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 (3–11 p.m.) starting at the school as staff for the after-school program, transporting kids home, and seeing them through their evening routine till after lights-out; and a four-hour training and house meeting on Wednesday morning at the school. Once a month, the house meeting was a treatment review for one of our six clients. These opened with distribution of the packets.

The packets were horror stories. Testaments to the potential depravity and failing of human parenting. Chris had been molested by his father for years, starting when he was as young as six. His father was now in jail for it and sent him letters detailing how much he missed him. Jonathan had been beaten with chains and locked in closets for days on end. He didn’t start speaking until he was seven. Another boy’s mother had sold his shoes to buy drugs when he was in preschool. He was removed by CPS and placed in a group home, where he was routinely molested by a staff member. He reported it right away to other staff, who didn’t believe him for several months, until the staff member was caught in the act.

We had four goals as staff, as an agency as a whole: (1) keep these children safe, (2) provide them the best possible home life, (3) utilize behavior modification to improve their interactions, and (4) eventually reunify the children with safe family members who were prepared to take care of them. To achieve these, or even work toward them, we had to maintain constant vigilance at a level familiar only to combat veterans and prey animals. We studied our charges, learned their antecedents (signs of trouble to come), prepared to intervene early and often. We had eyes on them every second, especially when they were together in a room. As part of behavior modification, we maintained a strict series of rules, doled out time-outs and redirection continually, and scored their behavior on a chart every hour against individually tailored goals. Their score would determine their “level” for the next day, color-coded and carrying a range of privileges. On green, purple, or gold, they were eligible for outings outside the house on weekends. On yellow, they were housebound. On red, they couldn’t even watch TV.

Chris was frequently on red. He was big but seemed younger than twelve, often sporting a radiant, toothy smile or sharing an infectious laugh. With a high forehead and muscular, long limbs, he often underestimated his increasing size and strength, like a Saint Bernard puppy. When I started at Pine, I was replacing a staff member he’d injured so badly that she left Sequoia. The details were kept from me, but she attended my first house meeting and described her struggle to return to confidence, how she just couldn’t manage it. “The worst thing is, he was probably my favorite kid,” she sighed. “We’re not supposed to have favorites, but of course we all do. He and I just clicked. But he was so angry and vengeful when he attacked me. I just feel betrayed. And that hurts worse than my knee.”

Regardless of level, kids were always permitted to play outside, as long as they were in space (sufficiently compliant to follow directions, not about to blowout). It was healthy, it wore them out, and exercise is notoriously good for mental health. Chris enjoyed basketball, and we often played on the rickety hoop on the back wooden deck. But his favorite game was tag. Many of my colleagues on the first-half staff were disinclined to run, but I enjoyed it. Being outside, playing a simple game, watching the sun fade to dappled shadows through a patch of leaves in an idyllic backyard, it was easy to forget what had brought Chris here. For a fleeting moment, he could be something like a normal kid, having a childhood.

We frequently saw the signs of abnormality, of course, from Chris and the rest. Yelling, cursing, refusing to follow directions, calling us names. When behavior modification works, it flips the incentives that an abuse or neglect victim learns from their abuser: act out for attention, kick and scream to disrupt the pattern that’s harming you. Such lessons are deeply ingrained because they’re often a matter of survival. Stay quiet in a house where you’re neglected and you might starve to death. Don’t fight back against your molester and he may attack you more frequently. Let those in charge push you around and they may take advantage of you. Of course, behavior modification requires strict adherence to rules and the constant exercise of authority. Adolescent boys don’t like authority under the best of circumstances, let alone if they’ve spent their whole lives railing against it to survive.

We were trained and continually refreshed on how to physically restrain clients as a last resort measure for safety. A smaller child was restrained from behind by grabbing their wrists and locking their arms around the front of their chest, the staff member serving as a human straitjacket. A larger child required two people to conduct a supine restraint, starting at the shoulders and taking them down to a face-up hold in which each staff member held one arm and one leg. We never used mechanical restraints. Once initiated out of necessity, a restraint was ended as soon as safely possible, either through the client’s de-escalation or transition to the quiet room, where they could vent their rage without the danger of harming others.

