CARE WORKERS AND KIDS
Would I please see Trevor?
Doing less and less online work and more and more supervision and admin, “senior” child and youth care workers can find themselves in the anomalous position of having less practice experience and more responsibility. We came into the work with all sorts of physical and emotional energy, holding a candle for the kids and a pile of noble, idealistic and rather superior views. Now we find ourselves doing something essentially different: still in the field, yes, but not really of it. Whether we like it or not, we grow a protective shell which protects us from much of the heady skirmish on the front lines, yet are assigned an authority which we no longer earn from day to day.
Would I see Trevor? The assumption is that online staff are taking some flak from Trevor, and wearing my field-marshall’s uniform I should be expected to put him firmly in his place. It’s a wild card which staff can produce, however much it may be a betrayal of our team principles. Kicking the ball away from the field of play where it should really stay, and by-passing the learning and moderating opportunity of supervision — because we seem to have a crisis.
We of greying temples and balding pate assume a new role in the hierarchy as a long-service medal. It is assumed that we have a history of service and a stock of war-stories which qualify us to pull rank ...
* * *
I am at my desk compiling one of those “to-do lists” which, for me, always draw the sting out of an upcoming shift.
Knock-knock. Trevor is already at the door. How punctual the staff are at times like this! No turning back now. No time to reconsider the sacrifice we seem to have decided upon: “that it is expedient for one man to die for the people, so that the whole nation perish not.”
Why is he here? These referrals up the chain of command are invariably couched in vague, systemic terms. Not the good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon words — “He punched James’ lights out” or “he told Sally to —off!” No, at this level on the food chain the charge is ‘deviousness’ or ‘subversiveness’, unthinkable sins which threaten to undermine the whole ship. Though, come to think of it, there was some mention of his encouraging a younger kid to disobey staff instructions.
* * *
“Friend or foe?” I shout in reply to the knocks, pretending not to know who is there. Buys me a little time. A clever volley deep into his court to put him on the back foot.
“I think that’s your call, Jeremy,” he replies as he peers round the door. “They said you want to see me.”
A brilliant lob. Damn. His use of “they”, “you” and “me” in a single short sentence draws all sorts of heavy lines through the playing field (to mix our metaphor). And this “Jeremy” thing throws into confusion the whole egalitarian “first-names” policy we have always promoted. Makes a mockery of the hierarchy he has found himself in through this referral to a senior staff member.
And he is wearing a very negotiable peer-oriented smile which just proves that ... well, that he is a socially competent seventeen-year-old who is an enormous credit to our program, remembering how far he has come in his short two-and-a-half years with us. Ball now decisively back in my court. I almost feel that I should be offering him a whiskey and soda!
I am in a fix before either of us has even started the actual “interview” which has been foisted upon us. I can’t bring myself to say “I hear that you have been behaving badly and the staff team feel that you should be punished/sanctioned/reproached ...” — can’t even think of the right words for the indictment! And of course I can’t use the wheeler-dealer co-option approach of “I know those silly old child care workers get their noses put of joint now and then ...” which is nothing but a cowardly collegial back-stab.
“Come in, come in,” I say.
Even now I feel like Solomon sitting in judgement. Am I really going to do the audi alterem partem thing and deliver my verdict?
* * *
I am out of touch with Trevor. It’s over a year since I worked with him “on the floor”. We had a tough time with him. He had lived with an abusive and rejecting mother for twelve years. His father had been electrocuted in an accident when the the boy was only two, and the mother’s unhappiness and despair had been firmly displaced on to Trevor’s head as she struggled to keep a job and a home going for herself and the growing boy. In turn, going home had become a pain for him, and he had accumulated a rap sheet which reflected what was going on in his life — with neighbours, school, shops and police giving him a round E-minus in all departments. Our job had been a stringent rebuilding exercise — of trust and belonging, of safety and significance, of language and social ability, of skills and responsibility, of self-determination ... and we were clearly getting there. There are critical balances to manage when a kid who was dealing with five-, seven-, nine-year-old backlogs and growing tasks was simultaneously working at fifteen-, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old adolescent tasks ... The close supporting, monitoring, loving, talking, teaching work which our team had been putting in was amazing.
