It has been and continues to be a privilege to witness some of the most vulnerable moments of a person’s life, to stand with them, and try to help. The young people with whom I’ve worked have radically different stories than my own, and I imagine different from most law students. My years spent working with them have shown me that while ongoing assistance and intervention in domestic, educational and religious environments is crucial, it can only do so much in the face of a legal system which, for example, occasionally punishes children for problems for which they are not directly responsible. These young people deserve someone fighting on their side who has walked alongside them and experienced a piece of their story. Here are three that have stayed with me. I’ve changed names, but otherwise told them as they happened.
When Jackson’s foster mom dropped him off at the ER, she gave the nurses a piece of advice: don’t let him play dinosaur inside. This was passed along to the director of the behavioral and mental health unit at a different hospital where he ended up, and was repeated to every staff member who worked with him: no dinosaur inside.
Jackson was four, and loved dinosaurs. If allowed to imitate one inside, he would proceed to tear the room apart. He was good at playing dinosaur. Jackson had already gone through 13 foster homes. His mother was a drug addict and his father–who knows? He was camping out with us for what would turn into several months, on a unit intended for crisis intervention with a typical stay of two to three weeks.
Jackson never liked to eat his food. His diet consisted of cereal for breakfast, toast for lunch, and chicken nuggets for dinner. It was rare that he would eat it all. One night I was sitting outside his room, encouraging him to take the first bite. He was sitting on his bed, arms crossed, pouty face on. Normal words weren’t working, he had decided he wouldn’t eat his food, and there wasn’t anything I could say that would change that. Then I realized there was a gray area in the no dinosaur rule. I put on some gloves and created a jungle out of his French fries. I started making loud, crashing sounds, and picked up a chicken nugget, which suddenly became a stegosaurus. His eyes opened wide, his elbows glued to his sides, making T-Rex arms. He jumped up, and started stomping around his bed and towards the intruder. His first bite ripped the head off the inferior stegosaurus. Next came the arms, then legs, until there was no nugget left. Dino-carnage ensued for the next fifteen minutes as he consumed his whole dinner, including an orange.
The next night didn’t go so well. Jackson shut down before dinner was even brought to his room. He was angry, launching his body into staff in our quiet room. A law student would recognize it as battery (intentionally causing a harmful contact). “Let me out!” he screamed, trying to rip apart the padded walls. His young lexicon included language colorful enough to fill a library of coloring books he worked on nightly before bed. I took over for the sweat-dripping staff who was in there with him.
Hey Jackson, what’s going on?
I HATE YOU.
That’s okay, man. I’m just here to make sure you stay safe.
DON’T TALK TO ME. He charged, and ripped at my hands when I put them up to protect myself. Because his nails needed to be clipped, I still have scars from that night. The next fifteen minutes went on similarly, until he wore himself out.
Jackson would end up in the care of the state. His former foster mother wouldn’t consider taking him back, and finding a new home for a violent child is difficult. That night, he ended up falling asleep on the padded floor, arms crossed, the remnants of a frown still on his face. I poked my head out of the quiet room doorway and shared a smile with my supervisor.
I’ll carry him to bed, I said.
A week later I worked my next shift. Because similar explosions happened so frequently, and so much 4-year-old excitement had transpired since, his having attacked me wasn’t in Jackson’s memory anymore. We were sitting on the floor in his room, playing with Legos and laughing, and he looked at me and asked the question that he had asked several staff before.
Can I go home with you?
I looked forward to getting home after my days working at summer camp, putting my feet up and focusing on hedonistic things: friends, books, movies, beer. Tuesdays were different. At 10 pm, I would pop open my laptop, enter in my login information, wait for the confirmation text to come to my phone, put in the confirmation code on the computer, enter the online platform and, after a breath, open the first chat box. “I’m feeling really desperate tonight, I’m not sure how much longer I can hold on.”
Crisis Counselor: Hi, my name’s Alex. Thanks for texting in tonight. Can you tell me your name?
User19403: Will anyone else know?
Alex: Nope, it’s just so I can have something to call you, doesn’t have to be your real name.
Alex: Thanks Steph, you mentioned feeling desperate, can you tell me more about what’s going on tonight?
This was a standard opening on Crisis Text Line (CTL). Anyone can text in (text Go to 741741), and get a trained volunteer crisis counselor to talk to. Counselors work on their computer on a platform that looks like Facebook, and the text conversations appear as chat boxes. The folks who text in have all kinds of stories and issues they are struggling with: drug abuse, a bad break-up, a history of self-harm, fear of parental abuse, and sometimes suicide.