As a pacifist, I was never quite comfortable with these restraints, no matter their apparent necessity to the system. Despite their precautions and their purpose in keeping everyone safe, they still felt a bit too violent, a tad too violative. Yes, we initiated them only to prevent a client from hurting himself or another client, or if he posed a legitimate threat to a staff member. But the distinction between this and abuse was hard to parse for an angry young man. While holding his arms and legs, it was impossible not to feel like we were perpetuating the cycles of violence we were sworn to stop.

A good day involved no blowouts, escalations, or crises at all. A bad day involved a restraint or maybe even two. A great day involved convincing an escalating child to slow down, think it over, and eventually take a seat and follow directions.

I was legitimately scared much of the time that I worked at Sequoia. I was five foot eleven but only 125 pounds, sometimes lighter than our adolescents. The job was actively traumatic, awash in danger and the threat of violence. But the euphoria of using my words to convince a child who didn’t “care no more,” his fist already cocked behind his ear, to consider the consequences and choose a different path, was unmatched. I’d spent high school and college competing in persuasive speaking, compiling accomplishments as a champion debater. But that was mere sophistry in the face of something that mattered this much, where the stakes were this high. I was hooked.


§


Pine’s House Manager, our boss, was a former drill sergeant named Courtney, a mountain of a man who moved with studied authority and radiated cool. He had three modes: relaxed, exasperated, and don’t-make-me-count-to-three. He was a Lifer, the kind of guy who could stick it out in this line of work forever, who was never intimidated and never burnt out. Before Sequoia, he’d worked at juvie; before that, the Marines. He loved the clients and could get away with calling them “knuckleheads” to their faces. It was not only endearing but also made them truly believe that they could conquer their problems, that maybe they weren’t facing struggles any harder than the rich kids who shared their neighborhood.

Most days, he seemed not to understand why anyone thought the job could be difficult, taking both his size and the children’s admiration for granted. But he sincerely made an effort, preferring the therapeutic counseling of our agency to the harsh restrictions and roiling menace of juvenile hall. He tried to counsel his staff as well, striving for compassion when we cried in his office about getting punched, or being unable to connect with that one kid who seemed to hate us, or our struggle to form a cohesive team.

Our team on first-half comprised two men and two women, all in our early twenties. I was joined by Reggie, short and thin with a soft-spoken demeanor, plus Harriet and Maria, both tall and solid, loud, no-nonsense with the kids. As Courtney summarized our crew at one meeting, almost befuddled, “I was telling Zoe the other day, on first-half, it’s more that the women are the enforcers and the men are the nurturers.”

This observation was dispensed in a monthly supervision meeting, the two of us huddling around the small desk in his school office, a small segment of a creaky tin portable. He took notes in his meticulous, tiny handwriting, dwarfed by his enormous hand. Two pieces of advice from these meetings stand out when I look back:

  1. “They’re just kids, man. At the end of the day, they’re just scared little kids. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by them.”

  2. “Is that what you’re worried about? That for some reason, staffing ratios or whatever, too many kids in crisis, you won’t be able to keep everyone safe? Look, if that ever happens, here’s what you do. You take the kids who are doing well and lock yourselves in the basement and call beeper, talk to the manager-on-duty. Call 911 if you have to. You can always keep yourself safe if you need to.”

These thoughts did their job: they reassured me.


§


There was one kid who always tried to push my buttons. Alvin was one of the smallest and youngest boys, barely nine years old. He was short and round and often genuinely sweet, with big eyes frequently widened in wonder. He was almost never violent. He could be self-injurious, was prone to epic tantrums and endless fits of wailing, could lose control and writhe around in a kind of emotional seizure. From my first day at Pine, he decided he hated me.

He frequently mumbled about my hair, though he explained to Harriet that “I just don’t like his face” after a time-out for being rude to me. He glared at me, gesturing and flailing, whenever I gave him a direction. He refused to accept food from a plate that I had touched. “Could you pass me the ketchup?” he asked Reggie when he was nowhere near either Alvin or the ketchup. “I don’t want him to do it.” This went on for months.

One Sunday morning, Alvin was late for his shower, rolling around on the floor. It was more silly than problematic. I asked him twice to pick out his clothes for the day. He kicked his feet in the air.

“I’m off the hooooook!” he squealed.

I ducked my head into his room. “Alvin, you’re holding everyone up. Please get your things ready for your shower or you won’t be able to go on the outing.”

“I’m off the hook!” he repeated.

I looked at him with a mock sternness, sure to make eye contact. “Alvin, could you please get back on the hook?”

