Friday, December 30, 2011

The Difficulties Finding a Good Support Worker or Coach

I started writing this blog in a rage. When I finished my detailed four-page (word document format) rant, I read it through and realized that’s exactly what I had done. Rant. And rants don’t necessarily make good blogs.

While it felt good for me to give a blow-by-blow explanation of why my husband and I decided we have to fire our son’s support worker today, I realized that’s about all it did: help me get something disturbing and sad out of my system and down on paper.

But, as I said, that’s all it did. Though I think dozens of people raising children with special needs would relate to my unhappy situation (if they made it through my dense writing), it wasn’t going to work for a blog. Experience tells me that more often than not, most readers’ eyes begin to glaze over when reading (or listening to!) other people’s angry missives.

So, I’m rewriting this blog entry right now and will try to stick to the salient facts. Wish me good luck.

It has always been difficult to find good support workers (or coaches) for our son with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. When he was diagnosed with FAS at the age of six, in 1993, few professionals had heard of FAS. Many who did know about it misunderstood the condition completely (“people with FAS have no conscience”; “they’re violent”; “they can’t learn,” etc.).

So when Michael was young, we couldn’t find a support worker who had a good understanding of children with FAS or how to work with them. While we did find caring, sensitive workers, they had no specific training working with people with FAS so they often relied on therapeutic models that didn’t work, such as “Just try harder, Michael.”  Or, “You know you weren’t suppose to do that. So why did you?” Or, “You knew that 2+2= 4 last week. Why do you not know it this week?”  That kind of thing.

People who understand FAS know that many people, including our son with this neurological disorder, have poor executive functioning, bad memories and don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their action. They need external brains.

Back to the support worker. Last year, we hired Bob to work with Michael, now 24. Michael still needs help following routines of daily living and needs to improve skills which will allow him to live what is called “semi-independent living.”  Michael lives in a group home during the week and is home with us on Friday through Sundays. Michael also needs someone he can talk to.  The staff at the group home, while nice, provide minimal support.

Bob came recommended because he had worked with people with FASD before, and when we interviewed him, we were impressed with his knowledge of the disorder.

Once hired, Bob spent several hours twice a week with Michael helping him with daily routines. He took him out grocery shopping, to the library. He helped him on the public transit system and did other things to  get him out into the world. And they talked.

We thought everything was working well with Bob and Michael was content with seeing him several times a week.  Until…

Michael broke a serious rule at his group home a month ago (I don’t feel it fair to Michael to write what it was, but suffice it to say, Michael didn’t harm or affect anyone else).

Needless to say the group home workers as well as my husband and I were deeply upset about what Michael did. We met and tried to come up with appropriate consequences and reinforcements to ensure Michael understood the “wrongness” of his act and wouldn’t repeat it again.

But it’s not easy to teach someone not to do something again, even when they understand it’s wrong, when they act more on impulse rather than reason.

This is where the problem with Bob comes in. Bob decided the best way to reach/teach Michael about this issue was to berate, bully, and verbally bludgeon Michael about his misdeed. He was relentless and wouldn’t give up. He believed he had to “break Michael’s defenses down,” in order for Michael to understand the seriousness of his misconduct. He repeatedly had Michael in tears.

We didn’t know about this until Michael eventually came to us, crying, and explained what was going on. “I don’t think anyone should treat me like that.”  “He asks me questions about what I did that I can’t answer.”  “When someone is that mean to me, I dig in my heels and it makes me want to do the opposite.”  “I don’t want to work with him anymore.”  “He makes me feel bad about myself.”

You would think that would be enough for my husband and I. You’d think we would call Bob and tell him we didn’t think this approach was constructive for Michael or a way to help him learn to control his impulses better.  But we didn’t trust our instincts. Bob was a professional. He came highly recommended. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t. Perhaps we were being unnecessarily protective and defensive of our son.

So, instead, we set up a meeting with Bob for all of us to meet and decide how and if to move forward.

I’ll spare you the details of the meeting, but Bob was belittling to my husband and me (you’re too easy on Michael; you’re pretending there isn’t a problem; you’re letting Michael get away with things).  He bullied Michael when Michael tried to talk (“Speak louder.”  “You can’t just tell me you’re not going to do that again. You have to tell me how you’re going to stop yourself from doing it…”

Bingo. Time to trust my instincts. Too bad I hadn’t earlier.

This guy is a bully. Michael’s not going to learn anything from this guy. He’s going to do the opposite of what Bob says. Plus, our goal is to build Michael up, give him confidence, help him reprogram his brain in a constructive way.

As Michael said, no one should treat Michael like this.

So we’re firing Bob. One problem solved. But there’s always another.

How are we going to find someone (good) to take his place. My husband and I can do only so much. Michael’s not the only one who needs support.

Whew! I did it. The blog is now only two dense pages. Congratulations to any of my blog readers who made it through from beginning to end.

I would love to hear about any of your own experiences  (good or bad) with workers, and what you do to ensure you’ve found the right one.

Or, you might want to share experiences about a time when you did or did not trust your own instincts.

Happy New Year to you all.


  1. I learned about your blog from your article in Adoption Today. I am the mother of 7 children, some from adoption and some from birth. I too have a Fetal alcohol child...although she is considered "fetal alcohol effect" instead of syndrome. Anyway, she is 14 now and has been in our home for just over 3 years. She had been misdiagnosed with ADHD, Bi-Polar and oppositional defiant disorder when we met her. After being placed in our home, we had a psychiatrist help us get her off all the medication. The wrong diagnosis and wrong medication had only been making her WORSE not better. We also see the "opposite desired behavior" when she is confronted for mistakes and the lack of good memory and I swear if I have to teach her basic fractions again I am going to pull all my hair out! =) And in the end, she is a great kid with a heart of innocence. Once that "impulse" button has been pushed, she becomes a terrified, flight for your life, girl. I have no solutions for you, but I wanted you to know that you are not alone. There are many of us out here, loving our children and trying to find the right support for them...only to not follow our instincts sometimes. We are human and we do the best we can for these kids. And even when we make mistakes, at least they know we cared enough to try.

  2. I know in my heart of hearts that you need a worker that can touch his heart! Not in a bad way but in a way that helps your son open up and not be judged after a bad day a person that can let things slip once and a while and be with your son to help him clean up the mess together. You should not have to leave your heart at home to go to work.Programs need to hang on to the staff that fit instead of working to get them away because they think oh no staff is getting to close we best bring in another staff and hence the cycle starts all over until they meet someone else who touches there heart,