By: Patricia Berendsen, MTS, RMFT
Every day in my work, I encounter youth who have lots to say about their experiences in group care and treatment facilities. I marvel at their ability to be candid and their clarity about what they remember. I am continually surprised by the seemingly inconsequential moments that have proved to be turning points for them.
Jo-Ellen is a 15-year-old teen who lives in a treatment group home. She has experienced several losses, including being abandoned by her mother when she was three. Jo-Ellen arrived and took the group home by storm. She did everything she could to push people away and make herself appear untouchable. She described that for her, this was a test, to see if the staff really cared. So what tipped the scale?
Jo-Ellen was having a really bad day. She had just gotten off the phone with her biological mother, and the conversation did not go well. Jo-Ellen threatened to leave the residence without permission, but decided to go outside for a smoke break before going on the run. It was pouring rain outside. A staff person saw Jo-Ellen’s distress and ventured outside to support her. One might imagine that Jodi would have stood under the overhang for a couple of minutes and attempted to coax the youth to “make a good choice.” But Jodi stood outside in the downpour for 45 minutes! Listening!
Months after this event transpired, Jo-Ellen spoke of its significance. “It was the weirdest thing...but after Jodi stood with me in the rain for that long (45 minutes), I knew she cared. I knew someone really gave a sh** about me. From that point on, I didn’t need to fight against the staff anymore ’cause I knew that someone cared.”
Michael was eight when he was first in a treatment group home. He was an angry young lad and justifiably so. He had been in five foster homes before he ended up at a residential setting. In his mind, he was trash, because no one wanted him. Michael hated going to school. Understandably, he had not experienced school success with the multitude of placements and past traumatic experiences in his childhood. Now Michael is 14, and he shared with me what he remembers about what mattered to him.
He spoke with sparkling eyes and a sheepish grin when he described Susan, who would wake him up every day singing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray.” Susan’s singing to Michael and then promising him “special toast” after he fulfilled his morning routines kept him going. “No one had ever given me that kind of special attention. I didn’t feel that I deserved it. Here was someone who sang to me in the morning, and she wasn’t my mother! I would look forward to being surprised by the special toast I would get. I don’t know where she got all her ideas from for the toast...but I can tell you I liked it a lot! It got me out of bed and to school, where I actually did better than I ever had. Go figure!”
Emma, now 16 and a crown ward of the Children’s Aid Society, spoke about her recollections at a treatment group home when she was nine. “I remember being really scared at nighttime. Typically, I wouldn’t go to sleep until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. I had been sexually abused by several relatives during the night, so I was always afraid of going to sleep. I remember Dave, my primary worker, who asked me when I arrived at the group home if I needed a night light. I think I said no at first, because I didn’t want to seem like a wimp. But Dave suggested that I try it, and if I didn’t want or need it, it could be taken out of my room. I was so glad he insisted, although I didn’t let on to him at the time. The other thing he did was that he sat outside my door until I fell asleep. If he wasn’t working, he made sure that another staff person did the same thing. No one had ever gone to such trouble for me before. I think this was the first time I felt safe. Dave was the first male person I wasn’t afraid of. I knew he would protect me.”
Joel is 14 and lives in a group home. He recalled that he lived at one setting for almost four years. This longevity really meant a lot to Joel. “I had been everywhere as a kid. It felt good to stay put for so long. I eventually broke down the placement, but I can actually say I liked it there. They were good to me. I remember all the fun stuff we did! We went camping, to a cottage, and I learned how to water ski. Birthdays were awesome with homemade cakes and cool gifts. If I could, I would like to go back. I didn’t realize it then, how much it meant to me but now that I’m in another group home, I wish I was there again. It was home to me.”
Amy was a troubled young woman who had been in and out of treatment since she was in kindergarten. She was constantly in a state of flux living with her dad and then in the care of CAS, a cycle that repeated itself several times over by the age of 14, when I met her. Although Amy appeared to be older than her years, her behavior was that of a much younger person. Amy was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Effects, in addition to her attachment difficulties and her various learning disabilities. One day, Amy was having a serious temper tantrum because she was told that she must wear proper equipment (a helmet) while wearing her roller blades. Amy protested, claiming that “it was stupid for a 14-year-old girl to wear a helmet.” She proceeded to storm her way outside without permission, to rollerblade on the cement without her gear.
Chantele, a seasoned and skilled clinician, observed what was going on and went outdoors to speak with Amy. Here she was, standing outside wearing a bike helmet so that Amy wouldn’t feel “marked out” wearing a helmet while enjoying her roller blades. It wasn’t long before Amy could not resist the temptation to wear her own bike helmet without any protest.
Later, Amy stated that, “I just wanted someone to pay attention to me. And when Chantele came out wearing a bicycle helmet, I thought she was crazy! She made me laugh and forget why I was mad. If she was wearing a helmet, then I would, too!”
Joe was 10 when he was in group care. He had pretty much lived on the street and had no concept of eating at a table for meals. Now, at age 17, he recalls his past struggle at mealtimes. “I remember not knowing how to use a fork or a knife. I felt stupid, because everyone else seemed to know what to do. Besides that, I was clumsy. What meant a lot to me was that Sandra never got mad at me, even when I spilled milk at almost every meal. The other thing she did was cut up my meat for me. It was a small thing, but I just couldn’t do it. She even went so far as giving me secret “spoon, fork, and knife lessons” while the other kids were at school. I so appreciated her doing that, because I would have been targeted if other kids knew what she and I were doing. She showed me patience and caring and took time for me. No one had ever done that before.”
Just during the past few months, I met with Andy, a 16-year-old youth who had been in and out of custody. Andy wasn’t thrilled about meeting with a clinician at first, yet week after week he voluntarily consented to meet with me. During our discussions, I became aware of Andy’s interest in art, especially graffiti art. Andy even brought some of his doodle art to therapy sessions. Andy’s passion for his craft appeared to be growing, so I inquired about whether he was interested in doing something on a grander scale. I told him about a bare wall in the agency that needed some attention and wondered whether he would like to design something and then paint it. This was, of course, pre-approved and then coordinated with his teacher so that he could obtain an art credit. The result was a youth-friendly wall that bears the mark of a youth who discovered his passion. Andy hasn’t told me how much this meant to him. He didn’t have to. His ear-to-ear smile when the final product was completed said it all!
As these stories suggest, it is the small things that seem to make a big difference to kids. Too often, our day-to-day work with children and youth can get routine. We’re just “getting through meals,” “getting them to school,” “getting through the shift,” “getting through a therapy session,” or “just doing our job.”
We can tend to take for granted the power of simple acts that can make a difference not only for a moment, but for a lifetime!
Patricia Berendsen, M.T.S., RMFT, maintains an active private practice in individual, couple, and family therapy and clinical supervision in London, Ontario, Canada. Patricia also provides clinical services as a clinician with the Clinical Supports Program at the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System of the London Family Court Clinic. Additionally, she is an approved supervisor with OAMFT/AAMFT. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).