He blinked for a moment, incredulous. Then he burst out laughing. There was a moment where I could see him try to suppress his reaction, to hate me, but he was too amused. He went to his dresser, picked out underwear, socks, pants, a shirt. By the time he was at the door, his glower was back. “Exit,” he frowned.

“Go ahead, Alvin.”

He stomped from the doorframe of his room to the doorframe of the bathroom. “Enter.”

I handed him his hygiene kit, a blue plastic tub the size of a bread loaf. “Go on in, Alvin.”

Just before he closed the door, he smiled briefly. “I’m back on the hook.”

Over the next few weeks, the cloud between us lifted. We frequently revisited this joke for the next year and a half, until he moved out.


§


A boy named Paul moved into the house. He was scrawny, malnourished, flighty, scared of everything. His voice was high-pitched; he was a young ten. He was polite and friendly during the day, wanted to play with the other kids, followed directions.

At night, it began.

He refused to go to bed. He ran around his bedroom, howling like a wounded cat. He pounded on the walls, sent papers flying. He flung out the dresser drawers that sat under his bed, throwing clothes in every direction. He crawled under the bed, screaming.

He was in one of the two doubles because the singles were reserved for boys who’d committed sexual assault. His roommate asked to get out of bed and go downstairs until the situation was resolved. We allowed it. The four bedrooms were all on the top floor, and the kids all complained. One of them yelled at him to shut up. We asked him to take a time-out for talking after lights-out but explained that we understood and asked him to be patient.

“Do we need to restrain him?” Maria muttered to me in Paul’s doorway on one of Paul’s first nights. “Things can’t go on like this or the whole house is going to blowout.”

“Give me a shot first,” I intoned quietly. Then I addressed the far corner under the bed. “Paul?”

“Go away. There’s nobody here.” “Paul. I know you’re scared.”

“I’m not scared!” He said it in a primal shriek, threatening to shatter the windows. “Just go away.”

“Paul, I’m not going away. But you have to come out from under the bed.”

“I’m not going to sleep. I’m never ever gonna sleep again!”

“It’s okay, Paul. I’m not going to make you sleep. Just come out from there.”

“No!” The sound of pounding, kicking, thudding of limbs against plaster.

“Paul. You’re keeping everyone up. How about we go downstairs and take a seat and talk about this calmly.”

“You’ll make me go to bed!”

“I won’t, Paul.”

“Promise?”

“I promise you don’t have to go to bed right now. We can go downstairs and talk and have a seat.”

A tentative hand emerged from the scattered mess of clothes under the bed.

Downstairs, I praised him for following directions, for making a good decision, for deciding to be safe. When he was calm and following directions fully, I asked him if he knew the consequence for a major disruption. He shot me a look of pure terror. I said it’s R&R (resolution and re-entry), sixty minutes of quiet sitting to be followed by processing the incident with staff and writing apology letters to those affected. He leaned his head back in his plastic chair. “An hour? Can I draw or color?”

“No, Paul, I’m sorry.” “Can you tell me how long I have every five minutes?”

This was bending the rules, but I nodded. The kid liked space, and I drew him little pictures on scraps of paper, a rocket ship around a 55, planets behind a 50, a flying saucer careening toward a 45. He smiled and held these pictures in a tight grip as he stared at them till the next one was ready. By 5, he was mercifully exhausted, barely able to make eye contact under falling lids. I assured him he could write his apology letters in the morning.

I didn’t have to wait for his six-month treatment review to learn why Paul was afraid of going to bed. I already knew.


§


A boy named Ezekiel moved into the house. He was our oldest yet. Almost fourteen, he was technically too old, but they wanted to keep him out of the locked facility for high-school-aged clients our agency ran in Concord. That was a more traditional institution: long hallways, sleeping quarters that looked like quiet rooms, closer to prison than a neighborhood. It was harder to transition out of Concord. Courtney, our boss, was hoping Ezekiel still had time.

Ezekiel was likable, a cool guy, thin and wiry, quick to crack jokes, wanted to get along. He continually twisted strands of his short hair with his lanky arms, casting long, sidelong stares from his narrow eyes. He loved the Philadelphia Eagles, who were good that year, talked to me about Fantasy Football and whether Donovan McNabb could take them to the playoffs. He handled his business, acted like group homes were a game he’d figured out long ago, quickly rose to a high level and stayed there.

