Learning to Verbally Display Fairness


I learned a valuable lesson from one of the first residents I ever worked with. He was a friendly and cooperative child, who at the time was new just like I was. I later found out he would be a bit of an instigator and bully. Let me tell you about Juan.

I have never seen a little boy with a comeback for everything. Juan was a quick talker who regularly enjoyed gossiping about the other boys. He caused wildfires between the other kids in the other cottages, especially the one next door, but was never burned by the flame.

Juan was bullied, but I guess he forgot how that made him feel because eventually, he became the new tough guy who you didn’t want to mess with within the cottage. He showed his dominance to the other children, putting them in situations to see if they would speak up or walk away.

Testing the new kids, Juan thought, “The new kid spoke up. I’m gonna get to know him and leave him alone.” Or when the new kid walked away thought, “I am going to mess with him and show everyone else, you do not want to mess with me.” All the newer younger children or anyone that wasn’t willing to stick up for themselves when another child crossed their boundaries was going to get bullied by Juan. And keep in mind, I watched Juan get bullied himself when he was new. In fact, I protected him. 

Juan was a nice kid, but I guess I didn’t know him that well. Being the youngest at the time, Juan wanted to be just like Tayvon, the oldest boy in the cottage. Just like Juan, Tayvon had his own trauma that he was dealing with. How he handled that was to sometimes be a bully to Juan and other children. Not all the time, only when Juan acted too tough or overconfident. Then Tayvon called him out on it.

The difference between Tayvon and Juan was that Tayvon appreciated when the staff was nice to him. He never took anyone’s kindness for granted and spoke up when Juan was getting kind of verbally aggressive with me. He spoke up when everyone was too scared to say something because Tayvon knew I was nice to him and everyone else in the cottage. I treated everybody the same, but not every child processed that kindness in a similar way. 

Fostering Empathy for Juan’s Bully

I remember a particular day when Tayvon’s tough act disappeared before me. He was told by his case manager that he would be going on a trial visit in a few weeks and based on his behavior, he would stay home permanently. He was so happy and in such a great mood.

The day came when his social worker was going to drop him off. Every staff member was so happy for him because everyone knew Tayvon was ready. He was in the residential treatment center for over a year and didn’t want to transfer to another placement.

Unfortunately, Tayvon’s visit was short-lived because a few weeks later, Tayvon was back in the RTC. He was caught smoking by his grandmother. I will never forget when Tayvon ran down the hall, slammed his old bedroom door, and started punching his locker, the cylinder walls, and the bulletin board in his room. Like most children in the foster care system, sometimes you only get one opportunity to make zero mistakes. And for Tayvon, his one opportunity slipped him the day he was caught smoking. 

About an hour later, right before I was done with my shift, I checked in on Tayvon and asked, “How are you doing?” And if he ever needed someone to talk to, that “I would be there for him.” I remember walking away and then looking back at where Tayvon’s room was. I could see him by his window staring out at the rain, tears rolling down his cheeks. He probably cried for the rest of the day. I can only imagine what he was feeling. Disappointment by his behavior. Rejection by his grandmother. And anger for two more years in the system.

I saw a child crying in that window. That tough exterior he put up was not there as staff and residents saw him sitting on his desk crying as he looked out the window. For the first time, I saw Tayvon as a child crying. Past the bullying and anger, he was just a kid who felt abandoned by his family members because the grandmother wasn’t going to take him home. 

Although he needed someone to comfort him, when you work in an RTC, you’re not allowed to get close to any of the residents, share your social media or personal information, or even give a hug. Later in the year, Tayvon transferred to another RTC, and that day, I gave him a gift. It was a small devotional bible because he believed in God.

I will never forget the look on almost every staff member’s face as I handed him his gift. Their looks and every nonverbal body cue, if it could scream, translated to me as, “You are getting too close!”

As I handed him his gift, I said, “Goodbye” to Tayvon. With his gift in his hand, he walked away with his social worker. 

A little later in the day, another treatment counselor who was a pastor’s wife (outside her 8 to 5) told me, “Never give any of the residents’ gifts!” This woman confronted me every time I was kind to the children and would later refer to me as “being weak.” My kindness was a weakness to her, but that never stopped me.

I couldn’t get on board with how the supervisor, the vice president of programs, coworkers treated the children. But if you were to ask them they would say, “We love the kids.” I walked in having good intentions, but those intentions were quickly tested. Then tested again, and then tested again when I was being “weak” with the kids.

I felt the animosity, the bullying, and the aggressive undertones as they worked with me every day for 10-hour shifts. I couldn’t talk to my supervisor. I couldn’t talk to HR. I couldn’t talk to anyone, because at the end of the day, they didn’t care about the children. This was their livelihood: getting kids nobody wanted and getting paid to spit them out even worse than how they came.    

