Book Review – They Cage The Animals At Night

: The true story of an abandoned child’s struggle for emotional survival

By: Jennings Michael Burch

Disclaimer: This book review is my opinion of the book. If you have a different opinion of the book that is great. I know I have loved several movies and books that other reviewers have not liked and disliked movies and books that receive great reviews. I think we all have. If you would like to submit your own review, I may consider posting it. Otherwise feel free to share you reviews on the Forum. Thanks.

I can honestly tell you that this book was life changing for me.  I have been a houseparent for over ten years and before I read this book, I was seriously looking for the exit sign.  I was tired; I was frustrated and I was thinking there had to be an easier way to make a living. By the time I was halfway through the book, I didn’t want to put it down and realized there was no other thing I could possibly see myself doing besides caring for the children I care for.

The book is a true story about a child that suddenly finds himself in and out of orphanages, institutions, and fosters homes over about a four year period while his mother was in and out of hospitals battling physical and mental illness.  He has to deal with abandonment as well as a great amount of abuse at the hands of many of those charged with caring for him.  His resilience and strength, as well as the love and influence of a few key individuals, helps him to make it through the ordeal.

This all takes place during the early 1950’s, so the techniques and programs are very different from what you would find today and it makes me thankful I don’t do childcare in the BAD old days.  Reading this book will not give you any new techniques to help you be a better houseparent or childcare worker but it will help you to see the different kinds of people that work caring for children as houseparents and foster parents, and to recognize the kind of person you should want to be.  It did for me.  Though I am convinced that the level of abuse described in this book would never be tolerated today, I believe there are still many of the same kinds of people still doing the work.

The Bad

  • Sister Frances – is a gruff, rough and very direct type of worker.  She is very physical and expects good behavior for convenience (to make her job easier)  She seems to be one those “you have to break-em and then mold-em” kind of people.  She does care about children and at times, shows great compassion but does not appear to respect children.
  • Sister Barbara – appears to not like her work or the children.  She expects perfection from the children to make her job easier.  She rules with fear and is very abusive.
  • Mrs. Abbott – is even more despicable than Sister Barbara.  Not only does she hate her job, rule with fear and abuse children, she also degrades them in such a way that is more damaging than anything physical.

The Good

  • Sister Clair – appears to enjoy her work and working with children.  She is compassionate and respectful to the children.  She is concerned about the problems of the children and takes the time to explain the rules and expectations to the children and why they are needed.
  • Sister Ann Catherine – is much like Sister Clair but more affectionate.

He also lived with three very different sets of foster parents:

  • The Carpenter’s – are the type of foster parents that saw foster care as a business or job.  They are abusive to the children and had no concern for them.  They were only concerned with the money and were pretty good with faking it with social services.
  • The Frazier’s – are the type of foster parents that seemed generally concerned for children.  They felt good about helping a poor disadvantaged child and generally tried to meet his needs.  Though their house staff was very connected, they themselves did not seem to be very emotionally connected to Jennings.
  • The Daly’s – are the type of foster parents that are very concerned with the children.  They are concerned about their emotional as well as their physical needs.  The thing that stands out most about them is that they are willing to make a personal sacrifice to help a child they are caring for.

For those of you that don’t work caring for children, you should know that some of the greatest and most positive influences for Jennings were people he didn’t live with, like:  teachers, a bus driver, a night watchman, policemen, etc.  There were also those that didn’t have such a positive influence on him, like: teachers, social workers, policemen, etc.  You also need to know that things are very different in 2007 than they were in 1952.  We don’t put bars on the windows or barbed wire around the top of the fence to keep children in.  We don’t let one person supervise 30 kids, assign them numbers like prisoners, or make them live in dormitories with 30 or 40 other kids. 

I would recommend this book for any person that works in the foster care system, especially houseparents.  I also think it is a very good to read to get the perspective of a child that has been in the system.  Even though it is dated, I believe most of the children in care today experience many of the same feelings and fears that Jennings did over 50 years ago.  Feelings of loneliness, sorrow, fear, shame, abandonment, and depression are just as painful today as they were back then.  Finally, I also noticed that many of the people that had a positive influence on Jennings were never able to to see the results of their influence.  This is no different than how it is today.  When you are working with disadvantaged children and caring for other people’s children, you may never see the results of your labors.  Being able to see how it has worked for others should help you to keep doing it anyway.

The book is published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group, Inc., New York, NY.  Copyright 1984.  It is currently only available in paperback, but hardcover copies can be found used on Amazon and other places.  It is 293 pages long. 

Click here for more information about this book at Amazon.com

Question #16 – 4/5/2007 First time worker seeking advice.