But he wasn’t reliable in a crisis. While most of the residents were quick to comply with staff directions when another was blowing out, he seemed drawn to the chaos. His laugh was infectious and insatiable, but came across as taunting to a raging boy, for whom nothing could be funny. He took his time clearing out of rooms, talked back to queries of “Why you laughing?” or “What’re you looking at?”

His role in the house was gasoline. When everything ran smoothly, he kept everyone else going. But when there was a fire. . .


§


An incomplete list of behaviors I saw boys engage in while holding the door to the quiet room shut:

  1. Urinating.

  2. Defecating.

  3. Stripping naked.

  4. Masturbating.

  5. Biting themselves, usually in the arm. (2)

  6. Attacking the door by:

  7. Kicking it.

  8. Pounding on it.

  9. Taking a running leap at it and throwing all of their weight against it.

  10. Scratching at the window with their fingernail, a coin, or other objects.

  11. Banging their head into it. (2)

  12. Smearing their feces across the walls or door, sometimes writing with it.

  13. Eating their feces. (2)

  14. Tying clothes around their neck. (2)

  15. Screaming obscenities, threats, and/or graphic descriptions of violence or sex.

  16. Talking to themselves, often telling a story about a life where they lived somewhere else.

  17. Hyperventilating.

  18. Crying.


§


Reggie and I took Alvin, Chris, and Ezekiel to the park for an outing. It was a sunny spring Sunday, and we played tag around a plastic playground structure, kicking up woodchips and laughing, short of breath. It was early, just after breakfast, and the park was devoid of other children, almost empty. Two older men, mid-forties perhaps, strolled into the periphery. As they ambled aimlessly across the lawn, the boys stiffened, stopped playing, grew watchful. I turned, and the men approached.

“Group home, huh?” one man sized us up. We were a motley blend of shapes and colors, unlikely to be a real family. The boys were paralyzed, mortified. I barely nodded. “I grew up in a group home for a while,” he explained.

He scratched his balding head, looked up toward the glinting sun before turning to the boys. “Let me tell you something, boys.” They stood immobilized and impassive, rabbits ready to bolt. “I grew up just like you did. I remember how angry I was. I was convinced they”—he gestured vaguely in my direction—“hated me. So I hated them. But I wish I had known. They’re on your side. They really are trying to do what’s best for you.”

Chris looked down, shrugged, seemed to wonder if he could burrow underneath the splintery fragments of cedar. “It’s true,” the man continued, then turned to me, acknowledged Reggie. “Thank you,” he said quietly. “I couldn’t say it then, and they can’t say it now, but thank you.”

The men wandered off. No one spoke. Reggie hastily suggested we break for snack. No one said a syllable about what the man said. That night, Chris hit Harriet and ended up in the quiet room.


§


Weeks later, we arrived at an all-staff meeting to an uncharacteristically somber mood. The tone was usually upbeat, even raucous, but a pall of whispers and a shortage of eye contact pervaded that morning’s gathering. Two minutes past time, Zoe stood shakily. “We’re going to skip shoutouts today,” she said, her voice soft but in command. “We have some very bad news to share with you.”

The therapist for the school’s older students had jumped off the Bay Bridge the night before.

I didn’t know her, but I remembered seeing her gleeful smile across the campus a handful of times when I went to collect our kids. I felt a pang of horror, of kinship. I reeled, drawing inward to a bevy of dark thoughts, recalling all the times this work had driven me to the brink.

“We will never know what prompted her to do this,” Zoe said as I resurfaced. “I want our focus to be on taking care of our students and taking care of each other. As hard as it is for us to hear, it’s going to be almost impossible for our students. She counseled suicidal students especially. They may want to give up when they hear that she did. You may want to give up now. It is vital that we keep fighting, for our students and ourselves.”


§

On a day when I wasn’t working, Jonathan argued with staff about a direction,, refused to take a time-out, and then punched a window in his room. The glass yielded in a tight circle, chunks of it lodging in the back of his hand. At the weekly house meeting debriefing the incident, the consensus was that staff had waited too long to call 911. There was blood and screaming and trauma, and the EMTs who eventually arrived were unprepared to deal with a still surprisingly noncompliant child, given his injuries.

As his hand healed into a fractious scar, he brandished it in times of high tension. With staff, with peers, with his own anger. Look what I can do, it said, blood racing to the knotted rise of traumatized flesh. I don’t care.

