Finding meaning in our work…a new series at church. I am fortunate to have always found my work to be profoundly meaningful. Again, mostly selfish reasons for the post, for the purpose of connection with others who may find the connectivity helpful or perhaps “normalize” (although we can never normalize injustice) difficult experiences along their own paths. There may be material within this post that some would find triggering or upsetting, so please be forewarned.
I first entered my career about a year after completing college studies in art and psychology. I landed a job in a diagnostic home for boys housed in a program run by the Catholic church just outside of Chicago. These boys were only meant to be housed in this particular part of the campus for about 90 days, but like all institutions, most stayed much longer. They were chronically abused, neglected, or were already wards of the state, permanently separated from their biological families, most often for good reasons. There were approximately 8-10 boys living in the home at any given time, ranging in age from 6 to 17.
I was a “family educator” and everything that happened in the home drove the delivery of positive or negative consequences based on a point system. It was a constant flow of observing behavior and experiencing interactions with the boys and reinforcing these behaviors and experiences with teaching and points. They carried cards around the home all day long to track points, except when they were at school at the alternative school program most of them attended nearby.
I was one of two females who worked in the home. They would only place up to two females in any boys’ home, and the mangement had decided I was too soft to work with females. The supervisor who worked in my home was a disheveled, thin, middle-aged man who likely spent his entire life in social services after I left. He came down hard on anyone who was late for their shift; I remember being scolded and threatened with a write-up when I was 3 minutes late for my shift one time, which started at 7 a.m.
The other woman in the home left as quickly as she came (we were hired at the same time), because one of the boys in the home, who was about 11 at the time, threw a chair at her as she was walking away from him, and she landed in the hospital with a severe back injury. I accompanied this young man on a supervised home visit during the time I worked at the home, and discovered that there were probably many factors playing into his behavior based on what I experienced at his apartment.
I used to grocery shop. Lord did we shop. When the kids were at school, we would take the van to the grocery store and spend approximately $300-400 per trip. I also used to accompany the kids on field trips. I remember on one of the trips, an 8-year old boy, I will refer to him as Tyler, who had started following me closely around the home and had really warmed up to me during the first week or so he was at the home, jumped into my lap. He was very squirmy and shifted around a lot and it took me a minute to realize that he was purposely rubbing up against me as he sat on my lap. I felt awkward and weird and I removed him from my lap, sitting him next to me on the seat. When we arrived back at the home, I caught the home supervisor in passing and reported what had happened on the bus with Tyler. He stopped, shook his head and paused for a minute, looking a bit lost. Then he motioned me to come to his office. I remember sitting across from him at his desk and he pulled a file from his drawer and pushed it over to me. He mentioned that it was typically best that they didn’t share the kids’ stories with staff, but he wanted to me to see this file so I was “informed.” He also prepared me for graphic material.
I will never forget reading through that file on Tyler. There wasn’t a lot there, a brief narrative and some other demographic information. I skimmed the narrative and in summary, it described violent, sexual molestation repeatedly imposed on this 8-year old by his mother and her partner and methods by which they did this. I felt sick inside and handed the file back. I learned how to draw safe and appropriate boundaries with Tyler during his short stay in our home. Sadly, he was the second youngest child in the home who had experienced molestation by his mother, the other little boy was only 6. He had been placed in two different foster homes already, and both families had sent him back because of his uncontrollable need to steal things and act out sexually.
The oldest boy in the home was 17. He had been placed with, and abandoned by, at least five foster placements. The most recent one, he had gone to a restaurant with his foster family, and they had literally excused themselves to address something outside the restaurant, and left him there. This young man never said a word. He was tall, slim and quiet. He would appear and disappear in rooms without a sound but spent most of his time in his room. The best I could ever get out of him was a “yes” or “no” when I talked to him. I remember once when a slow, sad smile creeped across his face when I cracked a joke about laundry.
It was at that job that I first experienced being told I was going to die, by a young man who was mentally ill and not doing so well being compliant with his medications, just before he went on run, stole a car, crashed it, and ended up in detention. Minutes before he ran out, he came into the staff office (which was an automatic loss of privileges), looming over me and screaming into my face that he was going to kill me. Fortunately, he was distracted by another young man, who ran by the office and told him “let’s get going!” I had been alone in the home for only a few minutes while the male staff member working with me that night had run next door for something, and all hell broke loose.
I watched a lot of Lion King during that job. The younger kids watched it every afternoon after school. I had most of the lines memorized and all of the songs. After a few months at that job, I started struggling mentally and emotionally. I was young and hadn’t let learned how to compartmentalize my experiences and set good boundaries. One night, as I was driving home around 11:30 p.m., I was hit by an ambulance that was running lights and sirens to a local hospital. Luckily, it was just my car that was totalled, but I realized at that point that I wasn’t going to make it much longer in that job. I had been lost in my thoughts, tired, and distracted when the ambulance hit me.
I left, having worked there just shy of a year. It was a high turnover job, quite a few front-line staff members didn’t even make it as long as I did. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I went straight to corporate for a couple years to escape, but that experience would launch my career working in the justice system. I think the most profound observation about that year was that of the 8-10 boys who lived at that home during any given time, I only met 2 boys who were white. Dozens of boys and young men passed through that home that year, and almost all of them were kids of color. That fact alone hooked me and brought me to the justice system, where I have worked in or alongside in some capacity over the last three decades. While the setting has changed, the impact of our public systems on communities of color has not.