The day staff swooped in and became the new bullies

When he lived in the cottage, both staff and residents avoided altercations with Tayvon. You would think that after Tayvon left, along with his buddy Albert, staff would be cordial with the rest of the cottage. But as soon as Tayvon left, the new bullies in the cottage weren’t the children – it was the staff.

There could never be a valid reason for adults to bully kids. In fact, none of the kids we currently worked with were aggressive or physically intimidating. That was probably why. The staff did it because they could. 

They were in the business to exploit abused and neglected foster kids because 90 percent of them had no family or anybody. They could be cruel and abuse their power without getting into trouble because the foster children didn’t have any mama, or daddy, or nobody to call. They can literally do whatever they want and that was scary. 

Juan’s Honeymoon phase

Juan admired Tayvon because whether he knew it or not, he was a leader. Although Juan was the youngest kid in the cottage, he tried to act older for his age. Being a strong personality, the older children listened to him. He had a way of persuading the kids with his quick talk. He made the other children listen to him. That was not good because he loved to start drama. When the other kids started fighting, Juan was never around.

He was friends with everybody, but only when it benefited him. He wasn’t going to be friends with you when his other friends, Tayvon and Albert, were making fun of you. In fact, he joined in. But when Juan was alone with you, he’d laugh, eat, and talk with you like a friend.

I guess after the honeymoon phase, Juan was comfortable being smart to staff. But for some reason, he had it out for me. This wasn’t the Juan I first met when he came to us. As I said, he was a sweet kid, who needed staff to protect him when he was being bullied. I always wondered, why did he change so much?

I was very close to Juan in the beginning. He was respectful and easy to work with. I can say I did my best to build rapport with him, as I tried to be there for Juan during this season in his life. However, something changed and it wasn’t me.

We had new kids come into the cottage as some ran away or moved to other placements. One kid who also had a strong personality (though humble and kind to the staff) was a self-harmer and suicidal. It made staff pay a little bit more attention to him because he was very needy but also enjoyed talking to the staff. This kid wanted staff to pay attention to him, and the way he got attention was to ask staff to help him with something.

I became close to this new resident too, though not giving more attention to him. I learned a little bit about his story. He felt safe to share it with me, which does not happen very often when you’re used to the other children pushing you away. But he trusted me with his story.

After listening to it, I understood why he was a self-harmer and suicidal. It was hard to hear but I listened without asking questions because I was shocked, scared, and didn’t want to retrigger him. But after that day, I thought about his trauma and wanted to help him any way I could.

It was kids like Carlos that made me deal with the toxic teammates. So many people cared about this child – he was an easy kid to like – but Carlos always felt unloved. To deal with his trauma, Carlos was an emotional eater. So when after school came, Carlos would ask me, “Miss can you make me a quesadilla or breakfast burrito?” And you know what, it didn’t bother me. If I wanted to make him a quesadilla, and I didn’t have to watch the hall or fill out paperwork, I did!  

Food restrictions

While working in RTC, I never heard another kid ask, “Miss can you make me a grilled cheese?” or, “Can you make me a PB&J?” I believe the reason they didn’t feel comfortable asking was because they were expecting staff to say, “Make it yourself.” They already knew the answer. Being a child where all the adults never loved you, it’s easy to understand why the kids never let you in, to be vulnerable, and to ask for help.

Although they were very independent, they were controlled. They couldn’t have orange juice or punch or use the microwave or toaster without asking the staff. When it came to the after-school snack, they were limited to one even if there were extra. Although the kitchen prepared 16 snacks, the children could only have one. The staff put exactly eight on the counter as the rest were stored in the staff’s office fridge.

And when it came to breakfast, they were limited to two 1 oz cereal bowls, the ones you could pour milk into. If waffles or cinnamon sticks weren’t on the menu, then the waffles and cinnamon sticks that were inside the fridge couldn’t be eaten. Staff removed food items the children wanted to eat or drink, like punch, orange juice, waffles, and cinnamon sticks. They also limited them by restricting the cereal or after-school snacks to one or two per child. What they did was remove these food items, by taking them out of the resident’s fridge and putting them in the staff’s fridge.

They knew which items the kids enjoyed eating, which meant they knew what they were doing. If control wasn’t the reason, why didn’t they restrict the milk or turkey meat? The truth is, those items didn’t bother the children as it was not something they ate often. But items they did drink or eat would remind the kids, “we’re in charge, you are not”. That’s exactly what they were trying to do when they removed those items.  

Did I mention the snacks? If food items were about to expire do you think they gave the snacks for the children to eat? The answer is no. Staff would take them home and say, “I am going to donate them to my church.” Or if staff didn’t want to take them home, they threw them away rather than giving them to the children a few weeks or days before they expired.

