Tough Road Ahead

Today is October 31st, Halloween; it is the beginning of what is usually the toughest time of the year for residential childcare workers. At least it is for me. In my experience the period from October 31st through January 1st is the toughest two months of the year for being a houseparent.

We currently work at a long term residential facility so Halloween is not so much a factor, but when we worked in a community group home in Wyoming you could always count on at least one new placement on Halloween, additionally you could count on a few of our residents getting dropped a level or two if they were allowed to be off facility on Halloween. After the first couple of years, it became home policy that youth were not allowed to be off grounds at all on Halloween and we usually planned activities that would take us out of town that evening. I know many say that Halloween has become a harmless fun holiday for the kids, but my experience since I started working in residential childcare says otherwise. It seems that many at-risk youth figure that they can just take advantage of the darkness of the holiday.

The day after Halloween has also become the beginning of the Christmas Holiday Season. I’m not going to site any specific studies, but it is accepted fact that during the holidays depression and suicides increase. Why would it be any different for the troubled children that we work with. The children that we have cared for act out more during the holiday season, than at any other time of the year. They always seem to be more moody, emotional and generally more difficult to live with. For many at risk youth the Holidays are not the greatest time of the year, but that is a whole different article.

Additionally, job listings on my website always seem to increase after Halloween so I believe staff turnover becomes higher during this time of the year from the stress.

What can be done to help get you through?

  • Recognize that it’s going to be a stressful couple of months
  • Make time for yourself to relax and do something you enjoy
  • Pick your battles. If there are battles you don’t have to fight, don’t.
  • Be committed, this too shall pass and the youth should have a greater trust in you at the end of the season.
  • If none of these suggestions work; eat lots and lots of turkey and sleep the Holiday season away. Just kidding, I’m trying to keep a sense of humor.

    Sad Day for Me!!

    Today is a sad day for me. The youth home that my wife and I got our start in residential childcare and the very first customer of The Houseparent Network will be closing in 30 days. It is a victim of government cut backs.

    Although we left the home several years ago for our current position, the people of the home were like family to us and it hurts us to hear about their situation. There will be a serious void in that county when this home closes, they truly had a heart for helping children.

    I realize that in Residential Childcare, new homes are starting and other homes are closing all over the country, but it tends to have a certain hurt to it when it is so personal. I pray for the staff that will be looking for other employment and for the kids that will have to find services elsewhere. I also pray for the community that will have to do without.

    Viruses & Vomit

    As I was lying in bed last night listening to the chorus of coughs up and down the hall , I had memories of an earlier time when another virus raged through our house. It was a very nasty virus that reeked havoc on my house for almost a week. Out of the 12 people that resided in my house at the time, 9 of us got it including me.

    It started with one child that had thrown up over the night, and we woke up to vomit on the bed, on the wall, and on the floor and rug. My wife has a very weak stomach so I had the pleasure of cleaning it up. That evening two more children came down with it. One made it halfway down the hall before letting loose, the other made it inside the bathroom but that was it. Again I had the pleasure of cleaning it all up.

    The next morning the first child was totally recovered and felt fine, but we woke up again to a child losing it in their bed. This scenario repeated itself for six days and I totally lost count of how many messes I had to clean up. It all ended on the 6th day when I came down with it and lost my lunch for the first time in about 10 years. I went to bed that afternoon and woke up the next morning feeling fine. I am truly thankful it was a fast moving virus that didn’t last long, I can only imagine what would have happened if it lasted for a week in each individual.

    Currently we have the common cold virus going through our house, although other cottages have strep throat and we will probably end up with it also. Odds are about 75% of our house will end up getting sick, I guess the other 25% have some immunity or something, but that is how it always seems to work out.

    Living in close quarters makes spreading germs much easier and about the only thing we can do to reduce it is:

    • Be very diligent about washing hands
    • Don’t share cups, straws, etc.
    • Try to limit kissing (HAHA that was a joke)

    Really it’s just a reality of houseparent life. School teachers, day care workers, & medical staff all have the same problem. It’s just something to get used to.

    Vans & Vomit

    While I was taking my daily van load of children to school, I was reminded why I keep my travel sickness recovery kit safely stored in the van. The young lady that was trapped in the second to last seat suddenly became nauseated and left me a gift that almost caused me and several others in the van to have our own incident. I didn’t have to use my kit today because I was able to come right back to the home and the wash rack, where I was able to hose everything down, but it definitely reminded me of the day I created it.

    I was picking up a group kids from camp. We were traveling through the mountains 30 miles from the nearest town, and the jr high kid in the back seat (who had just set a camp record for eating the most french toast) with out warning let it go. All I had in the van was a quarter roll of paper towels and a garbage bag I took from one of the kids who was using it as a laundry bag. There wasn’t much I could do. I used most of the paper towels to clean up the kid and with the few remaining covered the ralph on the floor. We rolled down all the windows and did our best to keep our faces as close as we could to the fresh air. I can not tell you how excited we were to see that Wal-mart parking lot 30 minutes later.

