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97 FEBRUARY 2007
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Easy good-byes

Brian Gannon

It was a pretty bloody meeting, and I didn’t much like the way it was going. Someone had said at a team meeting a few days back “Why don’t we talk to the kid himself?” and everyone had said “Why not?”, “Of course!”, and “That’s what we should have done to start with.”

James Clark was a tough nut, age 17, who just wouldn’t communicate with anybody and whom nobody could engage in any activity. It was frustrating. Although I did not work with the boy directly, I sympathised. We thought we had this reputation of being able to “reach” kids, and the local CYF system took us at our word and often sent us what we called “end-of-the-line” kids – kids that nobody else was having much success with.

Our intentions were probably good, though I suspect some of us were piqued by our inability to “move this case along”. Funny how some of the most committed staff members, when confronted by the rubber stamp image of “FAILURE!”, instead of looking looking at themselves and their practice, become angry with the kid – and suddenly staff members are ganging up on him like adolescent thugs. “We’ll show him!” seems to be the attitude.

Our intentions were centred around engaging with James – or rather our lack of success so far with this. That was OK with me. We had a pretty versatile team who could speak any language from gymnastics and boxing and soccer to chess and video games and classical music, and usually, between us, we found some common ground with any kid on which we could open negotiations.

But with this boy we weren’t getting there, and some staff members had suggested that several of us should meet with James to “confront him with reality” as they put it. I must confess I had agreed with this. First, because “adults” on our team might include anyone from eighteen to fifty, so there were lots of possibilities for “identification”. God, we did use some wordy concepts which gave a respectable edge to some of the methods we used! Secondly, because I remembered those old experiments of Solomon Asche back in the fifties (!) which showed that individuals could be influenced in their thinking by the expressed views of the majority of their group – even if these were doubtful or negative views. Positive views would probably be even easier, and in fact Asche’s work had laid the foundations for what we now called “peer group approaches”. If a group of us met with James, perhaps we could influence his attitudes ...

It didn’t turn out like that. There was this FAILURE thing lurking in the background. Some of the guys were impatient, and here was a looney kid challenging their reputations. James was called in to face this inquisition. He looked instantly intimidated, not up to a confrontation, and counter to all my training I felt drawn to his corner of the “ring”.

“So, James, what’s the matter? Don’t you like it here?” one asked.

No reply. The boy looked at the group, desperately trying to read the mood, to calculate the odds.

Another: “You don’t take part in any of our activities?”

This was more neutral, and there was a look of hope in James” eyes. He seemed to be considering the question.

“You some sort of sissy, or what?” came an uglier question. The boy looked down.

“We’re only trying to make you fit in while you’re here,” said another. Again the boy raised his eyes ...

“Or you think you’re too good for us?” said with some hostitlity.

There was a complete silence in the room. This was no engagement. There was no exchange, no common ground. The boy had not said a word. It was a shooting range. I could see the words already which would appear on the transfer report: “sullen, unamenable, disinterested, uncooperative ... “

Then the boy looked up – but to his left, not at the staff members in front of him – but looking as if at a distance. Then he made as if to hug himself, each hand gripping its opposite upper arm. For his age, he looked pathetic, cold, squirming ... and suddenly, from the expression on his face and the odd bodily gesture, I recognised him, I knew him!

* * *

Ten years, at least ten years earlier. In another program, for younger kids when I, also, was new in the field. James? I didn’t remember this. James Clark, no I must be mistaken. But as I looked at him now, hugging himself, wordless, resourceless, hopeless, I knew. It was Jamie. White ... Williams ... Wetherby, my mind flipped through my personal rollerdex ... Withers! Jamie Withers. And with ten years added on to his chronological age and some family remarriages, step-fathers, whatever, he was James Clark!

It wasn’t a comfortable memory, one of those which gets stuck in your head no matter that all the kids and the years move inexorably on. As a seven-year-old I recalled this had been no easy kid. He defied all of the textbook endings we had been assured would be there. He was unhappy – and all the standard ploys didn’t lighten him up. The jokes, the terms of endearment (the name Jamie was one of these!), the invitations, the playfights and pickings-up and hugging ... he was inconsolably unhappy.

That gesture of his, of looking off into the distance to his left and hugging his arms, was so characteristic. It seemed to be a detachment from his present space, present people, and a self-comforting, self-protective enfolding. And in those former times, in the absence of any reward or positive feedback, I remember that we gave up on Jamie.

