Insight From Our Clinical Director: Part 4
Interviewer: Start with a story of what is it like when a boy arrives at Bonnie Brae?
Jamie: I think one of the things that I’ve tried for many, many years to do with respective donors, state partners, family members, young people, and perspective employees, is to try and describe the experience, and you know the old saying, “first impression,” right? So when I’ve gone to other facilities for intake or to be a part of a workgroup to take a look at specific things for intake, it’s like going to a hospital. There tends to be harsh lighting, medicinal smells and the general atmosphere is cold and not very warm and inviting. One place had this huge stack of letters that was supposed to be motivating, but I thought it was more frightening than inviting. One of the more exciting parts about this new project is that the first thing families and young people will see is our rich history which demonstrates that Bonnie Brae is comprised of caring adults and professionals at the top of their game. People will see that we have adequate space for them to be comfortable and to have privacy. Imagine going to an intake at your doctors office and sitting for 90 minutes in a small office space where you are sharing intimate details of your history, none of which are particularly pleasant, with total strangers. My feeling is that the atmosphere, the opportunity for young people to come and have a great first impression of us is really important.
One of the things I teach both my graduate students and my clinical staff is that our success - a good prognosis - begins with a good admissions decision. We don’t work independently, this is a collaboration between the staff and the young people and the families. These families can be resistant because of the experiences they have had to date. We give them an opportunity to be heard, to share with us what didn’t work prior, and we give them an opportunity to be successful and encourage them that there are some things that did work. To be able to do this in a place that is bright, comfortable, and open, surrounded by our history, and that affords a level of privacy will be amazing. Currently during intake, our young people have no other option than to sit in our main lobby, where we are conducting business, the phone is ringing, other guests are coming by including young people, staff, maintenance workers, and delivery men. This is not necessarily the experience I would like them to have.
Interviewer: How does a boy come to Bonnie Brae and what’s the experience? Do they want to come here when they come? Is it difficult? Do they sometimes resist from the start of being here? Or how do the parents feel about this?
Jamie: I’m going to share with you a story that is very fresh to me. All of our referrals come from the state of NJ, from what’s called “children’s System of Care.” We have a contract and we are licensed by the State of NJ, The Division of Children and Families. My admissions people called me and our state liaison sent an email requesting that I specifically meet with a young man because he had created havoc in a number of places and had been negatively discharged from four previous placements. The one he was coming to be interviewed with, was his fifth. And so on paper, he had not looked very good, and it stated he was angry and acting out, destructive and aggressive, and unwilling. The state had no other option but Bonnie Brae. I used to think that we were the treatment provider of last resort but I believe that what we actually are is the treatment provider of hope. We take in people who have not been successful elsewhere, that’s our area of expertise. This young man, on paper, and was angry, resistant and didn’t want to be here. And even as incredible, effective, compassionate and caring as our staff is, imagine what it is like for this young man. Imagine being away from your home in a place where, for example, you had a job where you knew no one and that you worked ten hours a day and you had no other connections and yet you needed that job. That’s really what this is like for these young people. No young person should really want to be here, in a sense that this is not the real world. As beautiful as it is here, we are still an institution, and serious things have happened in order for a young person to come here.
There are also two parts that we forget: we forget that the young people can’t be separated from the families, and that nobody is here because their life is going well. All the young men here have suffered very significant trauma that has impacted on their abilities to relate, to communicate, to be safe, and to develop and establish relationships. This young man was a very tough case, and the state was very, very worried that we were not going to accept him; so much so, that they asked, which is very unusual, that I meet the young man myself. Based on all that information I went up to this 16-year-old, slightly built young man who stood up and said, “good afternoon.” He told me his name and shook my hand, and we engaged in about a ten-minute conversation that was actually quite pleasant, where he was able to say, “I am angry that I was taken from my mother, I didn’t like the places that I was before, I was not happy with how adults treated me, but I realize that I need to do something different and I’m wondering if this is an opportunity in a place like this.” Because of this, we had a very reasonable conversation and this young man is coming to us.
Now, that is not always the experience. There are certainly young people and families who, by the time they come to us, have lost total trust and faith in the system. Or, are so significantly involved as part of the problem that they are ready to fight, and we have had some fairly explosive interviews. Again, I have an excellent admissions team who can problem solve just about anything that happens in those interviews. Imagine having only 90 minutes to engage a family or young person for the first time, and to make an informed decision that’s in the best interest of the family, the young person, and the agency. This takes a good amount of skill and we’re very, very fortunate to have an excellent group that can do that. There is a balance between asking the right questions, and creating a supportive, helping environment.
Some see this as an alternative to something worse believe it or not, some see this as doing time. I was called to the parking lot several years ago and there was a young boy locked in his parent’s car sobbing. When he finally opened the door for me and I asked him what the problem was, he said “Mr., this is not the Woodbridge Mall, is it?” You see, his family had told him that they were going shopping at the Woodbridge Mall, and to me that was just a function of how difficult this decision must be - to trust the care of your child to total strangers. How difficult it must be for a young person to come to a place like this, particularly if you’ve had bad experiences in previous placements. And so to me, the family center - this great compilation of history, admissions and treatment work, visiting space, teaching space and learning space, is a great way to start anybody’s experience with us.