Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Life As a Residential Counselor {1994-1997}

I have referred to this job a few times in my different writings including the one about my 400lb weight gain. This was my last job before I was disabled. Really I was disabled before I took this job!

Before then I had been an art teacher at a juvenile home and a substitute teacher, and got laid off. I knew fast food, temp jobs and the occasional substitute gig were not going to keep me afloat and I had to move into a new career of sorts. To take this job, required moving ALONE to a big city of over 10 million. I knew no one there. During this time I was poor, not in the streets but my wages were very low and there was no decent health insurance. To be frank, my severe health problems and others probably required ME to be taken care of instead of me having to take care of others!

I wrote this essay a VERY LONG TIME ago, circa 1997-1998. I've shortened it and removed some parts.  I wrote it in a class to process some feelings I was dealing with. Severe PTSD would come my way via this job, and as time went on, I would discover many others who had done this type of work and ended up emotionally and physically harmed by it. This would include at least two close later friends who told me they viewed horrors of their own including one friend who had a young teen light the back seat of the van on fire as she drove it down the road. 
I have never been able to find ANY writings online describing what life is like for RESIDENTIAL COUNSELORS, FAMILY TEACHERS, etc. though this is a career field definitely in our decaying society that has become more needed. Were some aspects of this work rewarding? YES. Would I do it again. NO!

I am still paying the physical price of my job from hell: residential counselor, warehousing wards of the state, at a facility for behaviorally-disordered and emotionally disturbed teenagers aged 11-21.
Most normal youths enter foster care, and other state programs, many of these teens came from a huge metro cities grittiest inner cities. Some came from middle-class families; others were actually certified sociopaths by the psychologists, others tagged with post traumatic stress syndrome (about 85 percent had mental disorders). There were kids of all races, different mental and other disorders and from all classes however they were put in these homes due to a propensity for violence and/or acting out.

I’d moved from my home state to a huge metro city of over 10 million in 1994 -- having been relegated to burger-flipping, and picking up substitute teaching assignments 20 miles from where I lived. My boyfriend (later my husband) wanted to move there; $11 an hour in a big city sounded far better than flipping burgers for $4.25 an hour. With my successful juvenile home background, and my boyfriend’s writing track record, we’d really be making some bucks now, right?

Little did I know. This is my story.


My workplace lay in a middle-class suburb, on the outskirts of the huge city.
I found a rundown house -- one of nine buildings, clustered in a campus-style arrangement -- with three workers, and nine girls living with shopworn furniture, but the atmosphere was less severe; my first-year kids weren’t hardcore cases, and the director seemed more caring.
I didn’t imagine working this job for life, seeing it as an outgrowth of my former art teaching and therapy background; with my paralegal training, I could move into a more rewarding social work job, like case management. Little did I know.


We had a mixture of classes, and races. Not all the kids were from the inner city, and all the kids varied in how hardcore they were; drug abuse and mental illness ensured a constant turnover among them.
There was the large girl who pushed me out of her way – remember, I weighed in the 300-pound range – the weight gain had just begun, and broke down a door to snatch some kitchen knives, which were locked up, for security reasons, in the main office. The locked wooden door had been totally smashed down. She bust it down like it was made of tooth picks. 
She then ran out to stab somebody, which didn’t surprise me, since violence was a constant hazard of the job. Thank goodness I had the cops already there, following protocol, and they were able to stop her while I got everyone else upstairs for their safety away from her. My desire to quit accelerated after that day; she later ran away and became a prostitute in the city streets.. The day that I realized she would never return relieved my stress.
We also had an anorexic, and three girls who suffered from abuse, as well as this psychotic who bit people. One girl left due to pregnancy, while another stood out, because she behaved well, and was never a problem.
I sincerely tried, and felt, an impetus to make these girls’ lives better, since most of them had major problems, such as Sally’s drug-addicted mother, and Kendra, who was just a troubled orphan. They weren’t as evil or manipulative as the second-year crop – a far more hardcore bunch than I’d ever seen back home.


Most of kids had parents that should never have taken the job.
Once, in the middle of January, I took a girl to her home on a home visit – there was no door, just a plastic sheet, and we had to leave early, because parents looked high. I could tell they’d been smoking crack. The house had no furniture, and her dad’s bedroom was crammed with TVs of all ages, some new, some old.
I knew he’d stolen them for crack cash, but – when he didn’t get the door closed in time – assured me: “Oh, I fix televisions for extra money!” I knew it was lie, but it was none of my business. I figured he’d have to answer for it later.
Some of the kids were orphans, but most were brought up in a way, where they learned to hustle and manipulate – some for survival and some because that is what they had been taught. 

