ARTICLES

THE HOME THAT REBUILDS CHILDREN’S LIVES

A unique Ottawa experiment in kindness is bringing dramatic improvement in the behavior of disturbed, unhappy little social castoffs who only grow more defiant when punished

ALAN PHILLIPS March 28 1959
ARTICLES

THE HOME THAT REBUILDS CHILDREN’S LIVES

A unique Ottawa experiment in kindness is bringing dramatic improvement in the behavior of disturbed, unhappy little social castoffs who only grow more defiant when punished

ALAN PHILLIPS March 28 1959

THE HOME THAT REBUILDS CHILDREN’S LIVES

ALAN PHILLIPS

A unique Ottawa experiment in kindness is bringing dramatic improvement in the behavior of disturbed, unhappy little social castoffs who only grow more defiant when punished

The boy, blond and gangling, squatted on top of the tall, green corner filing cabinet, immobile, withdrawn, a childish Buddha. Seated at his desk below, Doug Finlay finished his staff schedule. He looked around. “Ready to come down, Joey?” On the boy s blank tace not a muscle moved, even the eyelids were motionless. In a moment, or an hour, as suddenly as he had climbed up, he would jump down and run from the office, screaming, “Leave me alone!”

This was Joey at age ten, one of twentyeight children treated over the last six years at a residential home in Ottawa known as the Protestant Children’s Village. Tough, hateridden kids. Children rejected so often by the first adults they knew that they looked on every adult as an enemy.

Can such children be saved from careers in crime culminating in penitentiary? Or perhaps, as in Joey’s case, from total withdrawal into madness? Can they be taught to live a normal life in their community? These were questions asked in mid-1953 by the Village board of management, which represents many prominent Ottawa families who for years have supported the Village. The ninety-five-year-old institution has been through the years an agency for

the care of neglected and dependent children; it now consists of a two-story brick-and-stucco structure set in a wooded lot on Carling Avenue. But child - welfare experts had found homeless children’s needs were better met in foster homes than in any institution, however pleasant. Admissions were falling off. For normal children there was no lack of foster parents. What was needed, a survey showed, was a treatment centre for children of six to twelve who were emotionally disturbed, whose parents and foster parents had given up, whom no one wanted.

Officials of the Village, the Ottawa Welfare C ouncil, the Community Chest and the Children's Aid Society met and decided to finance the experiment jointly. The Children’s Aid agreed to supply the children, and to find them foster parents whenever the Village management judged them ready to return to the community.

They started with six children whom no one had yet been able to handle: George, twelve, a beautiful, twitching, ugly-tempered sadist, product of a broken home and fourteen foster parents. Frank, eleven, so cowed by his brutish elderly father that his hate came out only in stealing, lying and bullying smaller children. Martha, ten, illegitimate, pathetically awkward, shy and listless. Johnny, ten, raised by a prostitute after his father was jailed, beaten daily with a board by his common-law father for wetting the bed. Bobby, seven, illegitimate, uncontrollable, who every night in bed banged his head against the wall for hours. And Joey, handsome, brilliant, but a pathological thief whose aggression boiled up in ungovernable

Once they threw art materials back in the teacher’s faceSome still kick at the traces but low-pressure aid is easing their tensions

rage from which some deep-buried death wish triggered a cataleptic trance.

Each of these children would need more watchful care than a hospital patient. Village director Marion Splane, an Ottawa social worker, recruited a staff of ten to work three shifts: two qualified social workers (female), one counselor (male), two house mothers, a secretary, cook, janitor, part-time maid and charwoman; a psychiatrist and pediatrician were on call.

Here were six delinquents with emotions as unstable as nitroglycerine and they were being told, in effect: “Here's your new home. Do what you want. We may have to check you—to keep you from hurting yourselves or us. But we won't punish you. We wpn't withhold food or affection. So go ahead. Let’s see how you feel.”