    I went inside and bought 2 rolls of paper-towels, a box of Clorox wipes, a can of Ozium air freshener, and a box of Travel Sickness pills. I used the bags the store gave me so I didn’t need to buy garbage bags. I was able to do a pretty good job cleaning it up and Ozium does an excellent job as an air freshener. We were able to make the 6 hour trip back to the home.

    I now have a kit that I keep in a plastic laundry bucket with a lid (We have bunches of them around, in our house we use two a week) and keep it in the van. I’ve had to use it a couple of times since then.

    My kit includes:

  • Two rolls of paper-towels
  • Two Garbage Bags
  • Two Pair of Latex Gloves
  • One box of Clorox wipes (I am sure any brand would work fine, I keep them in a Zip-lock bag so they won’t dry out)
  • One can of Ozium Air Freshener (I think it does the best job of covering the odor, it also comes in a small can)
  • One box of Travel Sickness Pills
  • You will also find it useful for other messy incidents you might find yourself surrounded by.

    One Single Event!

    Working in the situations that we do and seeing struggles and setbacks with the children we work with, I can honestly say I get very excited when I see accomplishment. Before I tell you what this accomplishment is, first let me tell you that before it was achieved, this 10 year old boy was very reserved, timid and totally lacked confidence; he looked totally out of place on the field with the team. You would have thought that he would have been a much better water boy than a football player.

    Many of the Children we work with are not very coordinated, they are awkward and often kind of dorky, even the kids that act like tough guys. I can honestly say that in the years I have been a houseparent very few of the kids I have worked with have been very athletic and Johnny(not his real name) is no different. The last two months have been somewhat torturous watching him get knocked around the field, being harassed by the other boys for not being very good, and basically just looking lost. I stopped bringing my camcorder, because I didn’t want to subject him to future torment by having to watch it over again.

    Tonight, one single event changed everything. Johnny got his first tackle. A very small and for most people an insignificant event, something that happens many times during a single game. But for Johnny it was huge. He suddenly had confidence, while his team congratulated him slapping him on his helmet and giving him high fives, and I think the coach hugged him. For the remainder of the game he hustled like he never had before, he was motivated, and he was excited. For me, his change made me proud and honored to be a part of it.

    His confidence continued after the game and he came home with pride I have rarely seen in him. And though you may say “NO Big Deal”, I say this is one accomplishment that will be combined with many that will shape his life and make him who he will be. The Grand Canyon was not created in a day and neither is a man. Johnny will probably never be a professional football player but tonight, he was an all-star to me. Congratulations Johnny (Not your real name)!!!!!

    No Fun to be Right!!

    Right after Hurricane Katrina I wrote an article for my website “Hurricane Katrina – The Unseen Damage”. In this article I described what effects I thought Katrina would have on our facility and other local charities. Unfortunately, I have to report that I am at least partially correct in my assessment, with the full magnitude of my predictions yet to be seen.

    I was reading our local newspaper this week and among the articles that reported on the fraud charges against people trying to get disaster relief they weren’t entitled to, the poor response by government agencies to the disaster, stories of survival about some of the many victims of the disaster was a story about several local charities.

    These charities were making an appeal to us locals to direct our giving to them so that they can continue to do the work they do. Being one of the first safe communities near the hurricane, our local population has grown considerably with people from the coast. Our community has done an excellent job providing assistance to the hurricane victims and have turned nobody away, however resources are becoming scarce and donations have dropped off considerably.

    In the article, a charity that helps the poor with meals and winter heating bills said that donations were “off 40% from this time last year” and they will not be able to provide the same level of assistance that have in past years. There were other charities that were less specific but were concerned that local people will not receive their services because of the decline in local donations and the fact that national charities will not share the huge sums they are receiving and that the government will not recognize them as beneficiaries of the billions they have allocated for storm recovery. I don’t know any details about the effects it has had on the facility I work for, but we have been told to tighten our belts and do whatever we can to conserve resources.

    I realize we are just one small community affected by this tragedy and there are millions of people and thousands of communities in the same or a worse boat, but with that in mind I am concerned about facilities all over the south and the thousands of children those facilities serve. I hope that people will continue to support these facilities and that they will continue to be able to care for children that need their services. If that is not the case, I hope that the coming lean times will help us find better more efficient ways of caring for the neglected and abused children that there will be NO shortage of.

    GroundHog Day

    No it’s not February 2nd, but this week and my wife’s comments have reminded me of one of my favorite movies and how our life sometimes seems to imitate it. It is the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. In the movie Bill Murray’s character has to repeat the same day over and over again. Regardless of what he does, he always wakes up the morning of February 2nd and lives the same events over and over again.

    There are days that as a houseparent, I feel the same way. We live in a house with 10 children including our two birth children. The children are fairly young, (2-4 yr olds, a 5 yr old, a 7 yr old, an 8 yr old, a 9 yr old, 2 – 10 yr olds, an 11 yr old, and a 15 yr old) and attend 6 different schools. Two are involved in Pee-Wee Football, all 4 girls are in Ballet, and my 15 yr old son is in soccer. On top of caring for children, I am responsible for additional duties at the home to include: Managing a fleet of about 25 vehicles & the home’s HVAC systems, maintaining the home’s Website, maintaining the cottage computers, and computer technical support. That’s before I have time to work on my website.