 One girl came in nice and sweet, that commodity eroded after spending eight months with the other “bad influences”. A virgin, she became promiscuous and started to enjoy fighting. She was smarter than others, because she’d be nice to staff -- but often you knew she was manipulating just to get what she wanted. She would cry to another staff member, telling them how terrible a worker you were.
Another girl was intelligent, brimming with the cunning that Ted Bundy might have; even though her sister was totally normal and lived at home with peacefully with a relative, this girl used a smile to twist you around her finger, too. Yes the psychologists noticed too.
No one trusted her, and rightfully so; she’d pick on staff just to make her day less boring. She lacked normal emotions. She’d throw things at me and other staff and lie and even get other staff members in trouble. 
        One other girl who was tall and thin knew she had supermodel looks (which reminded me of Janet Jackson), ; she liked to fight, slept around a lot, and constantly sneaked out of the house to get with her boyfriends. She would then get other girls to follow her like the Piped Piper of Sin.
I learned to ignore her, so she’d stay out of my hair, and vice versa. Except for sneaking out, she was extremely well-behaved. However caring for her was like supervising a 25-year-old, because she had nothing childlike about her, having supported herself through prostitution. 
     One young lady came from an Appalachian family in southern Virginia, and found nothing but more poverty; they’d have been better off in the mountains rather than  the gang- infested neighborhood they ended up in. She had a good family, but they were under siege; her brother, a gang member himself, had been shot, and her father was dying, at an early age, of lung cancer. Her mother seemed too distant and remote to deal with her problems. Poverty and lack of education was her biggest barrier. She was OK to me, but seemed to grade staff members on how many presents they could buy. One unsettling memory about her family's house was the carpets of cockroaches. [no judgment from me here, I've been poor enough myself to have been plagued with them earlier in life]
She was generally quiet, but would sometimes explode and throw things (but not in my direction). My relationship with her was otherwise decent, I talked her sister into making room in her home. She moved home for good.
Another young girl, who was diagnosed with sociopathy as well as other disorders, came from a suburban middle class family but fought the most of any of the girls, and ran away constantly. She would run around trying to break windows which caused staff an endless degree of strain
Other girls could be fun, and enjoyed drawing pictures or playing cards, but were extremely rebellious -- and wouldn’t follow any directions. Sometimes you could have an OK day with them as long as no fights would break out and you could keep them involved. There were older girls who had earned their ways to higher levels where they were more independent and had part time jobs off site. We also had girls whose main problems involved substance abuse, where we would take them to recovery meetings. Some of course came out of homes where the parents were drug addicted.



One of my coworkers, I'll call her Tina, was really an older version of some of our charges. She was the best friend of Linda, the nominal boss of the house. She got away with a lot of things because she was friends with another supervisor.
Therefore, Tina could be three hours late for work; the kids loved her because she was free of all the other rules that bound us. She could leave them alone at places, a habit which would get the rest of us fired.
Tina displayed a source of income beyond the salary (she lived at home but always wore a new outfit every day).. Everyone feared Tina, but rarely crossed her; she even managed to get an assistant director fired. I was the only one who stood up to her, but it would cause me problems. (I tried transferring to another house, a request that was turned down.) Tina ruled the girls with a iron fist, and a side dish of bribery.
One unlucky day, I was sharing a shift. The girls had cleaned up dinner, and had eaten a nice meal. I’d been doling out medications, when I heard a shriek: “Who left this &%$ pan in the sink?” It was Tina, who ran around stomping through the house; she was so angry, no girl would ‘fess up, especially since all the other dishes had been done.
Finally, she had the girls come to the table, and gave everyone a negative 10,000, which cancelled all their privileges for the entire weekend and into the next week. 
The next day was my shift; since the girls had no privileges, they were only able to sit at the table, and read. I took Tina aside: “ Aren’t you kind of overreacting?” She snapped, “Shut up, this is why you ain’t got no control over these kids!”
We got into it so much, Linda started to schedule us on opposite days; Tina hated so many of the other staff, she started taking her favorite four charges to her home and hang out at her house all day. This was really against the rules. However everyone including supervisors were scared of Tina!
The girls would come back with new clothes, and talk about going to barbecues, family reunions and parties with Tina – all because she’d basically made a group of second-year girls into her personal clique.
Since I had no money, the kids called me “stingy,” and made fun of my clothes; they stopped behaving when I couldn’t afford their good graces. Tina and Linda had done everything to destroy my authority.
    I found out what happened to her, long after I’d left; a friendly coworker informed me that Tina had ran into a bigger girl, who’d bashed her head against a wall, forcing her to stay home and recover for two months. I wasn’t surprised; I remember telling her ruling by fear is not the way to go.

