Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What Happened to Humpty Dumpty's Happily Ever After?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
You know the rest...
All the Kings horses and all the Kings men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

In a comment on my most recent post, a friend said, "Somethings broken remain broken."  Sadly, she is right.  Sometimes there are broken things and broken people and no answers. 

In the news right now is a very broken story of a group of teenagers that beat up a another teenager, a girl, while three "security" people stood by and watched the girl on the ground being kicked in the head and did nothing.  Oh, they called for help on the radio, but then they just stood there.  That is beyond my comprehension, and utterly broken. 

Some may say, "but if the security guards had tried to get involved they may have gotten beat up too."  So.  Is that an excuse to stand by and watch someone suffer?  The security company trying to explain said that it is in their contract to "observe and report."  Broken.

One night at work, my very petite female co-worker placed herself between two teenage boys because she thought they were going to fight.  Nevermind that they were both bigger than she is. She was trying to protect one of them.  You can guess who would have been the most pummeled if a fight had broken out.  But did my friend worry about her own safety?  No, she didn't.  She thought only about the boys that were in her care.  If my petite co-worker could have the courage to stand up to boys who were bigger than she was, could those security guards not have stood up to those teenagers?  Couldn't they have at least shouted, threatened, cajoled?  Broken.

Here is something else that is broken...happily ever after.  We are all familiar with fairy tales and "happily ever after" endings.  As you know, I work with foster kids.  Happily ever after seems almost unreachable for them.  As I mentioned a while ago (here), the future is grim for kids who age out of the foster care system.  They graduate from high school and, therefore, college at a much lower rate than other kids.  Many of them become homeless and one in four will be encarcerated within two years after they turn 18 and leave the system. 

Coming out of prison is not a foundation for a "happily ever after" either, whatever reason one ended up there.  As you might imagine, going into prison is a tremendous culture shock.  It is a whole different world in there.  Likewise coming out can be a big culture shock.  When I worked in prison, I talked to an inmate who had been in for 20 yrs, and was due to be released soon.  I said he must be excited, and he responded, "No, I'm scared."  You can't blame him.  First, there is the culture shock.  He told me about a time years before when he had been allowed to go on a weekend furlough.  He had never seen the scanners that we use in retail stores today, so when he went to the grocery store and the cashier "just moved the food without ringing it up", he assumed from prison culture that she was trying to cheat him somehow and started to lose his temper and yell at her.  Fortunately, his sister stepped in and said, "I'll explain it to you outside..."  That was just one of the problems he ran into during that weekend.  He said at the end of the weekend, he was ready to go back to prison!  No wonder the recividism rate is nearly 70%. When you stop to consider that at least some of those inmates were foster kids, you just have to wonder where is their "happily ever after"? 

Other foster kids end up homeless. On my way to work, there is a homeless woman who stands on a corner.  She is there every night, in any sort of weather.  I used to wonder how people became homeless, but after meeting one of the teenage boys at my job who has schizophrenia, I understand.  Even with meds, his thinking very disjointed and unrealistic. I worry that he will end up homeless.

Sometimes we see homeless people and think, "Doesn't he (or she) have a family?  Where are they?"  The foster kids that end up homeless don't, but some homeless people do have families.  Families that desperately want to help them.  I was discussing this with a friend who told me she has a relative who is homeless.  She explained to me how her family has struggled to try and get their loved one off the street, to no avail. 

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this blog post either.  I don't know what the answers are, for all my ponderings, I simply find more questions and more broken Humpty's.  One thing I do those King's Men we have to keep trying.  If we quit, we will be broken too, like those security guards standing in a pool of cowardice. So we grab some glue and some egg shells and we keep trying.

Because maybe, just maybe we can help create happy endings for some.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Child Whisperers

When I was a teenager, my puppy (about 8 months old) got hit by a car. Instinctively, I reached out to pet and comfort him and he bit me! In his pain and confusion, he was not able to respond appropriately.  Now imagine a whole pack of injured pups (sharp teeth included) and you have the setting for my job. 

The staff is here because they want to help, but too often the kids respond to that with vitriol. It is understandable. Imagine being a child: you are young and vunerable and you depend on the adults in your life to nuture and protect you. When those same people abuse you, how do you ever learn to trust authority figures again? What messages do you receive about how to treat the people you care about?

I have been thinking about what I have shared with you in the past about my job. It occured to me that since I have only told you about Planned Ignoring and physical restraints, I may have given you a very lopsided view of what I do. First, I do work with foster kids, but my job is not a good "sampling" of what foster children are like. The kids I work with are usually in the group home because they have behavior issues. Behaviors which make them unable to be placed in foster homes. Our job is to work with them (along with a licensed therapist) to help them develop the skills that will enable them to be placed in foster homes. So if you have been considering foster care, please don't let my stories from my job scare you away.  Second, we do a lot more than planned ignoring and restraints.

