How I got to Mississippi!

Most people that know me realize fairly quickly that I am not from Mississippi. I am from the West (Montana, California, Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming – though I call Montana home). Usually their first question is, How did you get to Mississippi?” After I laugh, mostly at myself, I tell them my story:

In 1998 we were working at a home in Cody, Wyoming working mostly with juvenile delinquent and crisis kids. It was hard work. We had young children that we didn’t like exposing to some of their behaviors, our living quarters were really cramped and we were looking for something in the way of basic care. I was also studying to be a pastor with the Assemblies of God. My thought was to work at an AG home and mentor with AG ministers while I worked to become one. I found an open position at a home in Texas and sent them a resume.

They liked our resume and we talked several times on the phone and through E-mail. They told us they could not afford to pay for us to come down and interview because we lived so far away, but if we wanted to pay for it ourselves they would love to meet us. It was going to take every penny I had to move, so there was no way we could afford to pay for it. We decided that we would make a video of us and they would make a video of the home and staff and we would exchange them. It should have been a red flag when we never received their video, but they offered us a position and we accepted it, SIGHT UNSEEN!!!

We left Cody, Wyoming on January 3rd, 1999 in route to Fairfield, Texas, arriving 4 days later. Upon arriving we quickly found out that 4 days before we left Cody, the executive director that hired us was forced to retire (was fired) by the board, and they had hired a consultant to move the home in a new direction. I assure you that had we known this, we would have stayed in Wyoming. They didn’t start looking for new staff until we started loading the U-haul, hoping to change our mind and that we would have stayed.

We quickly discovered that accepting a position sight unseen is probably not the wisest thing to do. Had we actually visited the home, we would have found out about many of the things that were going on, and could have made a much more informed decision. We probably would have never accepted the position.

It didn’t take very long, about two months, for us to realize that we didn’t really want to be there and should start looking for a position somewhere else. It took us another month before we actually started sending out resumes. I found some houseparent job listings on a job board that also included listings for houseparents and sent off some resumes to different facilities. Some in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, and to a place called “Palmer Home for Children” in Columbus, MS.

Here is where things continued to go wrong! Having forgotten all my 5th grade geography and two letter postal codes-I thought MS stood for Missouri. I figured that living in Missouri; we would one day closer to home and could easily drive there in a day and a half. And for all of you that are currently laughing, yes I now remember that Missouri is MO.

About thirty minutes after I sent the resume, I got an E-mail reply from the director telling me how much he liked our resumes and how great the home, staff and kids were at Palmer Home for Children, in Columbus, Mississippi. Now I had seen the movie “Mississippi Burning” and “In the Heat of the Night” was one of my favorite TV shows. We also had a friend from Georgia that we worked with in Wyoming that used to make Mississippi jokes. There was NO WAY we were moving to Mississippi.

The director sent us an application and several brochures about the home, which we read. I couldn’t visit their website, because I didn’t know enough about websites and hadn’t created it yet.

Being a computer novice, I still believed that Microsoft would send you $10 for everyone you forwarded an E-mail to, with their new e-mail tracking software. I sent the e-mail to everyone in my address book, using my new computer, not realizing that some of those people were administrators at the home we worked at. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except I included with the E-mail that, I was looking for a new position and planned to use the money I got from Microsoft to move with.

After realizing my blunder we went ahead and completed the application along with all the other applications we had, because we knew our days were numbered. Fortunately, we had already set up an interview with Palmer Home by the time our director called us in a week later and told us that since we were looking to leave anyway that we had 30 days to be out. We said that’s fine and tendered our resignation, along with three other sets of houseparents (out of 5) and prayed that one of the positions we were looking at would come through quickly. I had no idea what we were going to do if one didn’t. We were 1500 miles away from home, with virtually no money.

We came down the next week for a visit and spent three days visiting. Turns out that Mississippi wasn’t such a bad place, and the home was a pretty nice place. We must have made a good impression, because after we got back to Texas and I called several times to ask if they had made a decision, they still offered us a position.

I put in my two weeks notice and reserved a u-haul. I even had a week to spare on my 30 day deadline. It will be nine years in June, and though I would be happy to be able to go home tomorrow it has been a great experience for me and my family.

