but the others. Outrageous, bald-faced lies of behaviors I supposedly engaged in, lies I allegedly told, and plans I made. I was astounded but then furious when they caught me and put me on Punishment Level. No one believed the truth. I became even bitterer. In the process of living at the home I had become totally shut down only I didn’t know it. I became friends with a couple of potheads at school and started taking speed, something I did for six months and put down with no problem. I never got addicted, thankfully but I was so naive that a 12-year-old druggie once sold me Red Hots and my friend would have to tell me I’d been had. We used to make drug deals in the bathrooms and in front of the principal’s office, we were so bold.

During this period my second set of former foster parents, The Vines, were trying to adopt a baby, only they were having problems with the adoption agency because when I lived there they couldn’t handle me so the agency staff wrote in their file that they couldn’t handle kids. My former foster mom, Peggy, asked if I’d write a letter to the agency explaining that it wasn’t their fault that I had problems with them and that I was just rebelling and acting out my anger. I agreed, quickly, wrote the letter, gave it to my mom to mail and hoped for the best. My mom never delivered the letter because she was jealous of The Vines though didn’t want me in her house so it took them a long time to get a baby. Peggy, thinking I didn’t write the letter to begin with, was furious with me and refused to speak to me again.

One fateful night at the group home the other girls thought it’d be funny to make Beatrice, one of the girls, think she wet the bed in her sleep. So they all urinated in a glass and poured it in her bed while she slept soundly. They told me to hold the blanket up which I did not want to do. But they threatened me with physical violence if I didn’t, so I reluctantly did it, much to my disgust and guilt. I later told a house parent about it after these girls got discharged, like a year later, and the house parent made me call Beatrice, who was living somewhere else by now and tell her what I did. Like the saint she was she said she forgave me but it didn’t take away my guilt.

During the spring of 1983 I was skinny, wearing skin-tight jeans, low-cut shirts, listening to Def Leppard’s album, “Photograph,” and had my own room. I had been moved upstairs, something only the higher level girls got to do but it took forever. Then Sharon became my roommate and my life was never the same. She introduced me to her boyfriend’s mom, Jane McHatten, who I loved from the start and who I wanted to adopt me. She would hug me and take me with her family to the flea market, shopping, out to eat, and to visit her son in the hospital when he had hernia surgery. She never liked Sharon apparently but liked me from the start. Her daughter, Robin was pregnant with her first child at 18 and unmarried. I loved this family and wanted to be a part of them. David, Mrs. McHatten’s son, was a mama’s boy and his mom doted on him. The family would all gather in the living room and watch movies, pop popcorn, and just act like a normal family. I never wanted to leave but would always have to return to that group home.

One day my fate was set through no control of my own. Sharon, on the way back from an outing in the van, sitting in the back, started whispering to me crazy stuff like setting the group home, a government facility, on fire. I thought she was just kidding, just high on drugs or something but then she pointed to some gasoline cans she had stolen and stashed behind the seats.

When we arrived home everyone filed out of the van only she lingered behind, mysteriously.

“What are you doing?” I questioned.

“It’s the only way we’ll get out of here,” she said, gesturing to the gas cans.

“Are you crazy?” I asked, now scared of this girl.

I backed away as I watched her pour a bunch of gasoline in the basement.

“Yeah, that should do it,” she said, smoothly.

She didn’t light a match. She just moseyed her way upstairs inside the house, leaving me to smell the fumes.

I told a house parent they might want to check out the basement, but that was all I said and I went to my room.

When they discovered what she’d done and determined it was her she was arrested, of course but I was dragged to a counselor’s office for questioning where my dad sat and demanded to know my part in this scheme. I told them I didn’t know anything about it ahead of time, which was partly true. I didn’t know she was serious, I didn’t know she was going to pour gasoline in the basement but she had implicated me somehow and was determined to drag me down with her. Since the staff didn’t believe me they kicked me out and I went to live with my dad who continued sexually abusing me for three weeks until I escaped his clutches once again with the help of my sister. Sharon was sent to juvenile hall and her ties with her boyfriend and his mom were severed, of course. I wanted to stay in contact with the family and Mrs. McHatten still wanted to adopt me but my dad would have no part of it. I was really sad about all this and never got to see her or her family again.

I can still remember what she looks like though and how she was to me, her infectious laugh, how happy she was that I could spend the weekend once, and how she hugged me, rocking me back and forth and smiling.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would’ve turned out if that family had adopted me. Would I have married her son and had a bunch of kids? Or would her house just be another stop in my young life like all the rest?

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