A friend of mine called me on the phone the other day. We've known each other a number of years in a variety of different roles. At one time we used to work together in a residential program for adolescent sexual offenders. She had an affinity for working with those kids. Lots of people can’t work with them because of what they have done to other people. Lots of people back away form them or treat them as if they are somehow less than human. My friend had this unique ability to work well with these kids. She treated them with the respect due any person. At the same time she was able to set clear boundaries with them. She was also very clear that they needed to take responsibility for their lives and for their actions. She wasn’t overly demonstrative when she interacted with them. In fact for the most part she was rather quiet. However, the boys tended to listen to her more than they listened to the other adults in their lives. This was probably because she only spoke when she really had something to say. The boys always seemed to respect her in a large part due to this wonderful blend she had to be both nurturing and demanding at the same time.
She also believed in the boys. Not in the part of them that hurt other people but rather in the part of them that didn’t. She believed in who they could be and in their future. For many of them this was the first time in their lives that they had an adult believe in them. She was an optimist with kids who had only experienced pain and pessimism in their lives. It was truly powerful to see the impact this belief had on the young men. I have no doubt that her belief in them helped change many of their lives for the better. She no longer works with these kids. She’s moved on to working with other kids. However, I know she often thinks about the young men she worked with in the program.
When she phoned me the other day she was terribly upset. She had been watching the news on television and had seen a short story on one of the boys we had worked with a number of years ago. Apparently he was about to be released from prison after serving time for a sexual offence. He was an adult now. The police had put out a warning about him being a potential danger to the community. She hadn’t been aware that he had previously been arrested and was shocked to see his picture on the news. We talked for quite awhile about him and the program. She was feeling very much a failure because somehow she had not in her mind been able to reach him enough to move him off the path of offending. She questioned whether any of our work had had any impact. There was little I could say to her that day on the phone to convince her otherwise. Most of what I thought to say to her sounded too cliché so I spent most of the time just listening to her. It was really the best I could do.
I thought a lot about our conversation that day. Not so much about my friend because although she felt the failure deeply it won’t impact upon her work with other kids. She will always believe in kids. That’s who she is even in the toughest of times However, I did think about how we define failure and success. Was she a failure because one of the young men she worked with offended again? Was she a success because maybe he was the only one out of the many she worked with who did offend? These questions raise an important point. That is that most of us have very individualized concept of success and failure. For some of us success might be that only half the boys had offended. This would be a pretty good track record according to the literature on offenders. For others of us only achieving change with half of the boys would be a failure because that means that there are young men we have worked with out there who are still abusing other people. I’m not sure the answer to these questions. Next month I’m going to explore this issue further. However until then, I would ask you to think about the questions. What is success and failure to you? What is it to your program? What is it to the young people in your care? What are the consequences of not having clear definitions of success and failure?