I was able to learn about computers and websites and started this one, The Houseparent Network, in 2001 as well as others. I have developed enough of a proficiency with computers to be considered an expert. We have cared for some really great kids, one of which still calls us Mom and Dad and has provided us with a grandson. We have made some great friends. We discovered the greatest sport on earth  NASCAR and learned some really cool phrases like, “Y’all” and “Fixin ta.” I am thankful for that brain-fart that day!!

Birthday Cake

Today is my daughter’s birthday she turned 12. You might think that her birthday has absolutely nothing to do with residential childcare, but because of her birthday I learned something new that I would like to pass on.

Including our birth children we have 10 children that live in our house so we celebrate several birthdays in a year. For every one of those birthdays my wife will spend the afternoon making and decorating a cake for who’s ever birthday it is; they get to choose the flavors and theme. I had always thought that this was pointless and that it would be a whole lot easier just to go to Wal-mart and buy one. Today I felt the same, but she insisted that she needed to make it.

She put a great deal of effort into it and I honestly can say that it looked very nice. Our daughter loved it. Again when I told her I thought it would have been easier just to buy one, she told me why she makes them with a story about a teenage boy we cared for several years ago.

At the time we were working in what they called the “Thug Cottage” It was basically made up of all the teenage boys that had been kicked out of all the other houses on campus. One of the boys was having a birthday, I think he was turning 14. She baked him a cake and decorated it. She would have bought one but we were given a limited amount of money to spend on the children and we just couldn’t afford one.

He loved the cake and was very thankful. He told her that a lot of people had bought him cakes before, but nobody had cared enough to put in the effort to actually make him one. Apparently that made a great impression on her, because she now makes all the cakes.

The moral of the story is this: sometimes it is totally insignificant things to you that make a difference with the children we work with.

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.

    Our First Day Off as Houseparents

    Since my theme has been days off, I thought I would talk about our first days off as houseparents. Our first shift should have lasted 10 days, but because the facility we were at was short staffed, it ended up being 19 days long. We probably wouldn’t have gotten days off then, but after the director spoke with my wife on the phone decided he could either give her some rest or find new houseparents.

    Let me set the scene. After our first very stressful week, the following Monday I had to go out to the boys house and help install flooring through out the house. The director had made a deal with the flooring people to get a discount on the job by volunteering the housedads to be his assistants. I think it took us four days to finish the job so I was gone from about 8:00 AM until about 6:00 PM those days. She was left to deal with the girls by herself during that time, and they were pretty tough to deal with.

    The following week there was a missions group that was going to be in town for a couple of days to help us put a new roof on the boy’s house. Since I had put a new roof on my house in Montana the previous summer, I again got elected to help out. We took one whole day to go to Billings, MT to buy shingles and supplies and then that Thursday morning I had to be out there to help with the roof, I was again gone all day.

    While I was gone she had a little incident with the girls. We had an irrigation canal that ran next to the house. It was only about 3 feet wide and about 18 inches deep but the girls liked to hang out by it and dip into it to cool off. In Wyoming we had no air conditioning and it was summer. Anyway my wife was doing some things inside the house and went out to check on them only to find that the five girls that were wading in the creek had disappeared. As freaked out as she was when one girl ran away, you can only imagine how freaked out she was to find 5 missing. She immediately ran back inside and called the director, he told her to drive around the park across the street and the neighborhood just to see if they accidentally wandered off (HAHA!). She did for about 15 minutes and just as she was coming back to the house there they were walking down the middle of the canal toward the house.

    Their story was that somebody’s shoe got washed down the canal and they went looking for it and lost track of where they were. (I actually think they went to smoke a cigarette.) She had apparently called back the director and during that conversation the director determined that she needed a break. I know this because not five minutes after I got off the phone with her listening to her story about the incident as well as her questioning here ability to continue this career choice, he called to tell me that he had arranged for us to have a day off the following day and we were directed to take. When I tried to make objections because of the roof not being complete and the value of my presence as well as the shortage of staff, his response was, “I can find somebody to put on shingles, people to work the houses are hard to find. Give your wife a break or she’ll be moving back to Montana next week.” I took his words to heart and the wife and I took a day off.

    I would like to add that during that first summer as houseparents we had a total of 6 days off, and still we stuck to it. I have to wonder how long I would stay at a facility today if I only got 6 days off in three months. It’s amazing what we will do when we are new. The good thing was that after that very lean summer, the facility we worked at went almost 3 years fully staffed.

