Before I was a newspaper reporter, I worked in violence and abuse prevention. After eight years of college education in Advanced Behavioral Science and almost two decades of expereince in the field, I left the profession.
Throughout my career, the most dangerous perpetrator I ever worked with was an eleven-year-old boy who was facing charges after writing a threatening letter to a classmate at the YMCA. Staff contacted authorities and when the deputy attempted to speak with the boy; he stabbed him in the leg with a pencil nine times.
What made this boy so dangerous are the monster like characteristics trapped inside a child’s body. Although he was receiving wrap around treatment services, was a ward of the court and appropriately medicated, he still scared his mother and rightfully so. She claimed to sleep with one eye open if she slept at all.
The nonprofit agency that employed me had a delusional expectation of a workload. I oversaw a list of support services, including assisting government law enforcement entities in tracking and apprehending perpetrators of violent crimes. I led a stabilzation team of seven out on the streets and supervised over 10 agency programs on our main campus in downtown Mesa.
Woken more times during the night than not, I was the 24/7/365 on call person for crisis. Homicides, drug overdoses, physical and sexual assault, mass shootings, gang violence and so on.
There was that one time an abuser ran through an inch thick glass door to attack his victim on a campus where the agency hid families of domestic violence. And that other guy who killed his wife but swears it isn’t his fault because she pushed him to do it. And the guy we’d been trying to pick up on a court order every day but was unsuccessful. The police found him dead underneath a bush in a park a week later. I’ll never forget the morning I had to identify a dismembered body by a process of elimination.
I could have done this job 24 hours a day and never finish, and by the time I retired; I was earning an annual salary of $48,270. If I wanted the opportunity to earn more income within the agency, I’d need a promotion to administration regardless of whether I belong sitting behind a desk.
My superiors and co-workers admired my ability to not react. I would instantaneously take charge of a crisis, delegate, and in seconds coordinate a plan for keeping all parties involved safe. A significant part of my responsibility was preparedness, long before there was a crisis to advert or violent crime to assess.
I could have made more money working for the government, but I took the job because I believed I was doing a good thing, the right thing. I was eager to dive deep into the impact the stabilization team and I could make in the community.
I refused to submit my team to office politics, nor would I treat them how my superiors treated me, as a policy instead of a person. They were earning half of what I was taking home, and I wanted to protect them so they could do their jobs. They worked for me and I built up an invisible barrier and blocked administration out. I became the go between with a finely tuned filter.
I was aware of the hard work and commitment my team had. I made it a point to acknowledge them and be hands on as a supervisor. I sought them out individually each morning to check in and be sure they had what they needed for a successful day. While the agency measured success by how many mandates we could meet and the number of crime scenes we could turn in a shift, I based my measurement on how my staff felt about themselves when they went to sleep at night.
I blocked Wednesday afternoons off for a team meeting. We ate pizza and danced. We meditated and watched YouTube videos. We went on walks to the donut shop down the street. We discussed nothing work related. We didn’t answer phones or respond to emails except for myself responding to crisis calls if they came in.
I didn’t disguise it as a team building scheme or a staff meeting. It was our time, the time we desperately needed to release the stress endured from the workload, escape the trauma and crisis we faced on a day-to-day basis and to take time for ourselves, because work- life balance is the only way to survive the demands of any job. Employers will suck the life out of us if we allow them to. I wouldn’t.
I set the expectation from day one they were to leave their agency cellphones on their desk when they clocked out. I’m confident that 11:00 PM email can wait. For me, I viewed my teams off time as in no work at all. My superiors didn’t approve of this. “They’re salary employees.”’ they complained, but I believed they were more productive because of downtime.
In Richard Brouillette’s article, “Why Therapists Should Talk Politics,” he discusses the increase in workforce pressure and the emotional impact it has on employees. “Work longer hours, uncompensated, or we will push you out.”
This is America’s standard norm, long hours with little compensation of any form. Why are we working employees into the ground? They aren’t as disposable as we think. Imagine team members who care about and feel good about the work they do opposed to a high turnover rate of genuinely miserable people.
As time went on, my superiors continued to cross my boundaries. My team’s workload increased without compensation increasing. In the years I worked there, I had never seen a budget for my program. As a nonprofit, all of our funding came from grants and private party donations. They asked me to sign my name to funding reports that I either never saw the money for, or was clueless on where they allocated it to.
I felt uncomfortable and I wouldn’t do it. In attempts to force me out, they’d call random meetings where they drilled me over program expenses, but my response was always the same. “Programs don’t run just because someone tells you to run it. There are many aspects and requirements, funding included.”
A phone call woke me at 4:00 AM. It was security calling to notify me that my office was the target of a gang related drive by shooting. Police were waiting to speak with me and I needed to go in. I spent the next five hours assisting officers with the investigation.
For my team, this was one of the most unthinkable things that could happen as it was way too close to home. For my supervisors, this occurrence made me late for our morning leadership meeting and to them, was more life shattering than bullet holes through my office walls. For the first time in almost two decades, I questioned if my career was worth more than my life.
The next day I resigned, giving the agency four weeks ’ notice to replace me. A part of me felt I was abandoning my team, but in order to earn respect as a moral leader and a team player, I have to lead by example. I’d never allow my staff to be treating in this way. I couldn’t allow myself to be, either.
I stuck it out as long as I did because I believed in my team and our goal. I knew if I left, the barrier would come down and they would carry the undeserving burdens of my former superiors. They did eventually, but they also followed my lead and moved on too.
I’m Haunted by the Man Who Set Himself on Fire
I began my career as a mental health worker with high hopes, but the system doesn’t set up anyone for success