The theory, accepted by most child-care experts, is that a child’s “bad” acts are his sickness symptoms. Diagnosed, they can cast light on his problems. Punished by pain or deprivation, the cause of his plight, they add to the hate which is his main motivation. These children knew little pleasure; they had no incentive to please. They had known little fairness; they could have little sense of guilt. Their conscience might take two or three years to develop, if ever.

Routines were easy. They rose at seven-thirty. A day house mother and counselor supervised their dressing and eating. A second shift bathed and settled them at bedtime. “Lights Out” was nine. Within this framework treatment was traditional: a case worker probed their problems in a weekly interview; a group worker tried with games and crafts to build in a sense of achievement, teach team play and drain off tension. In the Village car they were taken to three of Ottawa’s public schools where their teachers made them behave like anyone else.

Back in the Village they loosed their pent-up frustration. They threw the group worker’s art materials back in her face. They kicked and screamed when the case worker tried to get them into her office, or glowered at her in silence as she tried to chat casually while five other children battered at her door. They scribbled obscenities over the walls and threw their food on the floor.

Marion Splane. her job of organization complete, resigned at the end of 1953. She recommended that Douglas Finlay take over. He had six years’ experience with emotionally disturbed kids at Boston’s Home for Little Wanderers, a degree in social work from the University of British Columbia, and a notable family background— his two brothers and his father. Rev. J. M. Finlay of Toronto, have all won prominence in the field of social welfare.

Douglas Finlay found himself confronting an organized gang. Johnny, with his clean-cut good looks, was its ruthless violent leader. At some fancied slight, he would rally his force in their homemade back-yard clubhouse. Down their flag would come—the signal for attack. From all sides kids would converge on the Village, armed with rocks, and once with torches, long poles tipped with oil-soaked rags. Through the corridors they would dart, throwing a rock at a staff-member, smashing a window, then vanishing, youthful guerrillas.

They unpacked their hate so fast the staff had no time to follow the textbooks. They snatched their interviews at moments of crises: while sweeping up glass from a bottle that had narrowly missed someone's head, while picking up bits of a house mother’s glasses which George smashed

three times, while changing a bed that Martha had soiled with quiet malice.

These were deliberate attempts to provoke the staff to retaliation. These children had been hurt so often they couldn't accept affection. They couldn’t risk further disillusion. Hate was their only security. They met the attempts to change them by attempting, in turn, to prove these adults no better than all the rest. “Beat me, you bastards!” Johnny would scream.

Johnny was openly striving to wrest control of the Village from Finlay. One evening he led a six-hour revolt. At 1 1 p.m., so the others could sleep, a counselor pinioned Johnny’s arms and removed him. kicking and shouting, to the barewalled detention room. When Finlay arrived, he was crouched in a corner, shaking with rage and cursing. “Boy, I could punch your guts out! So don't try nothing, you —.”

Finlay sat down on a crumpled blanket and calmly lit a cigarette. “I remember a boy who called me that the first time he met me. He's one of my best friends now.”

“I ain't never called you that before.”

“No, but you must have felt like it.”

“No, I ain’t.”

"Who is it then, Johnny? Who’s hurt you so much that you have to hate like this?”

Johnny’s eyes filled.

“Was it your mother?”

Johnny’s rage flooded back. “My mother’s dead, damn you.” He moved close. “I’m getting out of here. Don’t try to stop me.”

Finlay looked up. He didn’t move. “You're staying here till you calm down. If I have to hold you I will. But I won’t hit you, you know that.”

“I'd like to believe that, boy!”

“You will someday. You don't trust anyone now. you’re afraid of being hurt.”

“I ain’t afraid of nothin'. ’Cept maybe ghosts.” “No, Johnny. You're a frightened little boy. You need help. That's why you’re here. We want to help you. We like you.”

Johnny spat on the wall. “I’d like to believe that, too.”

“Why do you think I'm lying here on the floor at one a.m.? Wouldn't it be easier just to leave you alone? Just smack you on the backside and go to bed?”