Six weeks later, Chris began refusing my directions, pacing his room like a wounded animal in lieu of taking a seat. When I redirected his time-out downstairs to the garage, he flung a fist into his window. It shattered, slices of fragmented glass cascading on the cement walkway below. Reggie and Harriet bounded up the stairs, not waiting to be called. Chris sobbed through his attempts to brush off the pain. I grabbed the house phone and called 911.

The EMTs came more quickly than before but were soon dismissed without taking Chris. He had more of a scratch than the insidious wound of his peer. The thrust of his punch distributed its force across the window, while Jonathan’s had localized it at the epicenter of where his fist met the glass. Chris’s looked and sounded more dramatic, but Jonathan’s had done more damage.

In the weekly staff meeting, I was admonished for calling 911. “There was hardly any blood,” Courtney noted. “He just wanted to be like Jonathan. But he didn’t hurt himself nearly as bad.”

For weeks, we waited for the next copycat fist to defenestrate bedroom glass. The virality of an idea, a new level of misbehavior, tended to capture young imaginations, take hold, and bloom. We considered replacing all the glass with plastic, a measure once suggested and disregarded as too extreme. We held our breath with every time-out direction, watched boys glance at windows, watched as they saw a tree outside, their warped reflection, the sheen of vulnerability. They all remained intact. We exhaled each time.


§

Maria missed work. One day, two days. No one thought she was sick, but a rumor circulated among the staff about a hospitalization. At the weekly house meeting, we were told she’d be gone awhile. She showed up a week later, wan and weary but physically whole. After work that night, she asked if I wanted to go for a drive.

She told me she’d tried to kill herself. She didn’t think it was serious, that it wasn’t a real attempt, but she’d needed some time off to catch her breath. I tried not to roll my eyes, considering how often attempt survivors downplayed their efforts. We pretend that if we made it, we didn’t mean it.

Now she was in group therapy, intensive, a few times a week, and she tried to help her peers. “It’s funny,” she said, her voice flat. “My therapist is always telling me I’m not the expert. That just because of my profession, I don’t know how to deal with anyone else’s problems any better than they do.”

“Do you think that’s true?” I inquired.

“Not really. I mean, maybe. The thing I keep thinking, really, is what do I tell these kids? They’ve got way more problems than I do, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing with my life.”

“Yeah,” I concurred, thinking about me.


§


There were hours, days, almost weeks, that the kids were just kids. We watched SpongeBob sprawled on couches around the living room, the older kids groaning at the selection but laughing harder than anyone. We made the morning pancakes into special shapes, pajama-clad boys grinning and chatting about their plans for the day. We bought them Christmas gifts and held birthday parties, ran the weekly store activity where they bought toys and games with bonus points they’d earned by ignoring a crisis. They complimented each other and asked us for hugs and yawned while one of us read Harry Potter just before bedtime.

It is easy to forget the normalcy in a life punctuated by trauma. But it is critical not to forget, if we are to survive.


§


On a day when I wasn’t working, there was an incident. It involved some sort of sexual contact between Chris and Alvin. They were left alone to play in Alvin’s room while the staff supervising them typed up mental health notes on the computer just outside the door. They were functionally unsupervised, a few minutes at most, and both of them later reported the contact to staff. Chris was the perpetrator, Alvin was the victim, though as one of our only boys to not be violated before, he didn’t really understand. Alvin was soon fast-tracked to leave the group home, the state determining that we had failed to keep him safe. He began leaving for long home visits with a local distant relative. They seemed unprepared to deal with his behavior but were doing the best they could.

Watching first Chris and then the neglectful staff member wrestle with their guilt felt like being stuck in a memory. As I typed mental health notes that week, I thought how satisfying it was to correct a mistake on the computer. Edit, undo. Edit, undo.

Life has no such function.


§


It is a late spring day, particularly warm, the promise of summer whispering in the ominous east wind. A Monday, the hardest day at school for the kids, the long stretch of structured time and tedious study unfurling before them like an eternal purgatory, sapping all motivation. Just after we clock in at 3:00, before we even head to the after-school program, Courtney stops us with a warning. “Jonathan’s already in the quiet room, and it sounds like Alejandro is on his way there,” he says gravely. “It’s going to be a long one.”

My stomach churns as I help kids construct papier-mâché crafts, dish out time-outs, allocate graham crackers and juice. When it comes time to collect our house and assemble them for the van ride home, only two of the six are in space.

