Category Archives: GHL

GHL: To the legal community: Let us do our jobs, and you do yours.

I have just finished a conversation with a well intended, and probably highly competent law enforcement officer.  He tried returning a runaway to our facility who is very strong-willed, world-class manipulative, and determined not to stay here.  The officer had concerns about leaving this young man here, based on some of the stories he had been told, and he wanted to make sure that there was some kind of system in place for this resident if he had complaints about things.  I’ve seen this before across the legal field, from police officers to probation officers to judges — people who don’t understand what we do in the Child Welfare System, and want to provide help that really falls into areas where the system already sees to those needs.  This is not to say that the CWS is terribly effective in seeing to those needs, nor that it is all that rationally operated — nobody who works in the system for more than a few months could honestly claim that it is.  But it’s already there.  Here’s the nickel tour that is similar to what I explained to this officer at the door:

The child has a Social Worker that works for Children’s Administration.  That SW has a supervisor who will be reasonably conversation about the case, especially if there have been difficulties in it.  For our residents, there is also the Behavior Rehabilitation Services system, which has regional coordinators who handle our placements.  They monitor things going on with the case as well.  We also have house-level care provided by Residential Youth Counselors like me, and a Case Manager who interfaces with all of the systems involved with our residents’ lives, and a director of our portion of our agency who keeps track of these cases as well.  Collectively, before you get to the SW, you’ve got individuals with combined decades of experience working with troubled children in a variety of scenarios.  CA acts as the legal guardian of these children, and they may also have a Guardian ad litem in place to represent their interests in court proceedings.  The most difficult have a support system the size of Rhode Island, including teachers, counselors, therapists, medical professionals, etc.  Any service you would notice that they need is almost certainly being provided by a qualified professional.  As much as you might want to step in and second-guess those qualified professionals (I know I often do such second-guessing), they are there for a reason, and all of us have oversight by our agencies and the State to minimize the amount of harm our collective failures can do, and to provide accountability for our failures when they do cause harm.

When our residents are interfacing with the legal community, there are specific things that we need those legal professionals to do, and not do.  I’m going to talk about some of them here, based on my perspective and experience:

Consequences delayed are consequences denied

Every step in the legal system defaults to using the minimum consequences possible in each situation.  This makes sense — resources are limited, and so providing those consequences is focused on those who are shown to be the most habitual offenders.  So first-time offenders, and even those with long records, find themselves facing a system that exerts much of its resources to avoiding giving them serious consequences like incarceration.  When they are on probation, the probation system wants to do what it can to get them off probation as quickly as possible, without regard to what their behavior patterns are.  This, along with wanting to play Social Worker, contributes to most of the problems these children receive due to the legal system.

Consequences are very important in the lives of both children and adults.  When a bad choice results in an unpleasant consequence, that bad choice is less likely to be repeated.  When it results in no consequence the child cares about, the child is left with no reason to make a better choice in the future.  Putting one’s hand in a fire is a bad idea, not only because it hurts, but because it causes harm to the hand.  Engaging in criminal behavior only has the pain aspect if it is imposed by someone else.  This is not to say that excessive consequences will guarantee a more positive result — young brains are not yet fully formed, and acting in their enlightened self-interest is not a characteristic of children.  They want to do what they want to do, when and how they want to do it, and they want to get what they want, when and how they want it.  Connecting their choices to the consequences of those choices is important in them learning principles adults need — delayed gratification, appropriate and prudent behavior, etc.

Police Officers

What I want from police officers called to my group home is for them to put cuffs on the problem child and take them to jail.  If they do anything else, it’s likely to make the problem the child was doing worse.  Most want to start with gathering the information and determining what to do, beginning with the lecture to the problem child.  This is singularly ineffective.  Information gathering has to take place, but the lecture is a hopeless waste of time.  Our children do not lack for caring, qualified adults who can give them good advice about what to do with their lives.  We know them quite well, and how to give the lecture in a way that is most likely to give the optimal results.  Some big person with a uniform and a gun might be able to scare them, briefly, but when that person walks away without taking them away, they are no longer seen as a threat, and the residents will be laughing at them and about them minutes after they leave.  Even if they were crying because they were scared moments earlier.  This is counted as a “win,” and “getting away with it.”  The next time we are pointing out that their behavior could result in the police being called, they will likely laugh, in the firm belief that the police will do nothing.  Experience shows that this is likely more often than not.

