Friday, July 2, 2010


I don't tend to talk about my work, but here it goes...

I feel honored to be able to work within the field of juvenile corrections. I truly love my profession and the population I work with. If you would have told me when I was younger that this would be the population that I would be destined to work with, I would have never ever believed you. Now after doing this line of work for almost 13 years, I simply cannot imagine ever wanting to work with any other population or in any other institution. I am just one of many people who feel this way, and I work at Ethan Allen School. Ethan Allen School (EAS) is an institution that is in jeopardy of closing all because of politics. Facts like diversity of staff, close proximity to the homes of youth, the value of face-to-face visits, and access to mental health services have all been discounted by the Administrator of the Division of Juvenile Corrections and the Juvenile Corrections Review Committee. I hope that the Governor doesn’t discount these same things, but I am unsure about this given that he appointed these individuals to their positions. I just cannot believe that we have come to the place of actually talking about closing EAS and moving all the youth to an institution a much farther distance away from their homes and the communities where the vast majority of the youth come from.

This morning I walked to one of the cottages on my way to see one of my kids. I do consider the youth placed at EAS my kids. Not the same as my children at home, but the youth at EAS are in my care during their time with us, and I take this all very seriously. They all made bad choices in order to come to EAS, but they are still boys and young men who are very capable of changing. I have spent the last 13 years studying what it takes to change, talking to the youth at EAS about this concept, hearing about their lives, and helping them through unbelievable difficulties. I have experienced tears, loss, anger, guilt, pain, happiness, and laughter. I walk to the cottage thinking about how much I actually love this place. I know it is hard to imagine loving a correctional institution, but this institution is filled full of almost 13 years of memories, people that I loved working with – both youth and staff. I walk by Draper Hall and remember so many kids I worked with over the years, there are so many that I remember what their face looks like or the sound of their voice yelling hello to me through their window. I love working with every one of them. Some are thankfully successful adults in the community. Some were lost to the streets and maybe prison. Some had a slip up as an adult and then turned themselves around. And some are now deceased, but I loved working with every single one – even the challenging ones. It was an honor, not only did I teach them, but they taught me. They made me a better person. I give it my all with every single kid to help them consider change in their lives, but I recognize that they ultimately have the power to decide their destiny. That is the way it should be.

I arrive at the cottage to talk to my youth. Every time I talk to one of my youth I just know that I am in the right line of work. I feel this is the place I am meant to be. There is nothing like seeing the look in their eyes and the turn of their heads when I ask a question that challenges them. I can see it clearly over and over – this is the population that I am meant to serve. They also know they can rely on me when they are at EAS. I will always have their best interests in mind even if they don’t agree with my response. I have a gift in creating a strong therapeutic relationship with these youth. They see I care, but they also know that I will challenge them to think about things they never considered before. I recognize that I use more challenge with the youth I work with now than ever before, and they surprisingly take it well – they want to know what I think. I do not lie to them. They know that I will do what I say I will do. They know that they are safe.

Later in the day I am honored to see the family of one of my kids. So many people make assumptions about the families of the kids I work with. I can’t read postings online anymore without anger at some of these assumptions. Not all families of kids placed in corrections are one way. There are a multitude of stories. There are, however, times when unfortunately some of these assumptions are true, but this is not always the case. People from the outside who don’t know these kids often don’t have any idea of what really exists. They see these kids as “monsters” and criminals and their families as permissive or absent. Why not place them far away, they say. They really have no empathy for this population. But I know otherwise. The family of my kid is stable, loving, sets limits and boundaries, and is highly involved in their child’s life at EAS. I witness a powerful interaction. I see tears. I see hugs. The kid hears about how his previous behavior in the community impacted his family. I ask him to turn and look at his family and see their reaction to him coming home and to forever remember this moment. I see it in his eyes that he is taking in what I am saying to him. Looking back now as I type this, I see very clearly that all of this would not have been possible if EAS was closed. His family would probably have not come to the review which would have been a substantial distance away. If they were present via teleconferencing (an option discussed by the administrator and the committee) this interaction would not have been as powerful. I have studied people who change and recognize that defining moments like these can have a lasting impact. This kid, who has great potential, may be lost to the system or the streets without this moment. I am so thankful that we had this moment because there may be countless people impacted if we did not.

I remember the families over the years that I have worked with, one after another. I remember the honor of helping them through difficult moments and losses, seeing them become closer, witnessing vulnerable moments, and looking at the kids’ faces when they see their family walk up to our building for a meeting. I remember the pride of kids I worked with being able to introduce me to their families at visits or graduation. I remember the young men with children who wanted me to hold their son or daughter. I remember the joy of surprise visits on their birthday or some other occasion. How happy the youth were that there family was able to make it out to EAS last minute for this occasion.

I think about all the Serious Juvenile Offenders (SJOs) that I have worked with, one after another. They have a special place in my heart because this is the population that I have worked with the most over the years. There offenses tend to be the most serious and many would discount their ability to change, but I know they have potential if they choose to do something different with their lives. I simply know if institutions such of ours did not exist in the State of Wisconsin, one after another SJO would be waived into adult court. The advocates trying to get rid of all juvenile correctional institutions and move to the Missouri Model do not have any idea what they will be doing to this population. I think of so many SJOs who have had such potential – that this might have been their first offense, but it is serious enough that they have to come to corrections. I feel sad knowing that they may be lost to the adult system where they have less likelihood of receiving treatment and more likelihood of being drawn into additional negative activity and experiencing violence and assault.

I cannot believe that people are actually discussing closing EAS. I tried to have my voice heard in this process, but I feel that those who are “driving” this moment don’t want to hear from people like me. They discount the years and years of knowledge that I and others have on this subject. They want to portray our institution as a place where the staff just can’t get along and where the kids are unsafe. They are discounting any evidence that is to the contrary. They don’t want to see any good at EAS. They don’t want to see that there is support amongst staff. Maybe it isn’t 100%, but you tell me what work environment has 100% of the people getting along. If another correctional institution seems like 100% of the people get along, I would be very suspicious of this portrayal. My daughter’s two Godmothers have worked at Ethan Allen School, so this alone tells you what support there is amongst the staff. I admire so many of the staff. I know a youth counselor who the kids just respect, a man who can reach the kids who have an absent father like no other person can. They see hope for their future in him, as he comes from the same city as many of them do. He always treats everyone in the institution so fair and kind. I know a teacher that the kids just adore. One after another tells me know they would not have been able to get their HSED without him. He is a team player, and he always helps me out whenever I have a need or a question. I know a social worker who advocates for her kids’ needs. The kids respect what she has to say even if it isn’t exactly what they wanted to hear. She regularly reaches out to staff in need. She has even comforted me in my most difficult personal moments. I know a nurse who consistently follows through and communicates about the needs of the kids. He always has a smile on his face when I see him. I know a superintendent who cares about our opinion. No matter who you are, youth or staff, he treats you with respect. I walk around the institution thinking how is it possible that they portrayed us like this? What is the true agenda here? The above is just a sampling of the staff – there are so many others who I have been honored to work with. I could go on and on.

Ultimately, what I worry about are the kids, my kids. Since this horrible series of highly political events have commenced, I have advocated for them. I will continue to advocate for them. This is why I am telling my story even if it doesn’t change things. I just feel my voice needs to be heard. I am not speaking out for me. I am speaking out for them. I cannot see any justification to moving the vast majority of the kids, my kids, far from home to a county that demographically is so different than their own. This just isn’t right. I just hope that those in power to make these decisions will not close EAS for the kids who have been entrusted in my care. If you are from my state, please call the Governor and speak out about this (608) 266-1212.