“Where is everybody?” asks Ezekiel impatiently. “I want to go home.” He and Chris lurk with their hands on their hips as I await word from our other staff.

Courtney lopes up from a nearby classroom, the house therapist in tow. “Everyone’s blowing out today. We’re going to hang back with the van and try to sort all this out. You take these two home in your car and start quiet time.”

Our state-mandated kid-to-staff ratio is indeed 2:1, but it’s usually presumed that no staff is ever alone with two kids for an extended period. I don’t love the restless energy the two teenagers are radiating, but I don’t relish hanging around the school as our other four transition out of quiet rooms either. We trudge up the hill to the parking lot, pile into my white Saturn, start heading for home. Ezekiel sits beside me, Chris in the back.

As soon as we reach the freeway, Chris unbuckles his seat belt and begins gyrating across the back bench. As I direct him to re-buckle and calm his body, he starts yelling. “Yeah? What are you going to do about it? You’re not the boss of me!”

Panic, almost audible, rumbles through my gut. My heart quickens. I glance at the traffic, the thirteen-year-old staring defiantly into my rearview mirror. “Chris,” I swallow, begging my voice to stay calm. “Please take a time-out looking out the window for thirty seconds.”

“What if I don’t wanna?” he asks rhetorically. “Maybe I’ll just get up outta this car.”

The car has manual locks, not automatic. His threat is legitimate. I slow to a crawl in the slow lane, consider taking an early exit and snaking through the neighborhoods. I also consider turning around for the school, but I want to minimize the time we’re in the car and we’re much closer to Pine.

Ezekiel is trying not to laugh as Chris’s verbal taunting escalates. Trying, but often failing. With each sign of mirth, Chris is encouraged, re-escalates, pushes the envelope. Soon he is calling me a bitch, a word we consider a level-drop swear. He is flagrantly disregarding my directions, which I patiently repeat periodically, per our protocol. I watch him more than the road, sensing he poses a greater threat.

When we wind through the Oakland hills to reach the high, remote gravel parking area behind Pine House, Chris immediately bolts from the car. Ezekiel looks at me blankly, inquiring, genuinely unsure what I’m going to do next. I try to make some quick calculations. I have maybe twenty pounds on Chris and a few inches of height. Legally, I am not supposed to restrain him solo. Physically, I doubt I could manage it anyway. What Ezekiel would do with no other staff around is a wild card.

I lead Ezekiel into the house through the front door, ask him to take a seat, start his quiet time on the living room couch. I lock the door behind me, leaving Chris outside. He is running through the yard, yelling and cursing. Like we’re playing tag, but for keeps. In two minutes, he comes up to the front door and bangs on it repeatedly. “Open the damn door,” he bellows.

“Chris,” I say, slowly, to reduce the shake permeating my voice. “I need you to calm down first before I let you in.”

“I’m fucking calm!”

“Chris.”

“Ezekiel, let me in this door. C’mon, Ezekiel, we can take this bitch.”

I swivel my eyes to Ezekiel on the couch, catching his iron stare just before he looks away. I consider my options, knowing I should have called the manager on the beeper two minutes ago. I don’t want Ezekiel to overhear me admitting things are out of control. Chris pounds on the door again and then sprints around to the back doors, battering them. They are made of wood beset with thick panes of glass.

“I might have to do it,” Ezekiel says, deadly placid. “I might have to get up and let him in the house.”

“Ezekiel?”

“I’m just trying to tell you, man.” A grin is now peeking through Ezekiel’s impassive features. “I think I have to let him in.”

“Ezekiel, you don’t have to do this.” I am clutching the phone, halfway through dialing beeper, my eyes darting between Chris’s balled fist on the door glass and Ezekiel’s body beginning to lift off the couch.

“I’m sorry, man. I think I do.”

Before he’s out of the living room, even halfway to the back door, I am through the basement door, locking it behind me. I finish dialing beeper. I hang up and dial 911.


§


The sound of the breaking glass is Chris throwing a rock through my Saturn’s windshield. Shortly thereafter, he puts another through the back windshield. Then they take off. Not knowing any of this, only hearing shattering and footfalls, I stay in the basement, shaking, ashamed, paralyzed, for half an hour.

