So, first some facts about my time there. In my less than 2 1/2 years working in the building, five master’s-level social workers were hired and quit. Some had been hired shortly before me and some quit shortly after I left. I think the longest one lasted 13 months.
Next fact. When I started, most people scoffed when meeting me, saying, “We’ll give you two months.” I remember that the training officer, who was actually quite nice, was significantly more liberal. “Everyone is saying 2 months about you before you quit. I don’t know; you have some fight in you. I’d give you 6 months,” she said, with a combination of caution and hope.
Next fact, at some point during my time there, my tire got slashed while parked in front of the building. While they couldn’t see who it was on the camera because of the “glare from the sun,” I know who it wasn’t: the kids who were locked up behind barbed wire and many, many locked doors.
Now, some fun facts about me. I’m a Caucasian, Orthodox Jewish female who was born and bred in the suburbs. Growing up as an Orthodox Jew, we were inculcated with life values such as, “love thy neighbor like thyself” and “lighten the burden of your fellow man.” Though certainly flawed humans, our teachers and role models firmly believed that our purpose in life is to bring G-d into the world and make the world a better place. Growth, character development and restoration after transgression are values that have been in my blood from as young as I can remember. Another fun fact about me: I was born a fighter. My mother would say that in utero she already knew I was a fighter.
In my 18-hour-old hospital picture, I am smiling, and my hand is up as if I am waving to the world. I have 6 brothers, which helped me retain my organic fighting spirit, and am sandwiched in the middle of 4 of them (I also have 2 sisters). Giving up, is not only nowhere to be found within me or around me, but where the average (healthy?) person “gives up,” I thrive. I love a challenge. I thrive in chaos and in crisis. The more unsafe my surroundings are, the calmer I am and the more laser-focused all of my senses, including my prefrontal cortex, become.
Another thing about me is my love for people, even though I am a hard-core introvert. I see people, I connect with people, I respect people, and I understand people arguably better than anyone I have ever met. Oh, and one last fact: I hate seeing others suffer and will do anything I can within an appropriate framework to reduce the suffering of another.
Full circle, here’s what we know about the prison I was working in: It was full of victims of prior trauma (the reason I had gone there to begin with), it was full of abusers who were re-traumatizing them daily, it demolished anyone who advocated for them, and it created an infrastructure that made it impossible for me to do my job (more on that shortly).
Here’s what we know about me: I was born a fighter into a family full of boys and into a culture and religion whose stated mission is to make this world a better place and lighten the load of others. The more unsafe I am, the higher functioning I become. And, I love people and hate to see them suffer. See what’s happening here?
So, I stayed. And tried my hardest to build relationships with the kids, the core element to any therapeutic success. I ran groups with them, did weekly sessions with them, played basketball with them, de-escalated them when they were on the verge of being restrained, created programs to reinforce academic success, invited their family into treatment and just hung out with them. My office always had kids in it. Either multiple kids (sometimes close to 15 or 20) listening to music and playing basketball with my Nerf basketball hoop, or one-on-one while I did sessions. Any time I’d walk down the hallway, I’d bring a kid with me for an opportunity to “take a walk” and get a change of scenery or blow off some steam. I loved these kids with my heart and soul. I broke news of the death of loved ones, created space for them and healed with them.
We laughed together, cried together and fought (metaphorically speaking) together. The memories we created will last a lifetime for all of us. To this day, it is not uncommon for a kid to reach out to me with a memory that I don’t even recall. “Remember when my boy got killed and you let me cry and listen to music in your office?” I got that message not too long ago from a youth who was not even on my caseload.
I stayed when they banned me from talking to kids who were not on my unit. I stayed when they threatened to fire me, about a month or two into the job, because the social workers became mandated to work one weekend a month and being Sabbath-observant, I couldn’t work on Saturday. I stayed when they wrote me up for “failure to follow the chain of command” because I asked the superintendent for permission, after they denied my request, to leave early on a Friday to get home in time for Sabbath (my normal work schedule was Sunday-Thursday, and this was a training 2 hours away on a day that I normally didn’t work). I stayed when they declined my request for time off for Passover (blamed it on the union – said I was only on the job 5 1/2 months, and not 6, minimum union requirements) and threatened to call me in AWOL when I requested leave without pay instead. Side note, I had anticipated this already in my August interview and told them then that if I took the job, I’d need Passover off.
I reached out to the person who hired me (who quit right after I started) to confirm, and she told me that she was nearly certain she put it in the interview notes, and that it should be in my file. I stayed when they consistently created false rumors about me, like sleeping with the kids, or the deputy superintendent (a married man with 3 teens) or the psychology supervisor (a married man with several children and grandchildren). I distinctly remember a conversation between two of my clients one day (14-year-old and 18-year-old – two different units), while hanging out in my office and listening to music.
14 (making a disgusted face): Ay, CP. Do you know that when I be with you my staff be saying that we be doing sexual stuff?
18 (nearly jumping out of his chair): Oh, my G-d, bro!!! My staff be saying the same thing when I’m with her!
I stayed when I got the frosty looks in the hallway, the hostile comments and personal verbal attacks in team meetings (“CP did you hear that? He’s talking to you”). I stayed when they “randomly” moved my clients off my unit and caseload one holiday weekend and ordered me to not have anything to do with them. They attacked, I pivoted and stayed. They reloaded and fired again, I re-strategized and stayed. And then, shortly after over 2 years working there, something happened. The adults in the building finally got savvy enough to recognize that the only thing that I truly cared about was the youth and their treatment. Not the drama, not the pettiness, not the incessant bullying and victimization towards me, none of it.
All I cared about was the youth. And they launched an attack on them. Slowly but surely, all the kids on my caseload began to get targeted just for simply being on my caseload. Sometimes it was more benign (a “random” stop and search in the hallway) and sometimes it was clearer, like when a staff told one of my kids that if he ever sees him in the community he’s going to “put him on a shirt” (kill him, and there will be an RIP shirt with his face on it). At first, I didn’t quite grasp what was going on, but then one day, I heard myself giving the following disclaimer to some new youth. “I’m just giving you a heads up – you are going to be targeted once people find out that you’re on my caseload.” Social workers, by trade, are client advocates. If my clients were going to be victimized solely for being my clients, it would be impossible for me to do my job. Which is why I eventually chose to leave and which brings me to lesson 4: