One never knows

27 10 2011

If I’m writing at midnight, it’s almost never good.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to work in a youth center. I spent two years there before I ran screaming, leaving an SJ shaped hole in the front door. The job appealed to me because I knew I wanted to work in child welfare, but I wasn’t ready to jump straight into graduate school after college.

This place was a neighborhood center with pre-k classes, an afterschool program, and teen groups. I helped out in pre-k, and ran the afterschool program my second year. I was 22 and blown away by the amount of responsibility I was given. It was a massive struggle, but I learned a lot.

I also cried a lot. Ask my dad about those phone calls.

My organizational skills grew. (I still managed to lose a pair of pants this week, but still.) I learned to do more with less. (Twenty dollars to take fourteen kids ice skating? Done!) I developed my scary Teacher Voice. Most importantly, I took on the responsibilities of a supervisor. I helped hire new staff, all of whom had to be approved by the director, and managed them. I delegated not unlike a mofo.

There was one college kid who started volunteering for us as a freshman. We liked him. He was reliable and good with the kids. So we ended up hiring him. My coworker and I advocated strongly for this. (The program was essentially held together with Elmer’s glue, dried macaroni, and dreams, so hires were unusual.)

This was a rare student who wasn’t volunteering to fulfill a course requirement, or for community service hours following a particularly rowdy rugby initiation, or for credit for an internship. He just wanted to volunteer. I had volunteered plenty when I was in college, in similar programs, so this was something I understood.

Of course, when he was hired, he had to jump through all of the hoops. Fingerprinting. Background check.

Nothing came up. So he came on trips with us, helped out in pre-k, coached in the basketball tournament, brought disabled children to the bathroom, supervised swimming trips. All the responsibilities an employee might have.

After jumping through the necessary hoops.

I left over four years ago. I went to social work school and started working at Anonymous Agency. He stayed at the youth center until he graduated.

I got a call from that coworker, who advocated so strongly for this hire with me. She had gotten curious about this kid, after not hearing from him for a while and finding his Facebook page was shut down.

A bit of googling led to her discovering that he’s in jail, convicted of being a part of an international child pornography ring. Further internet sleuthing informed us that he was active in this group while working for us.

This was a guy that we liked. Someone we took out for drinks on his 21st birthday. Who used to noogie me when I was calling for everyone’s attention at staff meeting. Someone who babysat my coworker’s children.

Usually when we hear things like this in the news, we wonder why no one did anything. After it comes out, people always say they had their suspicions. He gave off a creepy vibe, she was too interested in this one kid, he leaned in too close, tried to spend time alone with kids, whatever.

We had no idea. None.

It’s even scarier to think that this is possible. I don’t fancy myself to be some naive shrinking violet who would be oblivious to such signs. I grew up in the Catholic church–there were other people I thought I could trust, when it turned out I couldn’t. I’m not so meek that I would hesitate to go with my gut. I don’t take the safety of children lightly.

But I had no idea. Not even an inkling. He wasn’t creepy, he didn’t make weird comments, he wasn’t even too perfect. Looking back, I’m desperately searching for signs. Something I ignored, something that seemed like nothing at the time. But I can’t think of one thing. Neither can my coworker.

Now we’re trying to figure out if he hurt children we worked with. It seems unlikely, that there wouldn’t have been time, the center was always so open, there was always more than one adult with a child. But then, we never had any suspicions that he was even like this. What else did we miss?

This is all just reminding me of how precious our jobs are. We are trusted with other people’s children. For however long. They are in our care. It’s terrifying to think that we can fail them. That we might be fooled by a sweet nature, cute Joe College looks, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and an ability to fit in with the rest of the staff.

We never know. We never really know. I’ve always been very anti-hysteria, especially when the hysteria-of-choice seems to be directed at men who work with children. Because it isn’t fair.

But this has shaken me in a way I can’t describe. I’m not even entirely sure what the lesson is. At the moment, I feel like it’s “trust no one,” but I know that isn’t possible. We need support. Kids need caring adults in their lives.

But we never know.

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7 responses

27 10 2011
Dorlee M (@DorleeM)

I’m sorry, SJ for how you are feeling…I imagine that among the many feelings you are feeling, you feel shock and betrayal…I don’t know what to say…except that thank g-d this fellow was caught…and as you wisely point out, you never know despite all the background checks.

I too would have expected such a person to send off warning signals…in any case, please do not blame yourself for anything. You did nothing wrong. You had no idea and now, you will inevitably be more cautious of people going forward b/c this person took away some trust in basic human dignity.

Thank you for having the courage and openness to share. Sending you a big hug!

27 10 2011
NiceLady

well said. unnamed coworker loves you.

27 10 2011
Nadia

My specialty is working with sex abuse… Two books that are great of you have time – one by Dr Anna Salter (predators etc – long title) and the other is The Gift of Feat by Gavin De Becker. ❤ from SLC

28 10 2011
Melanie

what was it i learned i diagnosis class in sw school? something like true sociopathic people is only at 1%. the chance of ever meeting someone with “real” sociopathy is so slim due to this? i’m sorry that you had to meet one. b/c that’s what he sounds like. someone who had an inherent ability to fool everyone around him. you didn’t miss any signs…because there were none that he gave. he was the ultimate violator. i can only imagine the intensity of your discomfort, fear and sadness. thinking of you.

28 10 2011
ECMH Nerd

oh sweet jebus. this sucks. i’m so sorry. we fight so hard to get more men into early education and to be role models for kids but this is awful. can i get you some deep dish pizza? midwestern beer? perhaps an italian beef from chicago will make it better? (oh yes, sublimating the pain with food almost always works. almost always.)

29 10 2011
Donna

SO sorry you experienced this. A painful reality check can shake your core – and not in a good way! Perps are successful for so long because they are so normal – they can ‘pass’. The whole ‘stranger danger’ promotion of a few years ago has done such a disservice to our kids. It’s NOT strangers: it’s the guy sitting next to you in church, your family member, your co-worker.
The only thing that surprises me anymore is that we’re surprised when another one is exposed.

1 11 2011
socialjerk

Thanks so much for all the support here. It really is helpful (and disturbing) to hear I’m not alone.

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