The Child Whisperers

When I was a teenager, my puppy (about 8 months old) got hit by a car. Instinctively, I reached out to pet and comfort him and he bit me! In his pain and confusion, he was not able to respond appropriately.  Now imagine a whole pack of injured pups (sharp teeth included) and you have the setting for my job. 

The staff is here because they want to help, but too often the kids respond to that with vitriol. It is understandable. Imagine being a child: you are young and vunerable and you depend on the adults in your life to nuture and protect you. When those same people abuse you, how do you ever learn to trust authority figures again? What messages do you receive about how to treat the people you care about?

I have been thinking about what I have shared with you in the past about my job. It occured to me that since I have only told you about Planned Ignoring and physical restraints, I may have given you a very lopsided view of what I do. First, I do work with foster kids, but my job is not a good “sampling” of what foster children are like. The kids I work with are usually in the group home because they have behavior issues. Behaviors which make them unable to be placed in foster homes. Our job is to work with them (along with a licensed therapist) to help them develop the skills that will enable them to be placed in foster homes. So if you have been considering foster care, please don’t let my stories from my job scare you away.  Second, we do a lot more than planned ignoring and restraints.

When I first started this job, my previous experience had been with teenagers working in juvenile detention, so I thought I knew what to expect. That assumption was quickly smashed. In detention, the kids are “locked down”. Locked doors, and very high fences mean that when we give the kids a consequence, it sticks. Working in a group home though, the doors only lock from the outside. The State says that we must allow the teenagers to run (I mean leave without permission, not go jogging). This means, in part, that whatever consequences I give a teenager boy, he can avoid them (at least temporarily) by running. Of course, they get consequences for running as well, but for some this just begins a viscious cycle. They act out, get consequences, run, get more consequences, run again. . .  The younger children are “run stops”, which means if they try to run we have to do everything in our power to stop them…even if that means restraining them in public.  I heard about a time when that happened, and unfortunately the staff had to restrain the child near a busy street.  People were driving by staring at this…you can imagine how it must have looked 3 adults holding a kid on the ground in a “T-hold”.  Some of them shouted, “I’m going to call the police!”

“Please do,” was the staff response.  The police are very familiar with our facility and what we do.  They visit us frequently enough.

Unfortunately, we also have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and so some interventions that may seem logical we are not able to use.  For example, in the past when a teenager returned from a run (remember I mean leaving without permission) we would take their shoes to prevent them from leaving again.  Then the government folks said we can’t take their shoes because it is depriving them of proper clothing.  Huh?  We are trying to keep them safe!  Another remedy that was tried in the past was to take all their clothing while they were gone.  When they return they are given a shirt that says “Runaway, Call 911.”  Seems like a great plan doesn’t it?  But the powers that be said no that is invading their privacy.  They have a right not to let people know they live in a group home.   So you see, the methods that may be intuitive and even brilliant in another setting are not always options for us.  We do the best we can with the tools we are allowed to use.

We do actually have several “treatment tools” that we try to use to help the kids before they become escalated and either try to run or become violent.  I’ve told you previously about Planned Ignoring.  Here are some others:

One is Proximity. Sometimes just being close by will prevent a problem or end one. When the kids are not in bed (where they should be on my shift), I will often go and stand next to them. . .proximity. Depending on their mood, this may elicit some rude remarks. These I ignore. Eventually, they tire of trying to get a reaction out of me, and go back to their own conversation. However, it is uncomfortable evidently to try to talk in front of staff. So the conversation dies and they go to bed. Not always, but often enough.  Space is another one. Simply letting them have some time alone to calm down. Sometimes staff needs to “take space” as well. Prompting, Redirecting, Directing are all similar and what they appear to be.Then we come to acronym land. We use “I-ASSIST” when we are trying to help them not become escalated, and if that doesn’t work we use “I-ESCAPE” to help them learn from the experience. We teach them skills to deal with stress like “DEARMAN”, “PLEASE Mastery”, “GIVE” and others.

Mostly we use relationships.  It is very helpful if you have been able to develop a bit of a relationship with a child.  They are more likely to listen if some level of trust has been established.  Often this is the best tool we have.  However, you can’t depend on it.  It is a difficult lesson for new staff to learn when a child they thought they had a relationship with turns on them, but remember the puppy analogy.  Our kids come from backgrounds where they were hurt by the people that were supposed to love them and take care of them.  Sometimes cruelty is all they seem to know. 

Humor can be really helpful.  If you can make someone laugh, how can they be angry with you?  It really is one of my favorite tools to help calm things.  Once we had 3-4 teenage boys awake and out of their rooms (remember overnight shift…they are supposed to be in bed).  We had two staff, myself and my partner, a tough but very petite woman.  So I looked at the boys ( all of them larger in stature than my partner) and said, “Okay, I’m going to give you a five count and then we are going to put hands on and take you to the De-escalation room.”  I said this because it was something I had heard staff say on another shift (when they actually had enought staff to do it) and because it was utterly ridiculous, it might bring a laugh.  I started counting…but I couldn’t finish without laughing.  The boys looked at me like I had lost my mind.  They laughed, and the tension in the air was eased a bit.  As I recall, they still didn’t go to bed though. 

I have even resorted to what I call “Music Torture” on many occasions.  Sometimes it works, mostly it makes them laugh and we are back to humor.  Depending on my mood, I will either put something on the radio or start signing.  I choose the twangy-ist country songs I can think of, like “…there’s a tear in my beer cause I’m crying for you dear..” or sometimes I sing show tunes for them. “I am I Don Quixiote” is my favorite. Tonight I put on my new beloved Bluegrass Acappella…I love it, but I figured the teens would hate it.  Crazy thing is, I think they liked it!  I switched to a country station.

The tool that works one day with a child or teen may not work on another day, so we try to be flexible.  Some of our kids do well and move on to Foster Homes…that is the goal.  Some well, they don’t do well and they get moved.  Sometimes to other group homes, some with better security measures to prevent “running”.  We have had a few get moved to pyschiatric facilities. 

Day after day, we keep trying to undo the damage that has been done to these youth. Child Whispering.


  1. It is so interesting to hear your perspective on issues that plague our society and for which we have not been able to come up with great solutions. Lots of bandaids, it seems, but no real solutions. I have come to the conclusion at this point in my life that not everything can be fixed. Some things broken remain broken.If my dear boys found themselves in this situation I would pray that you would be assigned to them. I have a feeling you would do better than I.Much love, a.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s