She was my house’s boss in my second year – a freewilling trust-fund kid, hippie type, and a literal alcoholic who was protected by her successor, Linda.
I suspected as much, because Sally’s words often sounded slurred when she was on call; when she finally paged back, you’d struggle to hear her over a crowded bar. Sally often wouldn’t show up for work, which other people covered up; she called me sneaky, saying she didn’t trust me. The feeling was mutual, especially when she’d be sweet and the kind to the kids and do the complete opposite. I found it so phony, it wasn’t funny.
She became the next  boss, and happened to be Tina’s friend; she was like a talk show host, but without the compassion, overly businesslike. Linda had this way of hiding all her emotions. She was fair to most people, but had her non-professional side, which came out around Tina. I learned to avoid them whenever they were together.

In general, I was friendly with anyone not in Linda’s or Tina’s clique; most were like me, just trying to make a living. They too found the kids very difficult and weren’t ashamed to admit it.
One hearing impaired African American male coworker I befriended had been locked in a closet at the boys home next door, and beaten up. He called me one day while in the closet, luckily having hidden the portable phone on him, I called back up staff to set him free. I felt badly for others too who worked there . Most did this type of work because it was the highest paying job they could get, and I was no exception.
Nobody lasted more than two years; the longest-lasting person had been there for three years. At least three co-workers left after getting attacked, because staff often got beaten pretty badly. As I said earlier violence was part of the job.  
One coworker got bitten on the wrist by one of our charges.. I also remember someone being pushed down some stairs, who quit the next day. I was big and burly even before the severe weight gain, so they were more likely to throw stuff at me. My bigness I think is what got me hired. I also knew how to talk them down probably better then other workers due to my earlier work.
At least the kids knew that I was different, and this is why some accorded me the respect that eluded my coworkers. I was never hit. No one tried to punch me like other workers had been including one time when a coworker of mine had been jumped by a teen, just as I came on shift and I had to pull her off.  The problem was, "being nice"– the way some of these kids were raised – was sometimes an excuse to take advantage. I wasn’t going to bother restraining them, because I felt it escalated things and only did it in case of severe emergencies, such as when one girl tried throwing herself out a second story window.  The kids who liked me would protect me, and get angry at those who did mess with me. This happened one night shift when some newer ones wanted to jump me and do a beat-down and I was warned by two girls who did care about me. 
I couldn’t assume the appropriate hardcore persona for the job; over and over I was told I was "too nice" to the kids, the compassion I’d felt for the first group melted into burnout, and fear of the second. Extreme stress mixed with severe poverty will do that; the take home pay barely paid my rent or the bus fare to get there.

Again and again, Linda and Tina insisted, “You’re not being strict enough,” yet did everything to undermine my authority by withholding money for activities – which only drove a deeper wedge between myself and the kids. I wasn’t power-tripping on them, which made me suspect. I could tell my view of young people differed. I remember I kept saying you need to teach them to manage themselves and their lives and emotions not just boast of control.
They were the head family teacher, and house director, so their word was law -- which also broke all ethical boundaries. They’d take the girls to family reunions, or home to eat dinner with their mothers. I lived about 15 miles from the residential home, and this wasn’t right.
I had no money to buy good behavior, but Tina somehow had enough cash to buy them $50 haircuts and $100 dinners at fancy restaurants I couldn’t possibly afford. She would buy good behavior and use fear otherwise.
The fact that I held on as much as I did while being so sick was a miracle. I protested in vain to my second-year director, but the atmosphere grew worse and worse.

I averaged 50-60 hours a week, which was considered "lazy"; 36-hour shifts were not unknown often working alone. They would allow you sleep then but only a small snippet of it. I remember seeing one time card with 140 hours on it. Thankfully, we got overtime; that was one good thing about the job.
Of course, Linda and Tina acted like they lived there --- even eating, sleeping or visiting on their days off. They had no life outside of work, and didn’t understand those who did.
My boyfriend was struggling to find steady work, leaving our finances in constant tatters; my car eventually got repossessed, forcing me to take the bus for 90 minutes each day. I fought to find a new job, but nobody wanted to hire a sickly, balding fat girl who’d been 280 pounds on her arrival and was edging far far higher.

