Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Residential Group Home Counselor

I graduated USC in 1988 with a BA in Psychology and spent the summer in the USC apartments on Figueroa paying $125.00/month since nothing was in session, and was looking for work.  I remember having a hard time of it.  Because I didn’t get a job directly after graduation, mother told me that I must just not want a job.  It was the kind of pressure I didn’t need just then.  I wanted to find a job I would enjoy and/or benefit from in some way; not just a menial one to make a little money in order to call myself a “working man.”

As the summer wound down, I moved into an apartment in West LA near Bundy and Wilshire in order to get closer to the ocean.  At just about the time that I got a job at a residential group home in the farthest reaches of Woodland Hills.  They now call it West Hills.  It was West of Fallbrook and just South Victory Blvd; about a 30-minute drive from West LA on a good day…make that middle of the night.

My role was Residential Group Home Counselor, and my job was to manage and assess, along with other workers, six kids who had a spectrum of troubles ranging from biochemical disorders such as Schizophrenia to attention deficit disorder.  Some of these kids’ parents were quite the pieces of work.  One of the mothers, whose son had severe mental disorders, literally could not speak to staff members, or anyone for that matter.  She had such problems of her own, that she had failed in any way to provide for her child.  The father was out of the picture long ago.

Another parent of a 14 year-old hyperactive child would do nothing but belittle his boy right in front of the staff.  We called ourselves “staff” in pretty much everything we wrote or discussed.  Then there was a good-looking brother and sister, aged 15 and 16, who were in two of our group homes.  The boy seemed pretty ordinary, and I suspected that out of convenience, he was placed into our home since his sister had to be in the group home system.

The sister was hypersexual, and the mother couldn’t deal with her.  Again, no father.  This girl, who was at another group home, was caught on many occasions having sex with neighboring boys in the yard of that group home.  The program manager for that group home finally put a plan into place to make sure she was never left alone.

Of all of the jobs I could have had just out of high school, this was definitely a doozie; something much different than those jobs my friends had.  But there was a reason for it.  My thought had been that since I knew a fair amount about psychology and had obviously applied myself to it’s study for the past few years in school, that I would later get my Ph.D. or Psy.D (a new alternative doctorate degree that had arisen) and then start a private practice in West LA.  Numerous professors at USC told me that before one goes on to apply for graduate school, it would be a good idea to get some field experience.  Graduate schools would look favorably on this, and one would also get a clearer sense of the direction of study desired, or maybe one would want to get out of it altogether.
Getting some work experience sounded like a good plan to me.

The year was 1988, and the six kids I was in charge of ranged from about 13-16 years of age.  The first few mornings I was there, I learned the U2 album, “War,” front to back since the kids were playing it each morning without exception.

I have to stop here and make a point that even though working at a group home was part of my overall plan; I didn’t want to be there.  Not at all.  I had to be there very early in the morning, I didn’t especially want to be around upset, loud, unruly kids, and I absolutely hated being stuck out in the boonies of the West San Fernando Valley.  Those mornings were cold, foggy, frosty, and the house had a mildew smell that permeated it through and through.  The neighborhood was very nice, upper middle class, clean, safe.  But nothing was going on out there beyond Fallbrook.  It was dead; probably a place where old people moved to and retired.

So even to this day, my association with any song from the “War” album of U2 is that of a lonely, outcast, forgotten feeling; strange how that works.

The house at the time was a pale blue home with white trimming.  It was one level, long from side to side on a corner lot.  The inside was architected so that upon entering, you were in the living room.  To the right were three bedrooms where two kid pairs each would live.  To the left of the living room was a dining area, still part of the same space as the living room.  Then to the left of that was a separate kitchen, then an added on family room and bedroom beyond that.  There was also a pool table in the garage.  The back yard was medium sized and had nothing in it but grass.

The shifts at this home worked like this.  There was one overnight person on staff any given day.  His or her shift went from 7am on the first day (say Monday), until 10am the next day (Tuesday).  Then, there was another person still there that first day that was getting off from the overnight shift the day before (Sunday in this case).  That second person would be there to help wake the kids and get them ready (Monday) and would leave at 10am.  (We’re almost done).  When the previous overnight person left at 10am, the Monday overnight person was joined by a day person who started at 3pm Monday and would leave at 10pm Monday.

