One of my family members just left a job working with kids in one of those places where they are sent by families who want to get rid of them.  From start to finish she was horrified by the abuses of the children for whom she had medical responsibilities — fractures caused to them by rough treatment by staff who had more or less been hired off the street without credentials for such employment.  She has duly reported the abuses to the appropriate authorities and hopefully follow up investigations will follow.

Her experience reminded me of my own radically contrasting experiences at her age working first in a community center in a poor community in London (Bethnal Green) when a teen exchange student and later in one in lower Harlem as a graduate student.  I had taken on these jobs with background experience as a teen myself working as a summer camp counselor post WW2 when manpower was in short supply.

Let me sketch the differences which I fear still exist:

The Bethnal Green Community Center was run by a director (and his wife) who lived in an apartment in the building.  They were residents of the community, knew many outside their building walls, would solicit stuff from local merchants when we had a party.  My experiences with the British kids more or less paralleled those from my summer camp days.  They were well fed, had excellent medical care.  Some were partial or full war orphans, but had good social work assistance from caring people.

Manhattanville Community Center was an entirely different world five years later.  Most of the kids with whom I was working were also partial orphans.  Welfare provisions in those days excluded a “man in the house” as a bar to welfare support.  As most fathers had lost their jobs with the return of our veterans who reclaimed them, my little gang of kids was not offered the advantage of fathering.  Further welfare benefits were none too great.  The kids were hungry, so we did cooking as our primary activity — cakes from mixes that I brought in mainly.  They also did not have access to decent medical care.  One little guy had infectious impetigo sores all over his legs which he covered in shame as best he could.

But the big difference was the attitudes of the ‘professionals’ working with the kids.  Most lived far from Harlem.  Most were white and did not relate to African Americans in any direct way.  We had a supervising psychiatrist who was a member of one of those psychiatric cult groupings which I think has now disappeared.  In a heavy German accent he would insist that 9/10 of the kids were borderline schizophrenics.  Needless to say many of the social workers treated them as such.

One horror story stands out in memory.  Two of my little gang were brothers.  One day a social worker — a Vassar grad — came looking for them.  She was their official case worker, but afraid to go to their home.  I offered to go with her and we set out in her car.  It soon became apparent that she was nuts!!!  When she saw African American men standing on street corners, she would exclaim” “There’s another Communist!!!”  We reached the family in a now torn down tenement.  The apartment had two rooms.  Cardboard filling replaced the broken glass in one which had two battered stuffed chairs.  The other had a large bed.  In the latter apparently the 2 youngest children slept with the mother.  Two other little ones got to go to sleep in the armchairs.  When asleep the two oldest with whom I was working could lift them on to the floor so that they could go to sleep in the chairs.  The social worker had some harsh words to say to the mother, concluding with the threat that if she had any more children, she would take all of her kids away.  As we were leaving a little girl slammed the door, catching the woman’s coat at which she screamed and screamed and fled. Later the mother was hospitalized after having nearly killed herself with an attempted abortion with a coat hanger.  “Brother Boy” came to me looking for help to get back to a grandmother in the Southland.  Instead I was obliged to take him to the Orangeburg State Mental Hospital, which I discovered to be the only refuge for abandoned African American boys — there was a riot in the men’s violent ward as we arrived.

When I got back to the center, I told my boss, the center director, that this woman was a nut.  He told me that I just did not understand how things work.  Six weeks later he called me in and told me that I had been absolutely right about this Vassar grad social worker — she had apparently nearly destroyed 30 families that had been assigned to her as case worker!

I am not saying that all American social workers or others working with poor families treat them brutally.  From the reports that I get now and again from students and others, about one in ten is a really caring person.  Most are pretty incompetent and perhaps two are really brutal.

If one is poor and dependent on the system, one is likely to encounter the worst of things.  And we wonder why kids do not finish school or why so many end up in prison?

When I was teaching at Brooklyn College where we have some large auditoriums, we would occasionally find a traffic jam of school buses with Little kids being herded to some event or other.  Some of the teachers would seem caring, but the majority by far would look angry and depressed with their jobs.  Such was my observation of education majors. The weakest students were all too often entering this field — with the occasional superstar and caring one.  NYC notoriously pays its teachers far less than do the competing nearby suburban schools.  So where to you think our best teachers migrate when they can.  Teaching is an incredibly demanding occupation and burn out is all too common — we lose about half of ours after a few years, if I recall the stats accurately.

So why do you suppose that so many of our kids never graduate from high school — the minimum education that one needs for any sort of decent job?

P.S. When I visited my French pen pal as a teen I found that his father was a public school teacher — and a short visit made it clear that teachers were respected by the French at a level only slightly lower than doctors and political officials.  Think about the slams directed at our teachers with their low salaries based on a bygone era when teaching was one of the few jobs available to women apart from secretarial and household things.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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