Oh, we were careful enough to disguise the fact that we had given up. Even in those days we could claim “failure to respond to treatment”, and in fact it was the early days of “demonstrable behavioural improvement” when funding was idiotically tied to measurable outcomes. I remember that some of my colleagues were in a deeper stage of denial – “He isn’t really any trouble,” they would say, and of course they were right. If you could turn your back on the sadness and withdrawal, Jamie certainly didn’t get in your face. One would have to tick in the “No” boxes for aggression, defiance, anti-social behaviour, bullying, rowdiness, lying, destructiveness, insubordination, swearing or sexual acting out. Clean sheet on all counts – and those were just about the criteria in those days.

But progress? No. There was none of that. And as I look at him now as a seventeen-year-old caught in this pincer movement of equally discouraged staff, each in their own various stages of frustration, I could see that he was headed for another “No progress” report.

* * *

There is a language that we speak in Child and Youth Care – as well as in social work and education – through which we prevaricate with impressive quasi-competence when we are in a corner. To our clients and their parents, it can be an intellectual bullying: using “big words” which (of course) they don’t understand, and by which we can back out of responsibility. It may be that “Johnnie has a limited ability to grasp ... he feels awkward placed in a different age-group ...” It's Johnnie's fault. Maybe it is political bullying, when we say to our managers or seniors that “Johnnie places an intolerable demand on staff and time capacity ... our staff timetables don’t allow for ...” We blame someone else. Or we say to our state registering department or funding body that “Johnnie is not reaching outcome criteria ... we feel that he would benefit from ...” and so on. All this is system ass-covering because “we” (even in our collusion) are uncomfortable with the fact that nobody picks up the candle for Johnnie, nobody is making headway, or nobody seems to really like him ...

Worst of all for you and me, the Child and Youth Care workers, we may have been made to feel responsible for this kid (and our agency’s advertised outcomes), and the expectations laid upon us have not been backed up with appropriate training, support, or supervision – and then we have been uncourageous advocates for our profession by being intimidated into silence about this. Or (and this is a hard one) we ourselves have resorted to those ego-protecting manoevres of rationalisation and projection to neutralise our own guilt? We have shifted our own feelings of failure and inadequacy on to Johnnie himself ... and he becomes the target of our lonely rage against ourselves.

Which is another thing. The majority of kids in the system are pissed off, hostile, acting out, and maybe we youthworkers are energised by the challenges and the dramas. In our training there is often a lot of action around crisis, tantrum, intervention, restraint ... and the unresponsive kid, the lonely, frightened, discouraged kid is really “no trouble”. We forget that troubled kids will turn their hurt either outwards or inwards, and that, developmentally speaking, withdrawal and retreat are “behaviours” as serious as destructiveness and aggression.

* * *

We return to the 17-year-old James. The seven-year-old Jamie of ten years ago. I would like to be able to report that Jamie aka James is fine now. I can’t. Three months have gone by since the inquisition and the jury is still out. But I have to say that the staff team is making progress.

On the day of the inquisition, the day of my epiphany, I had the courage to stand up in that meeting and ask James to wait outside for a minute. Frowns of disapproval all round, for were we not trying to make a break-through here? But I explained to my colleagues what I had just realised. Specifically that when I had previously known the boy (and probably for years before that), nobody had been of help, and that he was now far from where he might have been because the adults in his life (that’s us, and the many others who have been frustrated by him) really hadn’t succeeded.

To their credit, they got the message and the challenge. They had been wanting a way out of their feelings of ineffectiveness, they realised that their previous approaches with James had proved futile, that we had to see this in a different way. They have been rearranging shifts and groups in such a way that there is always a one-on-one or a small group experience for James, even if sometimes it has meant just sitting with the boy. There are positive signs. The team has recalibrated its expectations, and some members have been ridiculously pleased when James merely chooses to stay, to be there, perhaps to listen. He moved closer to Roger when he was reading to three of the kids the other day. One morning last week Jenny was going out for a jog and shouted to him “Want to come along?” He did. Yesterday Colin took in a set of “pick-up-sticks” and played with them for just ten minutes before James asked if he could have a try – and when he crashed a precarious pile of sticks he smiled.

Small gains. The rediscovery of the fine skills. The feel of upward movement, of growth. And above all, the stirring of optimism. The funders' prescriptive outcome goals are not even on the radar yet, but the team members have put their frustration and blame and projections away where they belong, and share a quiet determination that for James there will not be, for the second time, an easy good-bye.

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