Some of the snacks staff would throw away rather than give to the residents included hot chocolate, individual peanut butter spread, graham crackers, peanuts, crackers, and Chex mix. Staff would restock the snack cabinet by ordering snacks when they expired or just running low.

Because they had to date each one or stock them on the shelf, or just didn’t want any food that the kids actually liked eating, my coworkers on my shift told me not to order any of the good snacks on the food list. She would tell me, “They don’t need any more chips or cookies, they have enough” or “they have other snacks they can eat.”

Items I could order on the food item list were snack size chips, Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, or fruit rollups, which were the items my coworkers didn’t want me to order. They acted as if they were using their own money to buy them, but obviously, that wasn’t the reason. I’ll let the reader determine what was the real truth behind staff not wanting any of the good snacks stocked in the snack cabinet. It wasn’t like the children ate junk food anytime they wanted: they were limited to two snacks in the afternoon, and like everything else, they were small quantities. 

The size portion of their disposable bowls and cups was very small. If they got a second portion, they were redirected not to eat so much because maybe not everyone grabbed their portion of the food yet. You also have to understand that the food they ate Monday through Sunday for lunch and dinner was public school lunch meat and frozen vegetables. It was very cheaply prepared and not very good. Seen in this context, you can understand why the children looked forward to eating waffles, cinnamon sticks, cereal, and snacks. 

This is the reason why Juan had it out for me.

Slowly the sweet little boy who once was bullied himself started to get verbally aggressive with me. To the point that before he left for school, I was mentally ready and expecting Juan to have a debate with me. What was once a verbal tussle slowly turned into physical threats, as Juan threatened to punch or pull my hair! Even though he never followed through with his physical intimidations.

I was so confused. “Why was Juan so angry with me? Although he was angry before, one morning I finally got an answer.

While asking Juan to get ready for school, Juan began saying to me, “You don’t like me anymore!” Finally, I understood why he wanted to argue, punch, or pull my hair. His tone wasn’t sad, although I knew he was hurting. His tone was angry.

I couldn’t just pull him over to the side and talk to him. He was reliving the pain he felt every time an adult rejected him. And I was that new adult, I could see through his body language, his fist clenching, his heavy breathing, his eyes glaring, and his raised voice that now was not the time to talk.

Juan had no self-control to communicate or regulate his feelings when he felt rejected. And being the adult in the relationship, I couldn’t communicate what he was really trying to tell me. He wanted validation. Yet the way he did it, if you weren’t able to see his underlying pain, could have pushed away from the type of people who were trying to care for him.

After that day when he finally said, “You don’t like me.” I kept thinking, “Why does he think I don’t like him? Am I treating him differently? Was I not giving him enough attention?” I couldn’t think of anything I was doing differently in my character. I just understood that. “He thinks I hate him.

The next time he said it, “You don’t like me anymore.” I asked him, “Why do you think I don’t like you?” I needed to know. His response was surprising, but it wasn’t the reason. He started saying things like, “You don’t like me, because I am black!” I reassured Juan by saying, “I like everyone in the group home, especially you. It doesn’t matter if you are African American!” When he was angry, I wasn’t able to probe him with questions. I felt defensive. My breathing became shallower, I couldn’t disconnect when he targeted me with his angry words. I never had that conversation with Juan, but I speculated the reason.

Although he tried to act older for his age, he was just a little kid who couldn’t communicate his true feelings. What I think he wanted to say was, “I think you like Carlos more.”  

When Carlos would ask me to make him a breakfast burrito or quesadilla, sometimes in the morning or sometimes after school, having the time and willingness, I would make it for him. Juan being present I can only assume was one of the reasons he became very jealous. I wasn’t able to give him all of my attention and whatever attention I did give to Juan was now divided between Carlos and the other kids in the cottage.

I knew he was jealous, because one day he asked me, “Why do you always cook for Carlos and never ask me?” 

To be honest, I didn’t think Juan was hungry or wanted anything for that matter. But from then on, what I started to do before I cooked anything, I began asking everyone who was near the vicinity of the kitchen or the living room area, “I am making quesadillas or breakfast burritos. Does anyone else want one?” 

When you work with children who have unresolved trauma, the pain they carry can sometimes resurface when they form new relationships with their caregivers. For Juan, I believe he needed someone to help him cope with his abandonment trauma, negative self-image, and fear of closeness. Juan needed one caregiver who was trauma-informed. Juan couldn’t get his needs met in an RTC when the role of a caregiver is rotated and shared between multiple adults.