Steph: Well it’s a lot of things, I’m not really sure where to start. I’m just starting college, and whenever I call home to talk my mom just yells at me. I haven’t made any friends here, and my boyfriend hasn’t been answering my texts. I think he might be cheating. And I just don’t like it here. I don’t want to be here anymore.
Alex: Steph, it takes a lot of courage to have to deal with so many things at once. I’m glad you took some time to reach out for support tonight. You mentioned feeling desperate and not wanting to be here anymore, I’m wondering if you’ve been thinking about hurting yourself tonight?
Alex: Can you tell me specifically what you’ve been thinking about?
Steph: Before texting you I swallowed four 500mg tablets of acetaminophen.
First I had to Google acetaminophen to figure out what that was. I hadn’t heard of Tylenol referred to by its scientific name before. I alerted my supervisor on CTL that one of my texters would probably need an active rescue. When a texter had taken steps towards killing themselves, like ingesting 2000 mg of Tylenol, we sought to immediately send them emergency medical services. I hadn’t done this before. In an active rescue, you ask the texter for as much specific information about their location as possible, which the supervisor relays to the 911 center associated with the texter’s area code.
Alex: Thank you for sharing that with me Steph. Are you with anyone right now, a roommate or a friend?
Steph: I’m alone.
Alex: Can you tell me where you are?
Steph: I’m on X campus. I just took another pill.
A typical conversation on CTL will include an exchange of names, some time spent exploring the texter’s main issue or reason for seeking support, collaboratively thinking about possible solutions or next steps, and closing the conversation on a positive note. Those are the four steps that are rehearsed during training. With an active rescue, your focus isn’t on providing support or empathy, it’s figuring out where they are. There’s no script. You ignore the training to dig deep into their pain, saying things that open their eyes to their strengths, and work with them to build a sense of agency to do something that will make a difference. You don’t get any closure on the conversation. Most often, you never know what ends up happening.
Alex: Steph can you tell me what dorm you’re in?
Steph: I’m in X dorm. I’m sorry I don’t know how it got to here.
Alex: Thanks Steph. What room are you in?
Alex: We are sending the police to you. Can you keep talking to me until they get there?
Alex: Are you there?
Alex: Steph, are you there?
One day after work, I saw a news clip online about an apartment in the projects that had been set on fire. The police were saying it was related to drug selling. Because I didn’t live near the projects, it was easy to shrug off; that was another world. Walking into work the next day, I mentioned the fire to my boss; crazy, wasn’t it? I noticed her eyes were red, and she motioned me into her office.
Isabella was a quiet eight-year-old. I don’t mean quiet like you had to ask her to speak up, I mean quiet like if it weren’t for an occasional mumble, or the way it was impossible not to smile back when she did, I would be describing her as mute. She was one of the first kids I met when I started to work at the Boys and Girls Club during junior year of high school. Thinking she was just shy, I pushed her to speak more: say yes instead of nodding, say thanks when someone holds the door, I can’t help with your homework if you don’t use your words. But she just smiled at you, and it was hard not to smile back. Isabella was one of about 20 kids in the program, a special program within the Club. I didn’t really get why she was there. When people heard a kid was in our program, their ears perked up, they were a bit more on edge, waiting for something negative to respond to. Almost all of our kids lived in the projects. But they just needed some extra support, some extra love. Isabella didn’t fit the stereotype. She just liked to smile.
Standing in my boss’s office, she began to tell me the story. Isabella’s mother had been trying to leave her boyfriend, who lived with Isabella, her little brother and Isabella’s mother at their apartment in the projects. She had tried to reach a domestic violence shelter and had been unsuccessful. The previous night, the boyfriend had come home drunk, and while the kids hid under a bed, thinking this would just be another beating, he had stabbed Isabella’s mother several times. He then lit the apartment on fire and jumped out of the second story window. It wasn’t clear how, but Isabella, her little brother and mother had gotten out of the burning apartment.
Years later, a Graduate School of Social Work professor told a remarkably similar story in class. I approached her after and asked if she had been talking about Isabella. It turns out this professor had worked with Isabella after that tragic night. She told me her mother had completely recovered and that Isabella and her brother were doing well. Isabella’s smile still draws you in, but now you can’t get her to stop talking.
Alex is a 1L and has recently joined BC Law Impact. You can reach him here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.