Each of us would wear either of these hats several times throughout a given week.  Doing an overnight was a lot of work.  It was 27 hours in or around the group home.  This added to my feeling of desolation.  It meant that for a day, I wouldn’t be anywhere near my own home, the bookstores I liked, the areas I wanted to run in, etc, which, to use clinical terminology, “sucked.”

In the morning, our job was to get the kids up, dressed, fed and ready for the driver who would take them to school.  They almost always dragged their feet each step of the way.  One of them couldn’t find the clothes they wanted while another claimed they didn’t feel well, but seemed to get into an argument with another kid with the full energy and vivacity of an American Gladiator.  Once they were out the door, the first mission of the day was accomplished.

Then, there were chores that needed doing; cleaning the house, shopping for food, planning upcoming meals, doing the assessments.  The assessments consisted of a notebook for each child.  They had medical information, contact info, therapist info, and most importantly for our role, daily assessments.  We had to write how the child was behaving, reacting to directives, and if they were responding to whatever positive behavior modification was in place at that group home.  I should tell you that I worked at a total of two group homes and two psychiatric hospitals, so that’s why their methods differed slightly.  It still surprises me that, as a young counselor, with no formal medical or nursing training, I was in charge of dispensing and administering medication to children.

Some of the variables we looked for, and now I’m really reaching into the back of my memory chip, were “affect,” “ability to take directives,” “sociability,” “general mood,” and a few others.  We were expected to write a good half-page to a page by the end of each shift on each child about how they behaved and what their demeanor was like that day.  That may not sound like much, but for six kids, two times per day, seeing them almost every day of the week, you start to run out of observations.  But indeed, either the program supervisor, or the psychiatrist on staff would routinely look at these productions of our job, so we had to be accurate.

There was one overnight I did, and anyone who remembers recent LA history will remember this night.  It was in the winter of 1988 heading into 1989.  The kids went to sleep as did I, and a strange weather event occurred in which extremely cold air made it’s way through Oxnard and Camarillo into the West San Fernando Valley and into the Santa Clarita Valley (which wasn’t as populated at the time).  We then got precipitation.  At about 3:00am, I heard a knock on the door of our group home.  I opened it up, and there was a motorcycle police officer.  Groggy as I was, I asked him what was wrong, he said that he noticed that the white pick up truck of my work-partner, Craig, had it’s breaks frozen and the tail lights were stuck on.

No sooner than he said this to me, than I realized at this dark hour that all of the ground and background behind him was covered in about an inch of white snow.  I have always believed that the officer wanted people to see what he was seeing, and the brake light situation gave him a chance to show someone what was happening outside.  It was incredible.  The kids awoke in the morning, got ready for school and played around in the snow in the back yard.

It was always surprising to me how much food and supplies one house ended up needing a couple of times per week.  $200-$300 dollars of food (and this was back in 1988), house supplies, and activity supplies.  We drove either a big white van, or a station wagon; a good old powder blue Crown Victoria with wood-sticker paneling on it’s sides.  So we could stuff a lot into our shopping and shuttling.
Our days between 10am and 3pm, the time that the kids arrived back home, or I went and got them, we also had to plan the evening’s activities.  The center felt that having structured activities every night would be more stimulating that just letting them play video games all night long.  So when they did arrive back home from school, the kids spent a half hour in their rooms for quiet time, which gave the staff members time to acclimate to the full house again and get a sense of what might have gone on in school that day.

We then implemented whatever activity we had planned for them.  Unless the weather was bad, we normally went somewhere; to a mall, an arcade, or sometimes even a movie.  Other times, we would all play a game for an hour or so.  This was easier implemented with younger kids, and more difficult with adolescents who didn’t appreciate the “family” time for several reasons including the fact that most of them hated their families.

By the time these activities were over, we would all prep for dinner.  Each child had certain chores for the week; emptying trash containers, helping with dinner, setting the table, and cleaning common areas.  All of these, if done well, would earn them positive points that they could later cash in for things they wanted.  Dinners were usually semi-healthy meals such as spaghetti and….actually, I can’t remember anything of the other dishes we routinely made; I guess that wasn’t my forte.  But they were all simple enough for college graduates to cook.

