In many ways, troubled youth share a marginalized status, like other minority groups. We first met 17-year-old Jonathan when he gave a moving speech to a conference for Canadian youth workers. He had been removed from his parents as a young boy and had spent several years in the custody of the state. With remarkable humor and insight, Jonathan shared what it was like to be “property of the government” and to be deprived of voice concerning his destiny. His story is a painful reminder that even well-meaning professionals can too easily slip into relationships based on power and superiority instead of relating to young persons with dignity and respect.
I know you are all busy – lots of work that demands paper, paper, paper. But I am here to tell you that I am more than a file. I am a person. I have feelings and am entitled to respect. Please don't only see the problems, see the potential. I was an affectionate kid, but I was hurt too many times, so I turned to ice. I sometimes wish I could start my life over not knowing anybody. I have only about three good memories. I have a picture of me sitting on the lap of my Dad, but when I was 4, my Dad died, my Mother got married again. She and my stepfather didn't want to keep my 8-year-old brother, so they got rid of him by putting him up for adoption. I didn't understand at the time, but later I wondered why they didn't get rid of me as well. I haven't seen my brother since he was 8. I didn't get along with my stepfather and, between ages 9 and 13, terrible things happened in my life, not all of them at home. I endured what my stepfather did – physically abusing me until I was 13. Then I decided I wasn't going to be a victim anymore. One day he hit me in the head, hard, and knocked me down, but I got back up and stared right in his face with such hate that it scared him. After that, I was taken from my home. I didn't want to live with him again.
I became a PGO – which we kids in care say means Permanent Government Ownership – because it feels like the government owns us. I check out people very carefully. I am good at reading people. Sometimes I use reverse psychology, like if a counselor is getting too close, then I ask him about his life, his problems, and it scares him away. I can tell if a person really cares and wants to help or is just doing a job for the money. You know the saying: "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer." If I don't trust an adult, I have to watch them even closer. I give staff respect even if they don't show it, but when they are not there, I live my life like I want. If I find a person who is open, his personality reaches my own and I bond quickly. But I don't want to talk about things that hurt. After being somebody who doesn't care about anything for so many years, it is hard to change. When I get upset, I ball things up inside, and then I finally blow up. Sometimes I hit my fist into the wall or I become violent, and then I feel guilty. Over the years, I have had good and bad experiences in the system. The good parts have been some of the caring, trusting, and supportive people I have come in contact with. The bad parts are when people don't listen or trust me. Sometimes people disregard my say in decisions affecting my life. One of my social workers tried to run my entire life. Against my will, she made me move to a foster home in the town where my mother and stepfather lived. I was very unhappy and I begged her not to leave me there, but she made me have contact with my parents. During all of the time I was in their town, my parents only saw me five times. One time I accidentally met my step-father on the street when I was 15. I was smoking a cigarette, and he began to rage at me and pushed me against a building. I thought he was going to hit me, so I hit him first.
My mother told me once if I got in trouble with the court, she never wanted to see me again. I would call her and leave messages, but she doesn't answer my calls anymore, so I quit calling. My mother chose my stepfather instead of me. After all the times I got beat by my step dad, I have a lot of hate for him. He ruined my life, and I don't want anything to do with him. I know we will never get back together, but sometimes I think there would be a one in a million chance that we would bond like a family, like a father and son.
After being placed in foster homes against my will, I was very unhappy for the next 2 years. During that time I had eight different social workers. I got so I didn't care about anyone or anything. I still find it hard to trust anybody except myself, but my life is now starting to turn around. I am in McMan's Supervised Independent Living Program and am working and completing high school. I am sharing a house with two others and I pay $400 a month rent with money that the government gives me. I am working as a chef in training. Someday I would like to be a chef on a cruise ship, as one of my other interests is marine biology. I also enjoy boxing.
I think I would like to be married some day, but I don't know if I want kids. I wouldn't want to hurt them like my step dad did me. But, little kids like me. Someone told me if you are concerned about what your parents did to you, you could change that with your own children. For kids like me in the system, there is a lot of fear. Most kids I know don't want to talk about their problems or experiences because it will cause them more trouble. Adults need to build a bond with kids and then they will tell you if they feel they are ready. Sometimes workers lose sight of the person behind the file number. I have desires and goals, and it is important to be there in helping me achieve my potential. Some people clear the way for me and others put up roadblocks. I am the best resource you have to know and understand what is going on inside of me.
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Jonathan Lay, at the time of writing, was a Canadian high school student who was in the care system from the time he was removed from his family at 13 years of age. This article is an expansion of a presentation he made before a conference of youth professionals sponsored by McMan Youth Services in Medicine Hat, Alberta, on October 26, 1999.
This feature: Lay, J. (2000) The person behind the file number. Reclaiming Children and Youth. Vol. 9 No. 2 pp68-69