Johnny looked at him. He was starting to think. His anger had subsided. An hour later he crawled toward Finlay and offered him some candy. Some of his defenses had dissolved. He’d accepted Finlay. A relationship had begun, uncertain, tenuous but significant.

Though painfully slow, progress by fall 1954 was so marked that Finlay accepted four other children: Millie, an explosive nine-year-old tomboy; David, six; Harry, seven; and Sammy eight. George had been returned to the Children’s Aid. Finlay felt they had failed with George. But the Children’s Aid found him so improved that they placed him again in a foster home. He is there today, still troubled, but still trying. He has perhaps a fifty-fifty chance for a normal life.

On the day after Hallowe’en 1954 Finlay wrote an optimistic report for the board meeting next day. That afternoon Joey came in from school in a temper. Louise Hart, a group worker, tried to take him out of the group. Joey overpowered her. The violence caught up the others in its contagion. They tore down the chandelier in the front hall, then ran whooping outside, around the building, throwing stones,

continued on page 46

Can these troubled children be saved? Doug Finlay

and his skilled, dedicated staff say yes,

and they’ll take punches on the nose to prove it

continued from page 15

“The riot had been a last-ditch stand by the children to hang on to their anti-adult views”

That night a disheartened staff worked till one a.m. in below-freezing weather replacing every window in the Village. Two were ready to quit; they felt that the after-school snack should have been canceled. Finlay disagreed. "We should

have stopped it before it got started,” he said. "We didn’t. Now we’ve got to stick with our principles." He gave each child a small box of raisins.

Afterward, two children came into his office, threw their raisins on his desk and

said, "We don’t deserve them.” He felt his spirits lift. We’re in, he thought. The riot had been a final testing, a lastditch stand by the children to hang on to their anti-adult viewpoint.

But there was the board to face. Would

they understand? His qualms deepened as Mrs. McGregor Easson, the president, introduced him the following day. “You all know,” she said, “what wonderful progress the Village has been making. I’m sure this month’s report will be no different.”

Finlay stood up. He had scrapped his report. He didn't know what he was going to say. Then he noticed Mrs. H. B. Thorburn. who once lived in the southern States. “Mrs. Thorburn,” he asked, “have you ever had the doubtful privilege of witnessing a race riot?"

Mrs. Thorburn had. They discussed its psychology briefly.

“Let me tell you what happened yesterday,” Finlay began. When he finished there was silence. Then a board member stood up. “Better they smash our building to the ground,” she said, “than smash their future homes.” It was the last time Finlay doubted his board.

Looking back, Finlay feels that the Village's family feeling and trust date from the riot, as if it had been a mass evacuation of hostility. Of their own accord the children agreed to stop swearing at meals (“It sounds like hell,” Joey pointed out). They had begun to look at themselves with some objectivity. “It’s not you I don’t like." they would kid a staff-member, “it's the things that you do." Once little Bobby (“Leatherlungs”) at the height of a tantrum shouted. “Boy. I’m gonna get out of this goddam place as soon as I get rid of my goddam problems.”

Joey was stunned

By spring 1955 most activities were constructive. The children had tapped the maple trees for sap and made syrup. They’d planted a garden. Johnny was taking guitar lessons. Martha had slapped Joey’s face, such a miracle of resurgent vitality that Joey was too stunned to take offense.

Joey’s control was strengthening but he still stole compulsively. Finlay once found him playing catch in the hall with dynamite stolen from a nearby construction job. Money meant little to Joey. His stealing. Finlay believed, symbolized deprivation. lack of affection in early childhood.

One day Joey stole some money and ran off to a movie. Arriving back at 10 p.m. he told Finlay sullenly. "I don't care if you don’t give me any supper." It was obviously a punishment meted out many times before.

“Why shouldn’t you have your supper?" Finlay said. “We saved it for you. I’m afraid you’ve missed out on dessert though. It was so good tonight that the other kids ate it all up.”