The push-back we get from police officers is that we want the officers to do our jobs for us — which is a little ironic, since they seem to want to do our jobs, rather than their own.  We  can contribute to the problem when we call law enforcement inappropriately, such as when a resident is out of control, but not engaging in criminal activity.  Our agency requires floor staff to talk to our on-call Crisis Manager for permission before calling 911 (except in obvious situations where the emergency response needs to be initiated more quickly, like serious medical emergencies), and that permission isn’t going to be given unless a crime has been committed — usually, assaults or serious property damage.  But, when those things have happened, we would prefer an arrest to a lecture with a stern warning.  The stern warning, without stern consequences, is a waste of time — it’s empty, and obviously so to the resident.

Judges

Not infrequently, I refer to judges as “Social Workers in black robes,” when they are dealing with our residents, because they seem more interested in micromanaging how we do what we do than in providing consequences for our residents behavior.  Similar to the main thing I want from police who are called to our group homes, what I want from judges is to lock up our residents when they come before them for criminal charges  or probation violations.  Each and every time, and I want them locked up for longer each time.  No amount of showing concern from the bench is going to have as much effect as steady escalation of incarceration.  Consequences show caring in a way that counts.  As a base of reference, I don’t know of any youth who is concerned about spending 30 days in lock-up.  However, getting a 30 day sentence out of juvenile court, even for serious crimes and probation violations, is very unusual.  In this state, there is a maximum number of 60 days a parolee can be held on parole violations during the entire time of their parole.  I’ll talk about that more later, but that demonstrates the disconnect in expectations between judges and the juvenile offenders in front of them.

GHL: To Civilians: It doesn’t take a special kind of person to do this.

When I meet new people, and we do the “What do you do” conversation, I frequently get “Oh, it takes a special kind of person to do this.”  I think this is intended to be a compliment, but it doesn’t produce a good feeling like I think it’s supposed to.  It doesn’t take a special kind of person to do this, it takes someone willing to do what it takes, which is true for pretty much any kind of job.  This isn’t a job for just anybody.  You can’t just do what you want to do here, but that’s true for every job I’ve ever seen.  There are rules and policies and procedures we have to follow that have been devised to best serve the needs for our residents.  And there are skills that you need to develop to survive for long in this job in any effective fashion.  As the sign says, “You don’t have to be crazy to come to work here — we’ll train you.”

GHL: To staff: These aren’t normal kids.

A problem I’ve run into a number of times with people, including managers and directors, is not understanding that we’re not dealing with normal kids, and that normal kid things might not be a good idea with these kids.  Examples:

Playing tag isn’t a fun, safe game.  Tag is chasing, followed by punching.

Sand boxes, water tables, bubble wands turn into sand fights, water fights and billy clubs.

It’s not that the kids are horribly abnormal, or anything like that.  It’s just that they’ve had different enough experiences that they need to be in an environment that provides them with more support than the average kid.  That’s why they’re with us.  And we have contractual obligations to keep them safe that go beyond what you and I were raised with.  So even though Mom could put the fear of God in you with a vicious thimble thwap to the ear, you can’t do that to these kids.  Yelling at them isn’t going to produce a shock-and-awe response — they’ve been yelled at and experienced punishment beyond anything you could do to them without going to jail and getting fired.  I know what your mom would have done to you if you had done or said what these kids do and say to you and each other.  That doesn’t matter.

GHL: Answering Resident Frequent Complaints

I don’t like my placement.  I want to go somewhere else.

Nobody likes it here.  Seriously.  Not residents, not staff, not management.  But you’re here because your Social Worker couldn’t find a better place that would take you.  Because if they could have, they would have.  Being here is expensive, and they’d put you somewhere cheaper if they could.

I’m going to use over-the-top bad behavior to make you hate me and send me away so I can get to another placement.

That’s an option you can pursue.  You may have used it before.  We’ve certainly seen it before.  You can get yourself removed from a placement by bad behavior, but you can’t create a new placement option by bad behavior.  Beds don’t grow on trees.  Also, if you want to get to a less restrictive environment than this, good behavior is the key to that door.  If you already look bad on paper, blowing out of here on the bad behavior train is going to scare away most prospective less-restrictive placements.  They don’t want to see about how you gave staff hell, ran away, used drugs, etc.  They want to see how you turned a corner, got with the program, and have been improving.