    My First Week Continued

    Days 3 and 4 were fairly uneventful days for us. Most of our house was on restriction and the rest went back into the honeymoon period and pretended that we were OK people. However on day 4 preparations were being made by the youngest girl in the house to cause our next big stressful crisis and learning experience.

    The youngest girl in the house was 13, she had been there about 3 months and was our one girl in summer school. She had originally been placed short term after being removed from an abusive situation, but committed a crime while in placement and ended up adjudicated. She came home that Thursday and asked my wife to make her something for a party they were having the next day at school. Wanting to show how nurturing she could be, my wife baked here some muffins and bought here a two liter bottle of soda.

    The next morning we dropped her off at school not realizing anything was up. At noon my wife went to pick her up. She ended up waiting outside for over 30 minutes before she went inside to check on her. The office people said that she had not been in school all day. My wife came back to the house in a total panic. I tried to calm her down and called our administrator. He acted like it was no big deal and was very calm about the whole thing, which I guess was a very good thing because I am not sure I could have handled all of us being freaked out.

    He instructed me to drive by the school again, then to go to some of the local kid hang-outs and see if I could get lucky and find her. I did as he instructed, to no avail and repeated the process at least three times that day. My wife got her first opportunity to complete an NCIC (National Crime Information Center) report. The NCIC system is a national data base that law enforcement uses to track fugitives, missing persons, and runaways. I have to confess that the system works quite well. We had kids that have run away to different parts of the country and get picked up by local law enforcement. When they checked the NCIC they would quickly find out they were runaways and we would go and pick them up. We were able to find kids in California, Texas and several other towns and states by filing NCIC reports.

    I can honestly tell you that experiencing that first runaway was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. I was way more stressful than finding 7 knives on my second day as a houseparent. I kept having images in my mind of her trying to hitchike somewhere and being picked up by some psycho that would rape and kill her. I spent a good part of the day Saturday driving around looking for her, thinking I was just wasting my time. (I later learned it wasn’t necessarily a waste of time to drive around right after you find out someone has runaway. We have actually caught several kids doing that.)

    On Sunday afternoon I got a call from the director to tell me she had been arrested and was in the local county jail. (They didn’t have a separate youth facility, they housed juvenile offenders in a separate section of the county jail) He asked if I wanted to visit her with him and I said sure, because I wanted to know why she had ran.

    When we arrived I quickly saw that she did not look like the very beautiful young lady that she was on Friday (She had the looks that could have made her a pretty decent living as a model). She had taken her long blonde hair and cut it off with a knife and had completely shaved off her eyebrows. It was also very obvious that she had been using drugs and had slept very little the three days she was gone.

    The one thing I remember from our conversation is asking her why, and her response was, “I don’t know, I just wanted to run.” After meeting with her the director decided she was too much of a run risk to take back and that was the last time I saw here until she was almost 17 years old. She spent the next several years in various placements and in the state Girl’s School.

    Dealing with runaways eventually got easier, though they still cause me a great deal of stress. Especially when it is a girl, because they have a tendency to run farther and put themselves in greater danger. We were eventually able to move on and now joke that my wife not only let her run away, but gave her food to do it with.

    This will be the last chronological entry of my early years. After this it sort of becomes a blur and I remember several events but I couldn’t possibly tell them in order, so I won’t try. Please check back as the story continues.

    My Second Day as a Houseparent

    Though is was summer, our day started early because one of our girl’s was in summer school and we wanted to talk with our administrator about our alarm situation. We called him shortly after the office opened and explained what happened the night before and his immediate response was, “It wasn’t the cat, those girls are up to something.” He explained that we needed to call all the girls downstairs in the living room and then my wife and the assistant director that just arrived took each girl into our room checked each girls pockets, shoes, socks, etc. After they checked each girl for contraband, my job was to check the upstairs in their living area.

    His instructions to me was that I should be as thorough as I possibly could. Check every pocket of every piece of clothing (clean or dirty), Pull out all the drawers, check under all mattresses and box springs, basically move everything. It sounded like a whole lot of fun, so up the stairs I went.