Our language to the kids was extremely scripted. I wanted to say:
  • “Have some self respect!!”
  • “Quit acting like that
  • “Stop beating up people who are minding their own business!”
  • “I only work here! Quit taking your anger out on me!”
  • “Don’t be stupid and tell my boss -- if I stretch the rules for you, [such as letting them watch TV longer] this just means I can’t ever be flexible with you ever again.”
  • “I know many of the rules are unfair!”
Instead, we had to couch everything in social worker speak:
  • “That is inappropriate.”
  • “Susan, when you rip out Lacey’s hair, it makes her feel bad.”
  • “You acted appropriately, so you can add 10,000 to your point card.”
  •  "You acted inappropriately, so you have to subtract 10,000 from your point card."
I couldn’t be myself, ruining my effectiveness with the kids; every time I tried to get real, I’d get myself in trouble. (Of course, Linda and Tina could do that daily.)
One day, I lost my temper [only verbally], and tried an experiment: “let’s see who’ll win the power of wills and anger!” I stormed yelled into the house using the technique of my two supervisors, and scared the kids so badly, they ran to the table.
Even though even the worse of the kids finally obeyed me, I got written up. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Let’s face it, the rules I had to enforce were stupid, leaving the kids with no money, no direction and nothing to do.
They were only allowed outside for 15 minutes at a time (we’d get in trouble for being one minute late herding them back inside), and watch just one hour of TV, even on Saturdays. I’d let them break the latter rule, if it meant being written up. There simply wasn’t enough for them to do.
The kids had to go to school, which assigned as little homework as possible and was more about warehousing rather than education. This allowed Linda and Tina to reserve money for activities on days that they worked. When I showed up, there was no cash, leaving me with 10 fatally distracted kids, and insane rules to enforce. I relied on art projects, card games and made-up activities to get through the day. We played euchre for hours and hours on some days!
Linda and Tina were so obsessive, they even counted the kids’ snacks; we had to write when they got them, and make sure that our 10 kids only ate one candy bar per day. Guess who they blamed when any snacks went missing. {Me-because of my increasing weight}
Some staff wouldn’t let the kids eat and make them clean for hours on end. We spent so many hours cleaning that rundown house, but you had no choice, or you’d hear about the place “being such a pit.” It fitted my job as glorified babysitter and maid, for $11.52 per hour, after my raise but with metro city taxes, amounted to a very low take-home. 
However, the kids could scream, call you curse words, and threaten your life, but if we raised our voices, we’d get written up for not following the house’s behavior plan, which deducted 10,000 points for yelling, and such.
The rules were dumb, and the kids knew it; we were only exercising control, not teaching them about responsibility, or showing compassion. My co-workers ruled by the sword and we all paid for it! We’d have to whip out their point cards several times a day, to dole out pluses (good behaviors) and minuses (bad behaviors) -- I can’t tell you how many hours we wasted on calculating them. We could have awarded privileges and punishments without making a math project out of it.
I also knew these behavior cards, because they taught the art of manipulation and scheming, bringing out baser behaviors from the kids. In the end, lecturing the kids about “intensives” (our euphemisms for bad behavior) made as much as much sense as playing pretend.

From time to time, the kids would go on rampages, and tear up the house. We had security guards who, stupidly, went home at midnight and the kids knew it; they’d wait to stir trouble after the cop who moonlighted on our campus went home.
Some of these kids were tough; once, some boys in the home next door tried to fight with cops who had been called, and even beat up paramedics. When that didn’t happen, windows would be broken, and chairs would be thrown.
Some of the girls learned they liked being put in the mental hospital for a change of pace; they drank bleach on purpose, so we had the fun of hiding bleach bottles and always making sure the basement was locked where the laundry was. 
One time, a staff member accidentally left a door open before leaving – forcing me to practically sit on a bleach bottle, so the girls couldn’t grab it. Another time, I had to hold down a girl from jumping out the second story window, lock the bathroom door, and put her on a 24-hour watch.
Eventually, the security policy was changed to 24 hours per day, seven days per week, for the worst kids.

I almost quit when Sally wanted me to drive a girl to a notorious high crime housing project at 10:00 pm. At that point I was ready to quit. A male coworker took up for me and volunteered to take her.  