When I first started this job, my previous experience had been with teenagers working in juvenile detention, so I thought I knew what to expect. That assumption was quickly smashed. In detention, the kids are "locked down". Locked doors, and very high fences mean that when we give the kids a consequence, it sticks. Working in a group home though, the doors only lock from the outside. The State says that we must allow the teenagers to run (I mean leave without permission, not go jogging). This means, in part, that whatever consequences I give a teenager boy, he can avoid them (at least temporarily) by running. Of course, they get consequences for running as well, but for some this just begins a viscious cycle. They act out, get consequences, run, get more consequences, run again. . .  The younger children are "run stops", which means if they try to run we have to do everything in our power to stop them...even if that means restraining them in public.  I heard about a time when that happened, and unfortunately the staff had to restrain the child near a busy street.  People were driving by staring at can imagine how it must have looked 3 adults holding a kid on the ground in a "T-hold".  Some of them shouted, "I'm going to call the police!"

"Please do," was the staff response.  The police are very familiar with our facility and what we do.  They visit us frequently enough.

Unfortunately, we also have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and so some interventions that may seem logical we are not able to use.  For example, in the past when a teenager returned from a run (remember I mean leaving without permission) we would take their shoes to prevent them from leaving again.  Then the government folks said we can't take their shoes because it is depriving them of proper clothing.  Huh?  We are trying to keep them safe!  Another remedy that was tried in the past was to take all their clothing while they were gone.  When they return they are given a shirt that says "Runaway, Call 911."  Seems like a great plan doesn't it?  But the powers that be said no that is invading their privacy.  They have a right not to let people know they live in a group home.   So you see, the methods that may be intuitive and even brilliant in another setting are not always options for us.  We do the best we can with the tools we are allowed to use.

We do actually have several "treatment tools" that we try to use to help the kids before they become escalated and either try to run or become violent.  I've told you previously about Planned Ignoring.  Here are some others:

One is Proximity. Sometimes just being close by will prevent a problem or end one. When the kids are not in bed (where they should be on my shift), I will often go and stand next to them. . .proximity. Depending on their mood, this may elicit some rude remarks. These I ignore. Eventually, they tire of trying to get a reaction out of me, and go back to their own conversation. However, it is uncomfortable evidently to try to talk in front of staff. So the conversation dies and they go to bed. Not always, but often enough.  Space is another one. Simply letting them have some time alone to calm down. Sometimes staff needs to "take space" as well. Prompting, Redirecting, Directing are all similar and what they appear to be.Then we come to acronym land. We use "I-ASSIST" when we are trying to help them not become escalated, and if that doesn't work we use "I-ESCAPE" to help them learn from the experience. We teach them skills to deal with stress like "DEARMAN", "PLEASE Mastery", "GIVE" and others.

Mostly we use relationships.  It is very helpful if you have been able to develop a bit of a relationship with a child.  They are more likely to listen if some level of trust has been established.  Often this is the best tool we have.  However, you can't depend on it.  It is a difficult lesson for new staff to learn when a child they thought they had a relationship with turns on them, but remember the puppy analogy.  Our kids come from backgrounds where they were hurt by the people that were supposed to love them and take care of them.  Sometimes cruelty is all they seem to know. 

Humor can be really helpful.  If you can make someone laugh, how can they be angry with you?  It really is one of my favorite tools to help calm things.  Once we had 3-4 teenage boys awake and out of their rooms (remember overnight shift...they are supposed to be in bed).  We had two staff, myself and my partner, a tough but very petite woman.  So I looked at the boys ( all of them larger in stature than my partner) and said, "Okay, I'm going to give you a five count and then we are going to put hands on and take you to the De-escalation room."  I said this because it was something I had heard staff say on another shift (when they actually had enought staff to do it) and because it was utterly ridiculous, it might bring a laugh.  I started counting...but I couldn't finish without laughing.  The boys looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They laughed, and the tension in the air was eased a bit.  As I recall, they still didn't go to bed though. 

I have even resorted to what I call "Music Torture" on many occasions.  Sometimes it works, mostly it makes them laugh and we are back to humor.  Depending on my mood, I will either put something on the radio or start signing.  I choose the twangy-ist country songs I can think of, like "...there's a tear in my beer cause I'm crying for you dear.." or sometimes I sing show tunes for them. "I am I Don Quixiote" is my favorite. Tonight I put on my new beloved Bluegrass Acappella...I love it, but I figured the teens would hate it.  Crazy thing is, I think they liked it!  I switched to a country station.

The tool that works one day with a child or teen may not work on another day, so we try to be flexible.  Some of our kids do well and move on to Foster Homes...that is the goal.  Some well, they don't do well and they get moved.  Sometimes to other group homes, some with better security measures to prevent "running".  We have had a few get moved to pyschiatric facilities. 

Day after day, we keep trying to undo the damage that has been done to these youth. Child Whispering.