    In the very first room I checked lived a girl that was on a higher level and was allowed to have a pet guinea pig. Next to the cage was a large bag of cedar chips that was used as bedding for the little rat like creature. I figured that could be a pretty good place to hide something so I stuck my hand in and started fishing around. I felt something hard. So I grabbed it and pulled it out to find a kitchen knife with about a 10 inch blade. I stuck my hand in again and found another and another and another. I had a total of seven knives when I stopped finding them in that bag.

    Since I had been a houseparent for just over 24 hours I must say that I was a little freaked out. We called our administrators and they came right over (Our assistant director had just left). After questioning the girls it was discovered that they had taken the knives about two weeks earlier. Their plan was to take the boy’s house mom hostage and force her to drive them out of state in the group home van. Problem was they lost their nerve and didn’t know how to go about putting the knives back before we got there. Our administrators did a very good job calming us down and reassuring us that the girls we were caring for really weren’t violent.

    I went back to searching and ended up finding about a dozen cigarettes, a couple lighters, and some contraband music cd’s and magazines. I also discovered that one of the special wires in the bathroom screen had been cut and that was why the alarm wouldn’t set back up again. They new that by cutting that screen we would have to bypass that sensor to get the alarm to set up. Then after we went to bed they were able to remove it and throw their cigarette butts out the window, which I also found that morning. It cost about $250 to have that screen replaced because it had to be specially made. Needless to say, when they built the new girls house they used a different type of alarm sensor.

    The best part of that day was that most of the house ended up getting dropped to the lowest level and had to be to bed by 8:00 PM, so we were able to get some peace early in the evening.

    Things I learned that day was: 1) Lock up the kitchen knives. 2) Pets can’t cut screens. 3. Cedar chips belong in the shed. 4) And this was NO easy job!

    My First Day as a Houseparent

    The date was June 2, 1997, my wife and my first day as houseparents. We had just sold virtually all our personal belongings and moved 500 miles with our two children (son-age 6, daughter-age 3) to follow this new career that to us, was a calling. We arrived the evening before and with the help of the youth at the home unloaded the U-haul in about 30 minutes. The same truck that took me almost 9 hours to load. We spent most of that evening and night unpacking boxes and trying to get settled into what would be our relief quarters (the place we went on days off). Unpacking at the group home would be fairly simple, the four of us would spend each of our 10 day shifts living in a bedroom that was 10′ x 11′ (110 square feet); add the 40 square foot bathroom for a total of 150 square feet of personal living space.

    I am sorry for all the background information, but I don’t think you can truly grasp the situation without it. I would also like to add that our only previous experience was as Foster Parents to two sets of kids for a total of four children all under four years old. We were now going to be working with 7 teenage girls usually from 13-17 years old.

    Back to that first day. We arrived at about 8:00 am to start our shift. We were relieving the boy’s house mom. The home we were working at was extremely short staffed, at the time we were hired there was only one set of houseparents, in a facility that required three. During the week the director’s wife would work the Girl’s house and on the weekend the Boy’s house parents would split with the man staying at the boy’s house and the woman going to the girls house; this they did for about two months before we were hired.

    Our training consisted of about a 40 minute briefing from the Boy’s house mom as she went over a 5 page hand written note she put together for us. It briefly covered their level system, schedule and a short biography on all the girls. I am however very thankful for that because she could have just as easily handed us the keys and said, “see ya!”. It was not her responsibility to train us. (I would also like to add that they have since started training new house parents more thoroughly.) We spent the rest of the day experiencing the honeymoon period with our girls. They helped us learn the rules, at least how they interpreted them. We later found out that their interpretation was somewhat wrong in most cases, and they got over on us several times that day.

    The real fun began that night. The house used an alarm system to discourage the girls sneaking out in the middle of the night while the houseparents slept. At about 11:00 PM the alarm went off. My wife ran upstairs to see what the commotion was. Of course nobody had any idea why the alarm went off, so we reset it and went back to bed. About 30 minutes later the alarm went off again. Again my wife ran upstairs, this time they said the pet cat jumped up against the special alarmed window screen in the bathroom and set it off. We didn’t know any better, so we didn’t think to question it. This time however the alarm wouldn’t reset and we had to bypass that window to get the alarm to set up. It was about 20 feet straight down to the ground through that window so we didn’t worry about them climbing out. We later found out what the real story was, but you will have to come back for day two to find out.