    I was hoping to be able to blog at least every other day, however I somehow lost a week somewhere. As I think back on this last week, it seems like I have been living the same day over and over again. I wake up at 5:45 AM; get the kids off to school and spend the rest of the day running kids here and there, vehicles to repair shops, fix a cottage computer infected with spyware, install a printer, etc., etc., etc. Work from 9:00-11:00 PM replying to E-mails, updating job listings, and doing other updates to my website. Next day – Repeat.

    Fortunately for me, I don’t have to find some deeper meaning to my life and turn into this really nice guy for it to end like Bill Murray’s Character did (I’m already a nice guy most of the time, and have already found deeper meaning to my life). I know the busyness of life is cyclical and things will slow down and then I can catch my breath. Until then, I’ll just keep living my “Groundhog Day”.

    It’s Guaranteed to Happen

    I personally know very few people that have worked in residential childcare for more than a couple of years that hasn’t had a child make abuse accusations against them. The children believe they can use it to manipulate the situation and possibly get rid a staff members they are not fond of. However, if you have followed facility policies and do your job in such a way as to not put yourself in compromising situations, the accusations are quickly unsubstantiated and you are cleared to continue caring for children.

    I have had it happen once to me. A couple of young ladies felt that we were way to strict and had to go, so they wrote a letter to our administrator that basically said – my wife cussed them out and that I slammed them into the wall. We discovered the letter before they had turned it in and immediately notified the administrator. I personally handed him the letter and asked him to interview the girls. We have a reputation as being sticklers for following policy and rules. We also work very hard to avoid situations, that would put us in compromising situations. When they were interviewed one of the girls quickly admitted that it was a plot to get rid of us, and they were the ones that ended up in a different living situation.

    I have known other staff that have not been able to clear themselves so quickly. I knew a male houseparent that was having a confrontation with a female resident at a facility I worked at. At some point in the confrontation she took off and ran upstairs to the girl’s living area. He made the mistake of following her upstairs without having a female staff member with him, and before he got up the stairs she was able to get to her room and remove her top. He stormed in the room, and she started screaming. Needless to say, it was much harder for him to clear his name, and this incident eventually led to him leaving childcare.

    Another staff member that I knew, didn’t work real closely with the administration. He didn’t seek their counsel on most situations in the house and wasn’t real open with them about what he was doing in the house. He had a similar situation to mine, but because he was not as open with administration and they didn’t know what was happening in his house, it was not as easy to clear him and he ended up going through a very tough week.

    There are several things you can do to protect yourself from false accusations:

  • Follow facility rules and policies. It is much easier to clear yourself if you have a reputation for following rules.
  • If you facility trains you in crisis prevention and intervention – use your training. Dealing with confrontations with techniques not taught or authorized will get you in tons of trouble.
  • Avoid situations where you are alone with the opposite sex. This is especially true for male staff members and female residents, a female resident is much more likely to make a sexual accusation against a male staff member.
  • Be open and honest with administration. Let them know what is going on in your house, consult with them on situations and incidents in your house and invite them to spend time with you observing. Privacy is not a luxury in this field.
  • Finally, use common sense and follow your gut. If you have a child that you think is capable of making an accusation against you, keep your hands off. Have other staff members present when confronting them with consequences and document everything.
  • If you are going to work in this field realize that an accusation will likely be made against you at some time during your career regardless of what steps you take to try and prevent it. Having your ducks in a row to prove it false is your best defense. If this is something you can’t handle or accept you should probably find another line of work.

    The Very First Time

    Many of the children we work with don’t experience a lot of fun before they are put in placement. When you come from an abusive or neglectful situation, survival takes a much high priority than recreation. Fortunately, after we get them we are able to provide that security and then they can experience other things.

    Today, thanks to a kind donor, I was able to take most of the kids in my cottage to a Mississippi State University football game. And though our team got handily beaten by LSU, the kids had a great time anyway and for two of them it was a totally new experience. They were in awe at being on the top row at the stadium, impressed by the marching band, baton twirlers, and dancers, amazed that we could just throw peanut shells on the ground, and genuinely enjoyed watching the football. It was a pleasure to be able to provide that experience to them.

    That got me thinking about other firsts I have been a part of. One of the most memorable was in Wyoming when a 15 year old girl caught her first fish, on her first camping trip. You would not have believed how excited she was.

    I also remember a small cottage vacation a few years ago. We have three boys that have been with us for almost 4 years, and though they have always lived just hours from the gulf had never been to the beach and kept asking us if we could go. With a donation from a former houseparent’s Church, the use of the former houseparent’s living room floor to sleep on, and some money from my checking account we were able to go to the beach for a couple days. The kids had a blast and they still talk about it.

    Some other firsts include teaching about 15 kids how to ride a bike, some were teenagers. First trip to the zoo, first horse ride, first game of bowling, first time on roller skates, etc. etc.

    I can honestly say that I enjoy watching children experience new things more than I enjoy doing those same activities myself.