Hating you is neither here nor there.  We might be very frustrated and angry with you, but that’s just par for the course.  If we give notice on you, it’ll be because we can’t keep you save, or we can’t serve your needs, not because you’ve really pissed us off.

I don’t like having to announce my movements, or having staff track my every little move.  I want to be able to come and go as I please, like normal kids.

You’re not a normal kid.  You’re in the system.  That is frustrating, and these restrictions are really annoying.  We get that.  But we didn’t put you in the system.  And we didn’t place you here.  We have a job to do, and the things you find annoying are about keeping everybody (including you) safe.  If we said you didn’t have to do them anymore, then everybody else would want to not have to do them either, and that could lead to you getting hurt.  You probably know who that would most likely be.  Feel free to complain to staff about how much you don’t like this — if you let us know you just want to vent and be heard, we will likely be as sympathetic about the matter as we can be.  But don’t expect to see the policy change, because this is a requirement of the contract we have with the State, and we can’t change it.  Even if we wanted to.

I’m 18, and I shouldn’t have to do things I don’t want to do.  I’m an adult now.

All of the staff here are over 18.  Talk to any adult you know about this.  Ask them about how they get to do exactly what they want to do, and never have to do things they don’t want to.  Expect them to laugh, because, even though you think this is a legitimate complaint, is ridiculous and hillarious.  You’ll understand that in a few years, especially after you’re 25 or so and your brain stops developing.  You’re not finished becoming who you’re going to be.  After your brain stops developing, you will continue to change and learn and grow.  Some estimate that you become a distinctly different person every five years.  So, even though you feel like you’re all grown up, and that you know exactly who you’re going to be forever and ever, and deserve to have that respected, that’s not really so.

The problem is that you were lied to.  We all were.  Someone once told you “Someday you’re going to turn 18, and then you can go and live your life and run it the way you want to.  But you’re not, so now you have to do things my way.”  They didn’t mean to lie to you.  They just wanted you to shut up and comply.  Because you were wrong and they were right — you might even be able to realize that now.  Being 18 makes you a legal adult.  That gives you very few rights and privileges you didn’t have when you were 17.  It did, however, dump a whole bunch of responsibilities on you that you’ve never had before.  The way I usually say it is that, at 18, you’re not an adult, but you’re in the grown up world.  Except you’re not.  You’re still in the system.  So you still have a SW and maybe a GAL, and staff — you have a support system that none of your non-system buddies from school have.

Support doesn’t mean that we’re going to give you what you want.  We’re going to give you what you need.  Think of us as guard-rails on your road of life.  If you are driving on the road, and you hit a guard-rail, it’s going to hurt.  It’s going to mess up your car’s paint, and maybe its body, too.  Fixing that is going to be expensive.  But less so than going off the cliff would have been.  That would have likely totaled your car and hurt or killed you or your passengers.  Similarly, having us shut you down is inconvenient, and you will not get what you wanted out of that experience.  But we are also saving you from some very real dangers that you don’t see or appreciate, because we’ve seen others make the same bad choices (or made them ourselves) and know how real those dangers are.  So, maybe you got your feelings hurt, or you got frustrated.  In the grown-up world, nobody really cares about what you want, or if your feelings got hurt.  We do.  But not enough to give in and let you have what you want, and take all of the pain and loss that comes with that.  Some day, you will be gone, and no longer have that support.  And you will make stupid choices and pay the price for them.  Everybody does.  You may, at that moment, miss the support you had that helped you avoid those kinds of things and then helped you work your way through them.  But this complaint is never going to persuade us to just give in, so trying it will just be a waste of time.

GHL: An introduction

Group Home Life

This is a writing project I”ve had perking in my head for a few years now.  The working title is Group Home Life, because that’s what it’s about.  For all of the parties connected to it: residents, staff, parents and family, friends/romantic partners, law enforcement, judges, probation officers, social workers, teachers, counselors and therapists, doctors, administrators, and average citizens.  It’s based in my experience working in the field for more than a decade, and will contain things I wish people in all of those positions knew.  So, whoever you are, reading this, whatever your reasons for being here are, some of this is written for you.

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