“You mean you’re not gonna do nothin' to me?" Joey asked.

"What do you think we should do. Joey?”

He puzzled a moment. “It’s no fun goin’ alone to a show. Maybe I better miss the next show with the kids.” He tried to smile and his face began to twitch. Then he dug into the lining of his jeans and pulled out a knife. “I stole this downtown," he said. “I was gonna give it to Johnny but maybe you better have it. Johnny gets all mixed up when he’s got a knife.” Joey was clearly showing his acceptance of adult standards and

it heartened Finlay to know that he could do without Johnny's approval.

Though the Village was now relatively peaceful, Johnny still dominated the others. This was a boy once beaten into bloody submission every day by his common-law father and hatred welled from the very core of his psyche. “You'll quit before 1 do." he told Finlay once in a moment of foresight.

Finlay tried logic: “It's as simple as this, Johnny. I’ve a responsibility to every kid here, not just to you. I'm going to be introducing some new kids soon, and if you’re going to be running things what am I going to do?"

"Don’t tell me your problems, Finlay." Johnny said: “I got problems enough of my own." He was right, too. Finlay thought. I shouldn’t be dumping giy problems on this kid’s shoulders. Whether I give up on him is my decision.

It was a painful one to make. Johnny had come a long way. He was still trying. He could be reached. But he was slipping. More and more he had to be restrained.

One night in the detention room, parched and spent from two hours of fury. Johnny asked Finlay for water, “not just a glass, a bottleful.” To Johnny the bottle symbolized something missed during infancy.

Finlay filled a quart milk bottle. Johnny drank in long gulps. He handed the bottle to Finlay. “You drink some.” It was a gesture of sharing. Finlay drank and handed it back.

Johnny held the bottle high. “l ook, Finlay, I’m going to drop it and smash it.”

“Are you. Johnny?" Finlay said. He knew that Johnny was testing him. And. in a distorted way, showing Finlay his control.

The bottle was wet. It slipped from Johnny’s fingers and shattered on the floor. “It’s all right.” Finlay said quickly. “I know you didn’t mean it."

It was too late. Frustration had snapped the thin thread of Johnny's control. He leaped at Finlay with flailing fists. Finlay held him off and called for a broom and dustpan. A house mother handed it in. and he hurriedly stooped to pick up the glass.

Through his gabardine jacket he felt something sharp prick the skin of his back. “I’m going to spill your guts," Johnny said.

Finlay glanced back. Johnny, his face contorted, was holding a foot-long stiletto of glass.

“No, you're not.” Finlay said quietly. He whirled, caught Johnny’s wrist. The glass bit into Johnny’s thumb. Blood bubbled up. Johnny stared at it, smeared it across his face and leaped for the door.

“Hey, fellas. C’mere. Quick!” The children came running. “Look what the bastard did to me!"

They stared at Johnny's bloody face. Finlay felt it was no use explaining. Then little Harry looked up and said. “Finlay wouldn’t do that."

“That’s right, Harry,” Finlay said then. “I wouldn’t hurt him.”

They looked at Johnny curiously. “He didn’t really do it. eh?" Joey said.

“He did so!” Johnny screamed. “He did so. he did so!”

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But the children were drifting away. It

was the end of Johnny’s control, of himself as well as them. At Joey’s birthday party, jealousy set him off.

Finlay and a counselor carried him into the rumpus room. In one corner was a stack of old license plates. Johnny picked them up and began to fling them, one by one, knife-edged metal boomerangs, at the two men.

Neither was hit, but Johnny was clearly capable of murder. Finlay telephoned Judge J. R. McKnight of the Ottawa Juvenile Court, who arranged to have Johnny sent to reform school. He is one

of four boys whom the Village could not restore to the community.

