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Glass Houses

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

“I, um. I’m on the staff of a group home. And we’ve lost control of the group home.” For a couple heartbeats, my primary emotion shifts from terror to shame.

“Lost control? What does that mean, sir? Is anyone hurt?”

“I. I don’t know. I don’t have eyes on the children anymore.” I try to picture where Chris and Ezekiel might be right now. I can only see Chris’s enraged fist bearing down on the door, Ezekiel’s mischievous grin as he leaves the couch.

“Where are you now, sir?”

“I’m locked downstairs in the basement. But there are glass doors they could break to get in.” I turn my head from the carpeted stairs where I am hunched in a ball, almost fetal, to glance at the wide panels of sliding glass that reveal the unruly grass under the back porch.

“Have you notified your superiors?”

“That was my first call.” And it should have been sooner.

“All right. We’ll see about sending someone over. What’s your address?”

I give it to them. It is only then, as I am hanging up, that I hear the sound of breaking glass.


I was an unlikely candidate to serve as a residential counselor in a group home. Beyond a few stilted interactions with my fiancée’s niece and nephew, I hadn’t spent time with a child since I had been a child. A history and philosophy double major in college, I never took a single course in education, psychology, or even social work. I’d spent the year since graduating in 2002 working several part-time library jobs scattered across the Bay Area, afterthought extensions of my student job in school.

I felt empty. I saw more of the road than I did of my fiancée. And my work was meaningless. As an evening commuter-college librarian, I gave a few presentations on research strategies at the start of each semester, then spent the term waiting for hapless students to ask for help. My morning work at a medical center library was slightly busier but even more mindless: collecting the day’s list of citation requests, pulling journals from the shelves, turning each page in sequence to copy tomes, then stapling packets, addressing large manila envelopes, stamping them appropriately. Reshelve, repeat. Who was I helping?

One evening at the commuter college, my boss ducked into the library with an aerosol can of toxic bug killer. “Other duties as assigned,” she smiled. “There’s an ant infestation in Room 6.” Watching the tiny insects shrivel and succumb, I considered my own mortality. There had to be a better use of my time.

The next week, I found the Craigslist posting for the Sequoia Children’s Center. (1) They needed counselors who could care for children, encourage good behavior, work flexible hours, do “whatever it takes” to provide a safe surrogate family for the neglected and abused children of California. The mission was to break intergenerational cycles of violence, one kid at a time. The hourly pay (just under thirteen dollars) was a little less than my present employ, but they offered health insurance and a lot less driving. I sent in an application.

The interview and vetting process were appropriately glacial. There was a group interview, then a cascade of individual interviews, a full background check, a four-hour visit to a group home to shadow the staff and interact with the kids, and then a final, one-on-one interview with the agency’s director, Zoe. Kind, competent, and surprisingly young, she asked me the dreaded biggest weakness question.

“It’s probably that I haven’t worked with kids before. I really think I could do this and I’m so motivated to help, but I didn’t grow up babysitting or doing Big Brothers Big Sisters.”

Rather than frowning and jotting a note, she smiled reassuringly. “That’s okay! A lot of our staff haven’t worked with kids. They’re just people with big hearts and a lot of patience.”

Hearing that description, I truly believed I had a shot at landing this job. I held back tears through my matching grin. “That sounds just like me.”

A few minutes later, she asked her closing question: “I just want to remind you that we run Level 14 facilities here. There are fourteen levels of restrictive supervision in California, so we’re working with the toughest kids. The most violent, the most incorrigible. Almost all of them have failed out of lower-level placements before, but we are a no-fail facility. That’s our philosophy. There’s nothing a kid can do to get kicked out—nothing.” I nodded solemnly, picturing a murder. “So are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

I cleared my throat. “I think so!” She raised her eyebrows. “Yes,” I amended. “I’m ready to do whatever it takes.”


Sequoia’s group homes are nestled in the south Oakland hills, substantial four-bedroom houses in tony neighborhoods that put the residential in residential counseling. Most of them are two stories and heavily carpeted, sparsely decorated, with a TV in the living room and all the sharp objects removed from the kitchen. Each is outfitted with a single “quiet room,” usually carved from the garage, a six-by-six padded cell with a rubber floor and a windowed door that cannot be locked. The door will fall open automatically unless held tightly by its oversized white plastic handle. This ensures constant supervision of anyone enclosed for their own safety.

In 2003, the network comprised five houses of six residents each (a mixed-gender house for kids under eight, an all-female house, and three all-male houses for kids ages eight to thirteen), plus a K-8 school for the residents and similarly situated children living at home, in foster homes, or even other group homes. The official catchphrase for this population is severely emotionally disturbed.

The group home residents are all wards of the state, removed from their families for their protection. While any child may be labeled “severely emotionally disturbed” for sufficiently disordered behavior, removal usually requires chronic abuse or neglect at home, often the direct cause of such behavior. There are exceptions—one adolescent I worked with started a fire that destroyed his family’s home and killed one of his brothers—but generally, they’re in residential treatment because their family has failed them.

I was assigned to Pine House, the home of six boys, a pleasant, white domicile with beige carpet, a central staircase opposite the front door, and a cheery wood sign saying “Welcome Friends” bolted to the wall beside the kitchen entryway. Before I began working there regularly, I attended two weeks of intensive training on the rules, protocols, and behavior modification system, followed by a week of training shifts shadowing veteran staff at various houses. I worked the “first-half” shift during the week, consisting of a sixteen-hour Sunday that started before the kids woke up and ended after bedtime; eight-hour Mondays and Tuesdays (3