(The center was a holding facility for children who had been arrested and were waiting to go to court. Resident was a socially acceptable term for Inmates who were Juveniles.)
Ebonee was a resident on the female unit. She was a pretty girl who kept her hair neat despite her surroundings. Her beauty and grooming drew the anger and envy of the other girls who would try to scratch her face pull her hair or find some way to make her less good-looking. She was a well-behaved kid so the female counselors liked her. They allowed her to do clean-up jobs and other duties that kept her away from the rest of the group as much as possible. This only made the other girls more jealous. I would see Ebonee every once in a while, when she was passing with the rest of the girls on her way to the lunchroom or when I worked on the unit next to the girl’s unit. The boys were the real reason that I first noticed her. They would go crazy whenever she was around. Some would be mesmerized. Some of the guy’s eyes would pop out of their heads. “Cool out, fellas,” I would say. “You act like you haven’t seen a pretty girl before.” They would act like hungry wolves looking at steak. I would say, “Calm down,” when she passed in the lunchroom but they continued to swoon and moon for her.
I asked some of my co-workers, did you notice how the kids act when that little girl with the long hair is around?” One of them said, “You mean the one that has the body of a grown woman?” I said, “You know that’s not right. She’s just a kid. She probably has enough problems.” Over the years I had learned that you never know what a kid sees in you or why they choose to confide in one person and not another. It was important to be aware at all times. A teen could pick any of the counselors to open up to. They might report a pending escape or someone’s desire to commit suicide. They could pick any of the adults from the director to the maintenance man.
There was no rhyme or reason for why or when they opened up to you. It could be that you looked like someone they trusted or your mannerisms might be comfortable for them or a million other reasons. The key was to remain aware because you never know who they might feel safe enough to talk to. One day, out of the blue, Ebonee decided to open up to me. I think she overheard my reaction to one of the little guys who was crying. I told him that everything was going to be alright and this would all be over soon. Or she may have overheard my comment about her having enough problems. To be honest, I still have no idea why she picked me.
I was working the adjacent boy’s unit on the four to twelve shift and she was mopping the female unit. She was sniffling and crying, wiping her eyes. I started not to say anything to her because, in the system, a male counselor in close proximity to the female residents could spell trouble. Most of the male counselors just kept their distance, but she seemed distraught. My kids were settling into bed and I looked at the female counselors who both were occupied. Then one of the lady counselors left the floor. She walked right by Ebonee and she didn’t notice that the kid was upset. I decided to find out what was wrong.
The foyer was a semiprivate area where I could monitor my group as they settled for bed but where she could talk without being overheard. After sitting on a wooden radiator cover in the hall I said, “Young lady, can I see you for a minute.” She walked over to me and I asked her if she was alright. She said, “Yeah,” and went back to her work. But as I stood to return to the male unit to write my log entries, she reappeared and asked, “Can I talk to you for a minute.” The kids were not allowed in the staff area where I had been working but the foyer was out of earshot of the group. I thought she was going to tell me that her boyfriend dumped her or she missed her family but what she told me made me hold on to my seat. I should have known. After all, we were at the Center.
She began slowly and purposefully. “I don't know when it all started. Maybe I was too young to remember or I guess I blocked it out of my mind somehow. I can only recall telling Dora, one particular day, what he did to me when she got home from work. Mom made me call her by her first name, Dora. She said when I called her ‘mom,’ it made her feel old. I preferred calling her mom because, at least when I said the word, it was like she almost was a normal mom, even for a few seconds.
“She confronted him about what I told her but he was very convincing ‘What kind of man do you think I am Dora?’ he said. ‘I ain’t that low. I would never do anything like that to a child. Do you actually believe I would do that?’ “He said, ‘You know she don't want us to be together. I thought you knew me better than that. If you love someone you got to trust them. You got to trust me baby or we got nothin’,’ he said. This guy was my mother's boyfriend who had moved in soon after she got on drugs. She was working and he was not so he stayed home with me while she worked. Not only did she not have to pay for daycare but he copped drugs for her so that made him believable, I guess. He left me alone after I told mom but only for a while but soon it started up again. I had to do something. I hated when he touched me, when he forced himself on me.
“My Grandma was my only other living relative, that is, except for my father who I had never met and who was doing life in prison. I could have told my grandma but she had a bad heart and I was afraid of killing her if I did. Instead, I asked my mother to take me to see my father at the prison. ‘She wondered why I wanted to see him so bad after so much time had passed. When I wouldn't answer the question, she dropped the subject and forgot all about it. I was determined to see my father so I ditched school the next day and caught the bus up to the prison. They wouldn't let me in ‘cause I was too young. The rules required that an adult accompany me. “The bus ride home seemed to take forever but part of me was happy. That prison was a big scary place and I was glad to get away from there. My father had never done anything for me in life. He was sent to prison soon after I was born. I didn't even know what he looked like but I knew in my heart if I told him this guy was raping me, he would have him killed or something. “My goal was to find a way to get to visit him. He was probably a big time gangster who could have people killed just by snapping his fingers. Just thinking about that made me feel better. “When I got home, I asked to spend the night at my grandma’s. Usually, I would stay the whole weekend. I was happy there. She and I, we just, well, clicked, you know? We got along so well. Grandma didn't like my father. She says she knew he was a loser when my mom first brought him home. She said that I was the best thing he had ever done in his whole miserable life. Since she disliked him so much, I had never written to him, talked to him or nothin’. I thought of writing to him about my problem but each time I tried, the right words would not come out. No, this had to be done face-to-face. That was the only way.
Dr. Carlton Payne has more than 30 years of experience in the field of psychology. He earned his BA in psychology from LaSalle University, his MS in Counseling Psychology from Villanova University and his PhD. in Educational Psychology from Temple University. He has taught college and graduate students and served as the Chief Psychologist and Director of Behavioral Health for the City of Philadelphia Prison System. His areas of expertise include Forensic Psychology, Psychological Testing/Assessment, Learning Abilities/Disabilities, Mediation/Dispute Resolution, Suicide Prevention/Grief Counseling, Diversity/Multicultural Education, Anger Management, and Curriculum Design.
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