Although the treatment counselors are one of the multiple caregivers, the TC spends the most time with the children but isn’t given the proper training to understand children with trauma. And though my position was called a therapeutic treatment counselor, the training I received didn’t prepare me to handle Juan. 

Through my lack of training, I didn’t pay attention to my own behavior. I felt incapable of deescalating Juan when he became triggered. Instead of using this experience to bond us closer, I avoided Juan. I couldn’t prompt or model to him how he could handle his abandonment in a healthy way, especially if someone comes along like Carlos and his caregiver starts to be nice to someone else.

Unlike Carlos, Juan never opened up about his trauma. And as a TC, I wasn’t able to read his case files. But I learned a valuable lesson that day. Treat everyone the same by offering everyone who is present the same courtesy you are presenting to somebody else, regardless if they do not ask or say, “no” multiple times.

This lesson was learned too late as Juan and my relationship with him was never the same! He left on a bitter note and when he changed placements, still believed I didn’t like him anymore! Looking back, I wish I could have handled the situation better. 

To give or not to give? That is the question.

But moving forward, I tried to show Juan I cared for him even though I avoided him. But when he became frustrated, I simply couldn’t prevent or de-escalate his acting out. It affected me because I didn’t know how to help Juan. I tried not to take what he was saying personally and I never retaliated.

So when Juan was on Level S and he asked me, “Since I cannot use the cooking utensils, miss, can you please make me a quesadilla?” Being on Level S, one of the consequences is to not use cooking utensils, such as a skillet, pan, pot, or spatula. The question that still bothers me today is — “Did I violate Juan’s rights when I followed the institutions’ rules to not let him, as well as the other children, use cooking utensils when they were on Level S?” 

According to the Assembly Bill (AB) 175, “The rights are as follows: (3) to receive adequate and healthy food.”

If a child doesn’t follow the RTC’s rules, should food be used as a consequence? If so, can the RTC set limits when a child violates their rules, restricting their access to prepare food because the rule set in place is having no access to cooking utensils is a violation of their foster care rights? What if that child on Level S doesn’t like the food served for lunch that day or is just hungry between lunch and dinner. Can they still have access to pots and pans if they want to prepare food, regardless of their level? 

It’s sad to see when a child is hungry, so I didn’t mind making Juan a quesadilla. While flipping the tortilla, my coworker leaned against the counter. She whispered, “Are you making the quesadilla for Juan? He’s on Level S….he doesn’t deserve a quesadilla.”

As I put the quesadilla on a plate, I contemplated whether I could throw away the quesadilla in front of Juan. The trash being just a few feet away, I thought, “Maybe he won’t see me… but he knows I was making it for him.” And if I didn’t, would I be ready to deal with the backlash from the lead staff. She was watching me, waiting to see when the quesadilla gets tossed in the trash.

Quickly, scanning the pros and cons of the situation, I couldn’t bring myself to throw away the quesadilla. It felt wrong. Telling Juan I didn’t mind making it because he couldn’t make it himself and then throw it in the trash felt like I was compromising my values. It felt right to hand Juan the quesadilla. But the look on my coworker’s face, if eyes could kill, glared at me as she shook her head across the room. She was pissed. She barely talked to me the next following days. There were no regrets on my part. My intuition told me something was wrong, and I am proud of myself for listening to it.

I was unsure if I could say something to my supervisor, so instead, I wrote an email to the short-term residential therapeutic program director. She never responded to my email regarding the food utensil rule or concerns about the food restrictions. Shortly later, the unit manager who was my supervisor told me, “Stop making them gourmet meals!” when she walked into the cottage and saw a plate full of turkey sandwiches. I prepared the after-school snack. The snack was a loaf of bread and a bag of turkey meat. Since I wasn’t doing anything, sometimes you sit around having nothing to do while the kids are in school. I figured, “Why not make them now, so they are ready when the kids get back from school.” I guess it was not a good idea for my supervisor, and after that day, because everyone was getting hostile with me regarding my cooking, I stopped.

Even though I tried to treat Juan fairly by making him a quesadilla that day, I started to observe applying the “reasonable and prudent parent standard” meant nothing when you work in RTC. I couldn’t make sensible parental decisions because my supervisor, who was in charge of the cottage along with the lead, didn’t feel the children deserved to be treated with care,  regardless if they were on Level S or not.

Learning from my experience, I tried to treat all the children fairly. But that was not possible because I worked in an environment of toxic leadership and teammates. I had more issues with the staff than I ever had with the children, believe it or not. Instead of the program director holding the supervisor or the lead accountable for their actions, all of them were friends and covered each other’s back.

My rapport with Juan was never the same. Juan left on a bitter note. We said our goodbyes but the day he left, he believed I didn’t like him anymore. No matter how hard I try, sometimes in our lives, we learn lessons too late!