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.