To be fair, they all weren't sex offenders.
In fact, most hadn't been officially convicted of any crime. Little Billy* may or may not have slapped his teacher's ass; Mark* was an excessive masturbator; Tim* was suspected of inserting pieces of fruit into the anus of his classmate.
It was my first real job as a mental-health worker. I had had other jobs but felt they all lacked substance and meaning, so I went back for a degree in social work, hoping to find my true path in life.
"I bet you don't even know what a blowjob is," one client casually remarked during a therapy session.
I was tempted to tell him was that it had taken me approximately five years to complete my undergrad in college, so of course I knew what a blowjob was.
Humor eventually became one of my many masks for a job that was both burdensome and conflictual.
Eighteen adolescents ranging from age 12 to 19 would show up every day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Some were court-mandated and others were referred by the school district or the county. Most were from a minority race and a low socioeconomic class with less-than-desirable home lives and histories of abuse or trauma. About half of the time, they were in classes; for the remainder of the day, they were in group and individual therapy.
Therapy focused on areas, such as the rules of consent, social skills, and safety planning. Additionally, typical school-age problems such as teen bullying were addressed. As an individual therapist, I was expected to provide each client with one hour of talk therapy per week. I looked forward to practicing a variety of clinical interventions and being provided with feedback from my supervisors centering on the tremendous amount of trauma most of these children had both endured and inflicted upon others.
Instead, my mornings began by swiping the clients in with a metal detector and searching their book bags for any harmful objects. These harmful objects included action figures and pens.
Then there was breakfast, lunch and detention duty, which I rotated on with the group therapists and a teacher's aide. This entailed breaking up fights and redirecting a multitude of inappropriate comments and gestures.
Then there were the quarterly court reports I would compile on the progress of select clients, which, after being reviewed by management, almost always eliminated any marked signs of improvement and emphasized the reasons why another three months was needed so that (in my opinion) business could continue to thrive. I felt morally twisted having to pose as the nice therapist who encouraged trusting relationships to only later bash the kids behind their backs in court.
As the months went on, my role turned into something I didn't even recognize. Due to staff changes, I was expected to take on a variety of tasks and attend countless supervision and treatment team/family meetings. Then I would have to document all of it. Every time I felt I had an hour to set aside for notes, I would get a request from a colleague or my supervisor to hold an emergency individual session with a client who just punched another in the face, walked out of class, or wrote that his peer's mom was "DTF" on the bathroom wall.
Supervision took place for hours at a time, several times per week, and was conducted by Leslie*, the director of the program. Leslie had a background in forensics and resembled a stereotypical police officer or prison guard. She was a stocky build with a high pitched yet booming voice. Her cheeks always appeared to be flushed. Also in attendance was Karen*, my direct supervisor and program coordinator. Karen was always smiling and nodding in the direction of Leslie. The kids called her "bobblehead" behind her back. There was also an aging psychiatrist who reeked of cat urine and was forever laughing inappropriately.
I have never experienced what it is like to stand trial in court, but I imagine it may feel a little bit like this:
Did you not ask what kind of women's underwear he stole from the laundry room?! Was in a size extra-large? What color was it?
Did you believe him when he told you he masturbated in the bathroom with the door closed despite a history of exposing? Did you ask if he came and how many times? Why did he not fill out his masturbation log this week? Where is his masturbation log?!
So, we hear Timur* urinated in his pants on the van ride to the program. Is there any reason why no one checked to see if it was actually urine as opposed to ejaculate?
Not to play the devil's advocate here, but what if his imaginary friend tells him to hurt or kill someone?
Prior to being hired, I recalled having a conversation with the girl who then held my position. Her voice had a dry, sarcastic ring to it, and her face was implanted with dark under-eye circles. Not that she had wanted to encourage pornography, but she felt that the article published from the 1980s left in her mailbox on how pornography led to rape was a bit excessive.
Again and again, I questioned the line between normal adolescent behavior and the problem behaviors that brought these teens into the program. Was an underwear fetish really that big of a deal? Didn't all teen boys masturbate?
Remember they're not normal, my supervisors would say. Leslie would say this with a sharp bite to her voice before I could even finish whatever question I had that day. Karen would say this during random moments, usually by bopping her head into my office wearing a bright smile. The psychiatrist would say this wearing a close-lipped condescending smile that only partially revealed the outline of her discolored false tooth.
There was always some type of last-minute meeting that my presence was requested upon, usually cutting my time short for the therapy I thought I was hired to do.
One meeting centered on how Timur took more than one sandwich at lunch and how he should be held accountable. After all, if he was capable of taking a sandwich then he was certainly capable of participating in another gang bang.
