Friday, April 27, 2007

Will you take me home with you?

I volunteered at a youth correctional institute in the Midwest for a year before I chose my career. I also worked at a hospital. I hated working at the hospital and I loved working with the kids.

But it wasn't that simple. As a matter of fact at times it was heartbreaking. I would drive into the facility, leave my personal belongings in a bin, grab a name tag and then head over to the classroom wing where I (tried to) teach a math class for 14 year old boys. I taught the class twice a week and every time there were different faces. Kids were constantly transferring in and out, although there were a few "long termers". They were the kids who had committed violent crimes - arson, robbery, or assault.

But there were a few other kids there who committed much lesser offenses - such as truancy and running away from (sometimes an abusive) home. And there was one boy there whose status defied definition.

The other kids called him slow. His IQ tested in the borderline range according to his records - lower than average but above what might be considered a cognitive disability. He had red hair, freckles and a great smile - the few times I saw it.

But he didn't belong there. He knew it, the other kids knew it and I knew it. He didn't want to be there and the other kids didn't want him there. They didn't know what to do with him. There was a pecking order there. The weaker boys were ruled by the stronger ones but even those who were the biggest bullies didn't want to pick on this kid. Their code didn't allow it.

So why was he there? I went to the office and asked after I spent three classes having him beg me to take him home with me. I was told that several foster homes couldn't handle him and he wouldn't go to school so he was a truant but in reality they were warehousing him there because they couldn't find a placement for him. I was also told to keep my nose out of it.

Which, try as I might, I couldn't do. It came to a head one day when I got in my car, started to drive home and he popped up in my back seat and announced he was coming home with me and how wonderful it was! I turned the car around to take him back and in the short ride between Point A and Point B to drop him off, I decided this situation couldn't be ignored.

I called a couple I knew from the office phone and begged them to take this kid. They were registered as foster parents and such loving people that I knew this kid would get what he needed there. They agreed to take him for a month or so. Papers were drawn up and he was sent to them. As I suspected things worked out and he stayed there long term.

Of course back in my math class chaos reigned. My glasses were stolen at times in hopes that I wouldn't be able to teach or see the lesson. The math textbooks were turned into paper airplanes. I was introduced to slang I never dreamed of. I did manage to teach a few kids fractions and multiplication. And I found one kid a home.

Institutionalization of people with disabilities. It's been going on for years.


Adoro te Devote said...

First of all, God bless you for not letting this go.

I also have worked with troubled kids, and many of them really just need someone to love them, that's all. They need a chance, and the "system" simply isn't interested.

In my case, it was a long-term mental health facility for these kids. Then we started getting in the actual criminal kids, calling them "emotionally disturbed" when really, they had bigger and far more violent problems. OT to what you're addressing, but just a symptom of our culture.

They like to send these kids to where they don't belong, patting themselves om the back that they've "done something" for them, when, in reality, they've hurt everyone involved.

I am looking at getting back into work with kids/families, and I know that even in the best of places, there are kids who fall through the cracks, who have problems that are not recognized or understood, and I hope, that, if this happens, I find and don't let go of the ones you describe.

You are such an inspiration!

Ruth said...

It's difficult working with kids like this even when you're in a decent facility but they need people who care. It does hurt everyone when placements are screwed up badly - the child involved, the other kids and to some extent makes it hard on staff too. As for being an inspiration, that would be the couple who raised the young man not me! :)

sarala said...

Amazing story. You gave that one boy such a gift.
I work with troubled kids myself and often wish there were more I could do.