Once I took all the kids to the mall with another staff member, so many of them took the opportunity to try running away on the trip home.
A car packed with gangbangers – all of them flashing “colors” -- got behind us; remember, this was in the suburbs where the youth center was located. In the parking lot they had threatened me to allow three girls to come with them, somehow I defused the situation and got everyone into the van. 
The kids tried to jump out of our van while it was moving. Two other girls tried to held them back. I stopped, because they really seemed they ready to jump out, and there was a stop sign up ahead, anyhow and cars coming from the other directions. I had to stop or crash into the cars in front of me or to the side. Four kids jumped out and joined the gang members who were all male and a few years older and ran away.

Another time, when we went to the same mall, this  kid came up to three of my charges and called them racial slurs and other slurs even towards me for being there with them. They all got into a fist fight right there, and security threw us out. I tried to keep the kids apart but understood why they were fighting.
Two notorious suburbs were full of Archie Bunker stereotypes who detested certain races; once, I took the kids to a skating rink, where the owner kicked us out before we’d laced up a boot.  
He told us, “I don’t want those kids in there messing up the joint” – although nobody was misbehaving, because we had a mixture of kids with us.  I stood up to him to no avail.

After a good director left, things went downhill fast; the next one came flouncing around in a fur coat and a gleaming new Saab. Some workers tried to get her fired, which didn’t work. She played major favorites and lied to people.
I tried transferring into an office job, but she told me that I was more well suited to staying the job I was in. Even among all the craziness, I had okay evaluations but even with a college degree and paralegal training, the weight discrimination was in full sway and I was not seen as eligible even for an office job.


I had severe endocrine disease, but didn’t know it --. It took years to get doctors to listen to me. Once I was diagnosed, thyroid medicine stopped the rapid weight gain – but until then, it was a long, scary road.
I’d been refused insurance, because I couldn’t afford it. My body was ravaged by other endocrine system failures, and my hair was falling out, too. The kids and even some of the staff would call me “baldy head.” I wanted to cry, but had to keep a straight face. My body began breaking out in sores (thyroid can wreak havoc with skin). I was in the hospital for breathing issues, status ulcers and infections over and over. Some of the bosses even yelled at me for gaining weight and "to do something" about it.
In April of 1996 due to my poor health, I was demoted to weekend night shifts. It wasn’t a true demotion due to my record, I actually got a raise. However I had no choice; it was that, or not work at all, which wasn’t feasible then. I was on my road to disability and my employers knew it.  I was told "Take the night shift, or leave!". I had no choice. No one was lining up to hire a woman, who was so overweight and so sick. Yes I had looked for a long time too.  
Night shifts were less stressful, overall, but still difficult if the kids decided to act up. I worked always alone from 8 p.m. to 11 a.m. the next morning. I was so weary, it wasn’t funny, and the kids took full advantage of it.
I’d fight off sleep so long all night, I couldn’t manage it when I finally got home; sometimes, I’d be up four straight days, from Thursday through Sunday night. I’d crawl home, stagger off the bus at 11 a.m. or noon, and sleep Monday off
My sleep deprivation was so bad, at times, I’d nod off while doing paperwork at my desk! My bosses knew that I was sick, but had no money; they were keeping me out of pity, I think.
I wanted to be fired so badly near the end but I guess they didn't want to cover the unemployment. I was not the type to get fired on purpose though one day I informed my boss that I was just there for a paycheck, and didn’t care anymore – not an exaggeration, because I had nothing left to give anyone.
I was tired of my 7 p.m. to noon shifts of bus travels, and working, as well as the all-night cleaning, the hourly head counts, avalanches of paperwork (including the staff reports), settling the kids down, and trying to stop them from sneaking out after security left; I was liked enough to avoid being jumped, but like all staff the job was extremely stressful and I was sick of it.  My times in the hospital were increasing/
I quit, without notice, in October of 1996, the day after one of the worse charges decided to wake up all the girls and get a few to sneak out of the house while she smashed an outside window. This was after my husband managed to find an equally dreary office job (but that’s another story). I can still remember the final phone conversation: “But – you’ve got to give a months’ notice!”
“Look, I can’t come in, because I’m sick, okay? I can’t do this job anymore!”
Overall, I felt badly for these kids, the emotionally disturbed cases reacting against an artificial environment that had been created out of ignorance for their needs. Many people don't know what residential counselors go through especially if you are working with a very difficult population. I did see this job as adding to my health collapse, very much so. All the poverty and the rest I had gone through and just struggling to survive for so long, showed up in my body. The stress took a toll. I wonder what happened to those girls. They'd be in their 30s now.  There were many lessons learned from what I observed and saw during those years!

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