He stands now, respectfully, a pace or two from my desk.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, sit down,” I wave him into an easy chair, though he chooses to sit foward on its edge. “You’ve got yourself into some trouble, I gather?”
He looks down.
* * *
There are a whole lot of things which might have gone wrong.
One is that we child and youth care staff have gotten a bit out of phase in our socialisation timetable with Trevor. I know that sounds very mechanistic, but in our team it’s part of talking a lot about what we’re meant to be doing, and knowing how we’re doing. The jigsaw puzzle of damping down his aggressive and anti-social stuff while encouraging his self-assertive and self-confident middle adolescence can easily get a few pieces out of place. Even our own policy is confused here: always err on the side of positiveness and respect towards the kid, yet at seventeen we should have him nearer and nearer to the expectations of the real world. It’s a close race. But then it is with most youngsters, I guess. Except most kids have had the full 17 years to get there, while Trevor has had about three. Nevertheless, if he gets inappropriately uppity, at his age we still need to say this.
Another possibility is that Trevor is joining the ranks of your standard seventeen-year-old emancipating adolescent, and we should be pleased to see him flexing his muscles and trying it on with the adults in his life. And that’s us, for the most part. Haven’t we always believed about teenagers: “When adults win all the battles, we reduce kids to impotent yes-men; when the kids win all the battles we are turning monsters out into the world”? So we should be expecting to lose some battles.
Then again, maybe the on-line staff are reluctant to let go of their “clinical” role with Trevor, which in a sense maintains him as a “receiver” of what we have to offer, and we aren’t ready for our “Pinnochio” to assume his own independent life, however full of doubt and risk that might be?
Whatever, here I am cast in the role of a schoolmasterly disciplinarian, having been asked to “see” Trevor.
* * *
I do realise that I am committing the cardinal sin of child and youth care workers: concentrating on my own anxiety and assembling my own agenda for this meeting before I have listened to a single word from Trevor! One of the earliest lessons I learned was to realise that, each time I engage with any youngster, I know nothing.
“Tell me,” I urge.
His story was one of those unremarkable narratives with which all childhoods and young years are filled, made of unsuspected insights and hopes, and acts of great generosity and concern — which we adults can so easily wreck by our anxiety and suspicion. Trevor had befriended one of the younger kids in the program, Andy, a boy of 14 who had also been removed from an abusive home. Andy had longed to visit his home, but this had been forbidden by the welfare agency (and therefore by our program) until it was known to be safe. It seems that while we were helping him hold together the rest of his life, he was pining for his mother — and hiding his feelings because of his “boys-don’t-cry” embarrassment. But Trevor recognised the younger boy’s feelings, and because of this was able to lend him a level of understanding and support far greater than anything our team had to offer.
“But then I landed in a predicament,” confides Trevor. “I knew from my experience that Andy probably didn’t want to go back and live with his mother, but he badly wanted to see her. Even with my mother, I could understand that.”
I am learning all the time, listening to the boy.
He goes on. “I remembered something that you said to me a while back: that there are times when we must listen to ourselves, and sometimes, even though others disagree or would disapprove, we must take the responsibility to do certain things, to take the risk.”
He pauses. “I told Andy about this.”
“That’s true,” I say. “I remember our talk. But I was talking to you as a seventeen-year-old getting near to independence ...”
“I realised that,” responds Trevor. “That’s why I agreed with Andy that he should get to see his mother ... and why I went with him.”
“You went with him?”
“Yes, it was safer for him because I was there — and the visit went OK and it helped him. And it was also safer for him because I sort of lent him some of my own ‘risk’ as far as you guys are concerned. I could share some of the blame and responsibility.”
* * *
The whole tangle of my earlier inner debate collapses. The great crisis hasn’t come to pass. It is we adults who have been subversive, not listening, not reading between the lines, not being open to cues nor creative with the raw material to hand. And Trevor, on the carpet for his deviousness, has acted with kindness and courage — if with risk. Short of a mild reprimand about taking us into his confidence when he considers rewriting our programs, and whatever his other achievements may be as he goes out into the big world next year — he would be a good friend to have.