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Sunday Journal: For social worker, biggest lie didn't come from 'hoodlum children'

Razor wire surrounded the school, which was closed down after more than a century of operation despite chronic scandals.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Razor wire surrounded the school, which was closed down after more than a century of operation despite chronic scandals.

Driving a child to the Florida School for Boys in Marianna was not in the job description when my mother accepted the position of social worker for the Pinellas County Juvenile Justice System in 1959.

Fresh out of college, she felt privileged to join the department. She intended to work toward improving the future for kids who lived with neglectful or abusive parents. What she learned was that Florida's state and county agencies didn't have much compassion for kids.

Children, some as young as six, were arrested for such petty crimes as trespassing and taken away from their homes. Typically, parents weren't punished for neglecting or even abusing their children.

As a juvenile guardian for the court, my mother would hear tales from kids about the horrendous punishment they had to endure at the hands of foster parents. When she took these revelations to her supervisors she was chastised for believing "lies."

The Marianna School for Boys was a threat that was part of the protocol when working with disobedient kids. And her charge, Jackie, had been threatened many times. He knew first-hand about the place, being a seasoned attendee by the time he was 11 years old.

Jackie lived with a mother who showed no interest in him. She didn't keep him fed or clean. The truant officer visited regularly, and the neighbors called the police often about the boy trespassing in their yards and stealing fruit. His mother finally gave up custody, and the state put him in a foster home. Within a month Jackie ran away. The authorities caught up with him. My mother was the social worker who interviewed him.

"The foster mother doesn't feed me," he told her. "I only eat if there's something left after her own kids do."

Again my mother reported the complaint to supervisors. Her report was met with indifference.

"Children lie," she was told as before. "Especially hoodlum children."

Her orders to escort Jackie to Marianna came as a "gift." She understood that the state had an expense account for traveling to the School for Boys and she was expected to use it.

Her supervisor informed her of the nicest hotel in the area and the best places to eat. She made the reservations and, accompanied by my father, left on a Friday. With the blessing of her boss they intended to make a weekend of it. It wasn't until they sped north with Jackie in the back seat that she realized this would be no blissful vacation.

He was small for 11, and his freckled face lacked childish wonder. His haggard eyes seemed too old for tears, and this may be why he didn't cry. He begged to be taken somewhere else. Anywhere else.

"Please don't take me there," he said. "They're mean. They beat you."

My mother looked at the child, his brown bangs almost in his eyes.

"You've survived this place before," she said. "And I bet if you cooperate, the guards won't beat you."

But still he begged.

"It's only an eight-month sentence," she said. "Use it as an opportunity to turn your life around."

She had no advice for what he said next.

"The big kids. They chase the little kids," he said quietly. "And when they catch ya' they blow ya'."

"They blow you?"

My mother assumed he spoke of oral sex. After listening to more description she realized he meant sodomy.

"I seen 'em even kill dogs that way," he concluded.

She felt sick to her stomach.

She contemplated not taking him. He wasn't handcuffed. He ate lunch with my parents in a restaurant outside of Tallahassee, and she waited for him to run away. But he didn't. Instead he tagged along behind her like a wounded animal, begging her not to leave him.

My mother didn't ask any more questions. She didn't say much either. She was young and inexperienced and stuck with a system that didn't care. She listened to his pleas, knowing she could do nothing for him.

When she returned to work on that Monday, it was only to hand in her resignation.

Derry Smith lives in St. Petersburg. She shares her stories on her blog, storiesonthenines.org.

Sunday Journal: For social worker, biggest lie didn't come from 'hoodlum children' 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]

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