Tension relaxed with Johnny's departure. “I’m glad he's gone,” Martha said. “Now 1 won’t have to do things I don’t want to.” To the children’s surprise they all passed their school year. ("Better burn them report cards," Frank told Finlay. “they may want a recount.”) That fall, 1955, Martha, Frank and Bobby were placed in foster homes. Today all three are normal, happy, affectionate children.

The children who took their place

came into a group now increased to twelve and an atmosphere much changed from two years before. It was Joey now to whom the others deferred. If he asked for the bat in a ball game they gave it to him. then quit playing. He would come in from school upset, long arms dangling, a prowling predator from whom the others fled at sight. He wanted to be liked but he didn't know how. He was by far the sickest boy in the Village. If they could save Joey, Finlay thought, they could probably save the others.

Johnny’s leaving had bothered Joey.

It made him realize that he too could fail. It threatened his dream that someday someone would want him enough to adopt him. His tantrums increased. His school work suffered.

He improved briefly with psychiatric treatment, then slid hack and refused to continue. When the doctor insisted, Joey had to he carried to the interview. He sat through it with lowered head, twitching his nostrils and grimacing, silent except for his loud snorting noises. That night he was in the detention room with Finlay for six hours, barking like a dog. drooling, throwing himself at the walls. The psychiatrist, who had hurried over, hastily retreated when Joey attacked him viciously, biting and scratching.

Where psychiatry failed. Norm Heller, a quiet skillful group worker, succeeded in reaching Joey through their mutual flair for mechanics. After visiting the Ottawa exhibition Joey rigged a mechanical ride that would carry a passenger seventy feet in the air between two trees, using roller-skate wheels as pulleys. With two cans and an old electric fan motor he put together a candy-floss machine. Joey, Finlay felt, would end as either a first-class engineer or a first-class criminal.

At two a.m. one night, with Joey raving in detention, Finlay decided to read him a letter from his file, written years before by Joey’s unmarried mother, age sixteen, to her social worker. ‘T don’t want to know nothin',” Joey screamed. But he lifted his hands from his ears as Finlay read:

Dear Miss X:

I have enclosed S8 for my baby’s board. 1 should like to take it to you instead of mailing it. but 1 miss him so much that I'm afraid we'd get talking about him, and l don't think I could take it. He’s a dear little thing. Miss X. I do sincerely pray that wherever he is placed, God will keep him and make him happy.

I suppose when I haven’t anything to offer him 1 should not feel the way I do

about his future. I feel so sorry for him. Yet I am helpless. Dad feels 1 should always look upon him as a disgrace. Maybe he is right, but somehow 1 can’t believe it.

1 am terribly ashamed, but not of my baby. It isn't his fault, and. well golly, he has to be looked after. I can’t hurt him more than I have.

But now. I’m all worked up, I've got a great big lump in my throat, and 1 can’t write any more.

Joey's hands now covered his eyes; he was sobbing. He often referred to the letter afterward. He had never before understood why his mother had given him up and the knowledge that she had wanted him gave him faith and a sense of his worth.

This was a turning point for Joey. He never again went into a trance to escape reality. By 1957, when he was fourteen, his wry humor was flashing frequently. Once Sammy came sauntering down the hall with a girl on each arm, one of whom Joey had tried without luck to win.

“Yah. Joey,” Sammy jeered, “I got two girls and you ain’t got none.”

“That’s right. Sammy,” Joey said calmly, “but don’t forget, both them girls is disturbed.”

The change in Joey was paralleled by a change in the Village. Something akin to a family atmosphere now enveloped its dozen children. Finlay and Heffer, through trial and error, had acquired a competence which they passed on by example to the staff. Even a boy like Johnny could now be admitted without endangering the progress of the others.

Last year Joey left the Village, one of thirteen children it has returned to the community. His visits back grow less frequent. He no longer needs its support. His dream has come true: he has his own home now, foster parents who love him. They know him as an honest, well-mannered, self-sufficient youth, a credit to them, the community and the Protestant Children's Village. ★