Another meeting centered on the problem that Jonathan*, with the support of his child advocate, wanted to leave the program early so that he could accept his offer from a respected high school and play football. Jonathan had been referred to the program from school personnel due to flaunting himself too much in the school yard (e.g. taking off his shirt and openly flirting with his female peers). According to my supervisors, this would be a horrible move for Jonathan because football only reiterated behaviors that we were helping these clients avoid.
"You know the only reason I'm here is because I'm involved in the system," he confided to me during one session.
I wanted to tell him he was right.
The kids knew I was going to quit two months before I gave my notice. Used to being abandoned, abused or neglected by literally everyone they had come to know in their short lives, they had learned to anticipate the warning signs.
"You're going to leave us like the others, aren't you?" they would ask.
Mark attempted to steal a decorative troll doll I had placed on my desk, identifying the object with me. Throughout the year, he had held the troll firmly in his hand, caressing its white cone-shaped hair as he spoke about his worries.
I would try to choke back tears, to hide my intentions of leaving the way they hid their deviancy.
Then there was no more hiding.
It was about a week before my last day when it was learned that one of the clients, Edwin*, was alleged to have been hiding another client, Walter*, in his basement. Walter was a few years younger than Edwin. The two of them had reportedly been hanging out outside of the program against program rules. Everyone else had gone to the park for recreation, and I was asked to hold an individual session with Edwin in lieu of these speculations. Edwin had been charged and convicted of sexually assaulting his younger male cousin, so there was a fear that he would repeat such behaviors.
"So what do you think of all of this stuff going on with your missing classmate?"
Edwin was often smiling and affable during sessions; other times he was closed off but vulnerable, expressing confusion over his sexual identity and terminally ill mother.
He glared at me defiantly.
Edwin was always the first to say hello in the morning, his arm reaching out to wave with a slight jiggle. He was slightly overweight with a croaking voice. He was 15 and didn't look a day over that. He didn't look like a predator. Did they ever?
"Is there a reason you're not answering my question, Edwin?"
His eyes locked with mine, not blinking. His mouth formed into an expression I had never seen before — partially a smirk, partially a pout, and partially something else.
At least, he didn't look like a predator until that afternoon.
We sat there in silence for several minutes. A couple times, I broke our gaze to check my email, but he never broke his. It didn't look like he was even breathing. I never felt scared during a session before, but it suddenly occurred to me that we were the only two people within earshot on the floor.
"Edwin, if we're not going to have a session together then I'm going to have to ask that you sit at the desk and do your homework." As I pointed to the wooden table and chair on the opposite end of my office, I heard that my voice had a slight quiver to it. I silently scolded myself.
He didn't budge.
Edwin and I had laughed together, we had cried together. He had confided in me his innermost secrets and fears. I thought that I had gained his trust, and that he had gained mine.
"Stop this staring and go sit over there in that desk," I snapped, my heart rate picking up.
He resembled an animal in the wilderness as still as a statue, but ready to fight or flee from its predator. Or pounce on its prey.
E d w i n I s n ' t c o o p e r a t i n g. I typed to Leslie who was stationed upstairs. I didn't tell her I was scared. I was too ashamed. I should have been able to handle this, yet I felt I was completely losing control.
By the time she showed up, my breathing had become increasingly more shallow, and I felt as though I was permanently glued to my seat. Edwin immediately morphed back into a 15-year-old boy, slumping down into his chair and covering his face with hands.
As I watched Leslie pacing back and forth in my office, nervously sharing details of the investigation, I saw a vulnerability and human quality I hadn't before. For the first time, my hand still shaking, I saw things through her view.
I still stand by my case that some adolescents didn't need to be in the program, were stuck there because of certain disadvantages, and that, even in noble professions, everything is a business. The structure of my job, and possibly the entire treatment modality for treating those with sexual behavior problems, isn't what it should be.
That being said, I can't say that I didn't fall victim to the defense mechanisms that both individuals and society use when dealing with difficult subject matter. As much as I mocked my predicament, blamed the system and pitied my clients was as much as I denied the severity of some of some of their actions.
To be fair, they all weren't sex offenders. But some of them were.
I thought of Walter lying on a tarnished mattress, too high to move, and how he had been violated by the people he was taught to trust — his parents, the system, and, lastly, his own peer. I looked at Leslie's wrinkled, tired and guarded face and understood how this population could make you bitter and skeptical of almost everything. That maybe if you worked with them long enough, you would lose all hope, empathy and reason.
I knew I didn't want to be one of those people.
On my last day, I handed my troll doll to Mark and walked out the goddamn door.