My 31 years working with kids and their families My 31 years working with kids and their families
By Henry Lawton
Correspondence to PTAVE, January 22, 2005


I retired from the Bergen County Office of the NJ Division of Youth & Family Services after 31 years as a Family Service Specialist 1 (This is the highest case worker title one can get there). I did a variety of jobs - Intake investigations of child abuse cases, on-going work with child abuse cases, but mainly I worked in our residential placement unit. Here it was my job to assess kids who might need placement in a therapeutic boarding school, help see them through placement and work to assist them upon return to their family/community. Toward the end of my career we had what might be a unique structure - 1/2 the unit worked to keep kids in the community & the other 1/2 worked with kids who, for whatever reason, could not be kept at home (perhaps because of the magnitude of their emotional problems, child abuse, degree of delinquency, etc). My job was to try and work with kids and families to keep them at home with the help they needed to resolve whatever problems they might have. When this proved impossible then I sent them to the other 1/2 of the unit.

This generally required an intensive approach. The degree to which this was possible was always hampered by caseloads that were much too high, indifference of the system, belief in the illusion of the quick fix, etc. When I was able to work intensively with kids I found that they invariably improved (though the degree of improvement was highly variable).

It became clear to me early on that the system had a vested interest in substitute care, so keeping kids at home in ways they could get viable help with their issues was always something of a fight against the prevailing way of doing things. (If you would like a copy of the article I wrote many years ago on why my agency is the way is, give me your postal address & I will send you one).

It also became very clear early on that all so-called "behavior" problems manifested by the kids that I worked with were always emotional in nature. I dealt with every sort of problem you could imagine & maybe a few you could not imagine. In my view, thinking solely in terms of behavior is a very easy and tempting way for families and authority figures to deny the reality of the emotional issues that kids suffer from. With emotionally disturbed kids, when you try to assess cause the family is always some part of the mix. Many parents are seriously resistant to knowing/admitting/facing this reality. I believe this is a key reason why there is such a tendency to rely on quick-fix solutions such as medications, boot camps, etc. It is easier to take such a course of action rather than face the full magnitude of dysfunction that can be involved. The complexities that were often involved in the cases that I worked with could be quite involved and even terrifying. This is another reason for the allure of illusory quick fix solutions - many people in the system (agency administrators, courts, schools, parents, even kids) do not want to know.

Many of the kids I worked with were survivors of physical/sexual child abuse, sometimes of gothic magnitude. Unfortunately the posture, even among those who should know better, still is one of denial. If the problem can be denied/minimized then we do not have to face dealing with it. Such denial serves a variety of functions, but I suspect you get the idea.

Anyway, hopefully the above will give you a more in-depth picture of the nature of what my work was. In many ways it was very hard, emotionally stressful and frustrating, but when it went right it was the greatest feeling in the world ...

Henry Lawton


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