 Mine is an unusual situation. I was raised in a children’s home from age 4. It was a state run facility. I still love the place and have served on the alumni association – doing things with the kids now and then.I have just accepted a residential mentor position at that same facility. I will initially work night shift – monitoring the children – doing bed checks, etc. Things are MUCH different today than when I was a resident. Houseparents lived with us back then. Now residential mentors are employed in shifts. When I was a resident, children called their houseparents and teachers Mr. or Miss or Mrs. Apparently, now the kids call their houseparents by their first name – not sure I agree with this. When I was a resident, we might have occasionally went to stay with a relative on the weekend, and we generally went away on the holidays for vacation. Now the kids seem to go away most weekends and the facility is more like a boarding school than a children’s home.

I have fond memories of two houseparents when growing up at the home. One was young, very much a tomboy and would take us outside and play sports with us. She was great fun, but was also quite firm and we knew not to cross her. We respected her. She was there many years and eventually became the girls dean.

The other houseparent that I remember well was an elderly, small lady that was soft-spoken and sweet. A grandmotherly type. She was kind and affectionate and we wanted to please her.

I cannot remember most of the others, probably because they were less involved with us. I understand that you can be involved or you can just go in and do your job. It’s up to you how much you want to do.

So, over the seven years that I lived at the home, two houseparents stood out in my memory for good reasons. There was also one houseparent that was quite cruel – but she was the exception to the rule – thank heavens!

I want to be a positive influence on these kids and this is why I am seeking your experienced advice. I do not have a sugary-coated idea of what the work will entail. I KNOW that I will be dealing with moods, manipulations and frustrations, etc. Kids are kids are kids – and these kids are no different – just acting out more because of more difficult circumstances. I just want to do what I can to make a difference in their life. I don’t have expectations of them – I just want to do FOR them.

Eventually, I want to work on the long weekend shift (3 long days on) 4 off. This may take several months as this particular schedule is generally offered to existing mentors. The newbies usually work nights – earning their stripes and easing into the understanding of the role of a residential mentor. It’s important so that I can still have the time to work on my farmhouse, garden, etc.

I’m a tough cookie, so I will ride out whatever difficult situations I encounter. I will not give up.

I’m seeking advice from folks that work on shifts at similar facilities.

1. How did you establish yourself as a houseparent on your first job? Some do’s and don’ts would be much appreciated!

Mike’s comments are in BLUE!!

I can honestly say I made a few mistakes the first time I was a houseparent. I received no training so I had to wing it.  I didn’t know what to do so I too often, let the children tell me how it was done.  The best thing you can do to establish yourself is make sure you receive training.  Get to know the facility, not only the rules but also the philosophies.  If you know the rules and philosophies it is much easier to establish yourself, just follow them.  Don’t let your desire to be friends with the children impair your judgment.  You want to have a good relationship with the children, but it is a lot better to have mutual respect than friendship.

Don’t ever accept, “This is how our old mentor/houseparent did this.”  My usual response is, “I am not your old houseparent.”

Always try to be fair and honest.  Most of the children you work with will be very good at lying, they are also very good at spotting somebody else that is doing it.

I could probably write a whole book just on this question, but I think you get the idea.  There is a bunch of other material elsewhere on this site that will give additional tips.  Read the Forum Archive and Houseparent Articles.

2. I was formerly a company director, so wore a lot of dresses – which is most comfortable for me – the only jeans I like are bibs – will this pose a problem with the other staff? Will they think I’m too dressy? I can’t afford new casual clothes at the moment.Wear what you have until you can get what you need.  However, you will want to do your best to try and fit in. 

You don’t need to have new casual clothing.  Some people think I’m cheap, but I buy more than half my clothes at thrift stores.  My wife gets many of hers also.  In my less financially secure days, it was the only way to get name brand clothing.

3. I was reading that you cannot hug a kid. How do you all show affection whilst obeying this policy? Advice please? What if a kid hugs you?

Most facilities don’t allow a frontal hug, however they will usually allow a side hug.  In our fist facility we called it the “Sonlight Hug”.  You stand side by side, put one arm to the other person’s opposite shoulder and squeeze.  I still use it today, especially on teen girls.

There are many ways to show affection without hugs, your speech and actions toward the children will speak volumes.  Building a good respectful relationship will go a very long way in showing affection.

If a kid hugs you: #1- follow the policy of your facility.  If no contact is allowed, you have to do what you have to do.  If some contact is allowed and you can use a side hug, move to that position, or place your hands on their shoulders, or hold hands.  Sometimes only a little contact is all that is needed.

Best wishes,Gooby

I hope you find this useful and that others will share their ideas. 

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