Will you take me home with you?

I volunteered at a youth correctional institute in the Midwest for a year before I chose my career. I also worked at a hospital. I hated working at the hospital and I loved working with the kids.

But it wasn’t that simple. As a matter of fact at times it was heartbreaking. I would drive into the facility, leave my personal belongings in a bin, grab a name tag and then head over to the classroom wing where I (tried to) teach a math class for 14 year old boys. I taught the class twice a week and every time there were different faces. Kids were constantly transferring in and out, although there were a few “long termers”. They were the kids who had committed violent crimes – arson, robbery, or assault.

But there were a few other kids there who committed much lesser offenses – such as truancy and running away from (sometimes an abusive) home. And there was one boy there whose status defied definition.

The other kids called him slow. His IQ tested in the borderline range according to his records – lower than average but above what might be considered a cognitive disability. He had red hair, freckles and a great smile – the few times I saw it.

But he didn’t belong there. He knew it, the other kids knew it and I knew it. He didn’t want to be there and the other kids didn’t want him there. They didn’t know what to do with him. There was a pecking order there. The weaker boys were ruled by the stronger ones but even those who were the biggest bullies didn’t want to pick on this kid. Their code didn’t allow it.

So why was he there? I went to the office and asked after I spent three classes having him beg me to take him home with me. I was told that several foster homes couldn’t handle him and he wouldn’t go to school so he was a truant but in reality they were warehousing him there because they couldn’t find a placement for him. I was also told to keep my nose out of it.

Which, try as I might, I couldn’t do. It came to a head one day when I got in my car, started to drive home and he popped up in my back seat and announced he was coming home with me and how wonderful it was! I turned the car around to take him back and in the short ride between Point A and Point B to drop him off, I decided this situation couldn’t be ignored.

I called a couple I knew from the office phone and begged them to take this kid. They were registered as foster parents and such loving people that I knew this kid would get what he needed there. They agreed to take him for a month or so. Papers were drawn up and he was sent to them. As I suspected things worked out and he stayed there long term.

Of course back in my math class chaos reigned. My glasses were stolen at times in hopes that I wouldn’t be able to teach or see the lesson. The math textbooks were turned into paper airplanes. I was introduced to slang I never dreamed of. I did manage to teach a few kids fractions and multiplication. And I found one kid a home.

Institutionalization of people with disabilities. It’s been going on for years.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan


Filed under essay

2 responses to “Will you take me home with you?

  1. Hi Ruth,
    I think a major problem is that people with disabilities are expected to mould themselves to the system and not the other way round. So a child or adult for whom no appropriate placement can be found, gets put in whatever place is willing to take them. Some groups of disabled people are particularly vulnerable to this, including those with borderline intellectual functioning (who are often considered too good for community living for the developmentally disabled yet cannot function in society without support) and youth with severe behavioral/psychiatric conditions (who are routinely placed in juvenile correctional facilities where they won’t get any support/treatment). The logic almost seems to be: if you can’t find a place that will support them, just lock them up. It’s a shame that it apparently happens everywhere.

  2. You’re correct that our culture tends to lock away the people that don’t fit in; how brave of you to see something that needed fixing, and fix it. Thank you for this example of one person making a difference!

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