A floater dispatched by the on-call manager shows up first, wary and calling the names of Chris, Ezekiel, me. Eventually I crack the basement door when he identifies himself, solid and sturdy and reassuring. “Bill,” I whisper. “Thanks for coming.”

His tone shifts from curiosity to alarm when he sees me emerge, no kids in sight. “Where are Chris and Ezekiel?”

“Don’t know. They aren’t out there?”

“No. They got your car windows pretty bad though.”

“Oh?”

“You didn’t know?”

“I,” I begin impotently, then start to weep.

I finish my shift in a daze, waiting for kids to trickle back from the school with staff, everyone bleary and tired. Courtney informs the staff before they return so I am spared the embarrassment of explaining again. He takes the van to look for the missing boys while their peers ask us, “Where’s Chris? Where’s Ezekiel? Are they okay?”

“Shhh,” Maria replies. “Don’t worry about them now. Focus on yourself.” She turns to me. “You probably should get started on your incident report,” she advises, trying not to sound disappointed. “I’ve got everything up here.” For the second time that day, I lock myself in the basement.

The police roll through some hours later. Maria doesn’t get me, gives them a brief statement, says everything is under control, thanks them for coming. They take a description of our missing kids, the ones I let get away, and depart.

Courtney finds Chris and Ezekiel later that night. They are walking in one of Oakland’s most dangerous neighborhoods, dragging a bag full of clothes and sweet snacks they raided from the pantry on their way out. They are starting to get scared but are otherwise unharmed.


§


It proved to be my last day at Pine House. I didn’t quit for three weeks, attending weekly meetings and trying to convince myself I had a future as a counselor. But every time I imagined giving a direction to Chris or Ezekiel, everything froze. How could I maintain the veneer of authority after abdicating it so spectacularly? How could I be sure they wouldn’t eternally be looking for an opportunity to finish the job?

I decided to return to clerical work.

All told, I spent twenty-two months working at Sequoia. More than the average staff, but less than any house manager. Fifteen years later, I still have frequent nightmares about working there. Most often, they involve me returning to my job after a short time away. Sometimes at Pine, sometimes at another house. Sometimes with the same kids, sometimes with new ones.

In the dreams, I always wrestle with the same conundrum: This work is so important, why did I ever leave? But it’s so dangerous, how could I ever come back?

I wake up sad.


§


Five years after my last day, shortly before I moved out of the Bay Area, I was on a BART train car, enjoying my evening commute home from my work as a nonprofit administrator in San Francisco. At Downtown Berkeley, I bookmarked my novel, threw it in my backpack, stood up, and trundled off the train. On the platform, I heard a loud voice squeal my name, looked up, and was tackle-hugged by a boy of fifteen.

It took me a while to process his older visage, the passage of time, the asynchronous context of it all. “. . . Alvin?”

“How are you?” he asked sincerely. “It’s been so long!”

“I’m.” I blinked. “I’m good, I’m good. How are you?”

“Good.” A deck of young teens formed an awkward semicircle behind him. “These are my friends,” he explained, making no effort to explain me to them. I gave a muted half-wave, which they ignored. “I miss you so much! And Maria. And all them! Do you ever see them?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. Though almost everyone had left Sequoia a few months before or after I did, we didn’t hang out. The idea of calling Maria felt a little like going back to work, like carving up a wound that was starting to scar. “I miss them too. And you. Are you really okay?”

“I’m great!” he smiled broadly. “Back at home, going to school, have these friends. I’m really really really good.”

“That’s so great to hear,” I beamed. “You have no idea.”

“Well, I’ve gotta go,” he said, tilting his head slightly at his restless cohort. “But I’m so glad I saw you.” He stretched for another quick hug, turned on a heel, and ambled up the stairs after his friends. I waited till he had left the station, up the tall escalator through the high arch of steel and glass, before I broke down.


 

(1) Like all other names in this piece, this name has been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. [Back to essay]

(2) These behaviors may necessitate re-entering the quiet room to restrain the child to prevent them from hurting themselves. Restraint requires at least two staff. If the client is naked below the waist, additional staff is necessary as a witness. Warning the client of a possible need to restrain may either stop or escalate the behavior, depending on the child’s motivation. [Back to essay]


 

STOREY CLAYTON recently received an MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His nonfiction has appeared in more than twenty literary journals, including upstreet, Pleiades, Lunch Ticket, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Blue Earth Review. Learn more at storeyclayton.com.