The kids would get antsy just before dinner, so there was also a certain amount of keeping the kids occupied while we prepared dinner.  The first meal I prepared on my very first day for the kids was a memorable one.  The other staff member, who was seasoned and who I was counting on to show me the way at least through one full day, had to leave for an emergency just before dinner.  I ended up with all six kids dancing on top of the dinner table until I could get them settled down.  It was an absolute farce and wouldn’t even make it into a movie script.  Let me state that again; all six kids dancing on top of the dinner table I was about to serve food onto, and I had no idea how to control them.  I knew that from this moment on, things would never be worse or more out of control, so there was some comfort in it all for me, and I quickly learned to become authoritarian when needed and set boundaries with the kids.  It was a necessity to keep working.

There were two main partners that I had during my group home counseling career.  Both of them were a hoot.  The first partner I had was named Craig.  He was a short, dark haired, slightly pocked-faced guy who stuttered and was originally from Redondo Beach.  He had a really laid back attitude except when he needed to set boundaries with the kids.  Craig had been an insurance salesperson a few years back and had decided to leave that world which he hated, get his MFCC (Marriage, Family, Child Counselors), and become a counselor.  He was about eight years older than I, so I was able to model my work with the kids from him, which was helpful to me.  We had a great time and our friendship lasted a few years after I left that group home.

The second partner I had was named Mike.  He was at the second group home that I worked at.  Mike’s way of communicating was built on humor and since that’s generally how I interact, we got along famously.  He was about a year older than I and was a very handsome, Nordic blonde, well-built guy.  I say all of this because I was always a little envious about how all of the ladies were magnetized to him.

Some time during 1989, I moved from West LA down to an old beach resort turned Hud housing apartments called, “The Sea Castle.”  My mother had a friend who had moved to Frazier, Colorado and wanted to sub-lease the studio apartment so as to hang onto it since rent control was so strong in Santa Monica, and that little place was a gem.  I rented it for $480/month.  It had a full, ocean front 180 degree view from Venice, the Santa Monica Pier up to Point Dume on a clear day.  That was a good find.

Our group home kids loved video games.  When the original Super Mario Brothers was out on Playstation, Mike and I became experts in the game as a result of playing it so much after the kids were off to bed.  There were several occasions when we were playing, making comments to SuperMario when he’d land in the water and die such as, “Go swim with the fishes,” eating the kids’ pizza and laughing so hysterically that I couldn’t breath and was afraid I’d pass out.  This was definitely pressure-release from the day.  He was a good friend and fun partner to have, and unfortunately I lost contact with him after I moved to Manhattan Beach.

The hours were long and, as I said before, there were elements of the job that were very isolating; less so when I worked at a group home near Robertson and Pico.  But there was a feeling of really being trapped in the job in the sense that no matter what, one could not leave the kids.  In fact, I remember one staff meeting in which the program supervisor was trying to organize how each of us could get to the group home to check on the kids if we were at our own houses and there were a big earthquake or other disaster.  In my mind, I thought, “I’ll probably have a higher priority, such as getting to my own family, before trying to make my way to work.”  As much as I cared those kids, my responsibility only went so far.

I have also have a memory of New Years Eve.  It must have been 1989 and I was at the second group home near Robertson.  The kids in my group home were already asleep and the other staff member had gotten off shift. It was Midnight, and I stood in the back yard of the group home where I was able to hear all of the celebration in and around the city.  Fire crackers went off, cheers and partying.  And I was stuck in this back yard standing alone.  I remember feeling so left out and promised myself that I would not get a job again in which I would have to work holidays.  In all, I accepted two more jobs that required this.

The memories of the group homes are very potent though.  There were moments and situations with the kids that were so human, vulnerable, and funny; memories that were instantly stamped into my memory.  It was a time when I was still forming my identity and was still quite impressionable and not quite confident.  And though I now see it as a step in the wrong occupational direction, something I kind of knew at the time but didn’t yet know to listen to in myself, I think that the memories of the kids and the situations will remain some of the strongest I will ever have.

It’s because the memories are so ingrained in the relationships I had with all of those people, and to some degree, I might have been helping them or making an impression on their thinking.  Part of the hazard of that type of work is that, since a counselor’s relationship with those he or she is helping is confidential, and so after it’s end it will remain confidential, I am left with eternally wondering whatever happened to the 20 or so kids from those group homes; those that rotated in and out after a few months, and those who remained a fixture of those institutions for the duration of my work there.  By now they are all grown and scattered to the wind.  I will always wonder.