The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir

“I’m The Girl Who Faked Her Own Pregnancy as a Senior Project,” declares Gaby Rodriguez on the opening page of this story behind the 2011 headlines from Yakima, Wash., which became a 2012 Lifetime movie . . .

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Violence in Student Writing: A School Administrator’s Guide

When Gretchen Oltman began teaching English literature to “a rough crowd” of Nebraska high school juniors and seniors in 1999, she assigned them to write her a letter about themselves. One letter stood out: “I am the worst person you’ll ever meet. I like to pa-a-a-a-rty and shoot guns. I would watch out if I were you . . .

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Agencies: Diversity Essential to Maximizing Outreach Potential

When the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) held its annual meeting three or four years ago, a representative of one of its 41 member organizations in the juvenile justice advocacy field stood up and pointed out that just about everyone in the room was white and had a professional degree.

A groundswell of response and interest in addressing that issue of diversity led to the formation of the network’s Youth Justice Leadership Institute, which identifies people of color who have had personal experience with the juvenile justice system and who want to become leaders in the reform movement. At a recent gathering of fellows, 10 of whom are selected each year, the value of recruiting people from diverse perspectives and backgrounds hit home during a discussion about sentencing, said Sarah Bryer, director of NJJN.

“Many folks had, within their own family, people who had been in the juvenile justice system,” she said. “When we spoke about the rubric of sentencing, they were speaking from a place of really deep knowledge about the system. … If we don’t have people who understand it from a personal or community perspective, we will always slightly miss the mark. We will do good work, but not the best.”

Whether in juvenile justice, out-of-school time or other corners of the youth-work field, agencies that serve predominantly African American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, poor, urban or rural youth can hire a certain contingent of white, middle- or upper-middle class staff from suburban backgrounds and succeed in their missions. 

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Youth Workers Essential to Helping Kids Succeed in School

When Woody Allen famously quipped that “80 percent of success is showing up,” more than a kernel of truth popped out. Because regular school attendance is tied directly to high school graduation rates, youth workers have both a role in, and a responsibility for, supporting young people on this part of their journey toward productive adulthood.  

New research is emerging almost daily about the issue of chronic absence, which is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the school year. This metric entered the national lexicon about five years ago through the good . . .

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Consistency and Commitment Key to Successful Mentoring

As a broadcast journalist, Joan Thomas said that a large part of her profession entailed chronicling the worst aspects of humanity. Youth services volunteering, she said, was her way of being a part of the solution to so many of the problems she covered as a newswoman.

Working with her mentee, Erica Gibson — now a computer application developer with two young children of her own — was not always easy, she remembered.

“I think there will come times in a volunteer’s life when he or she might say ‘this is too much work, I can’t deal with this,’” Thomas said, recalling times when mentoring Gibson was so difficult she couldn’t even speak to the youngster. However, that connection between mentor and mentee was never in jeopardy, she said, because the two had developed a profound sense of trust. 

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Two ‘Cool Girls’ Beat the Odds

“You still have all this stuff?”

Erica Gibson, a 32-year-old computer application developer consultant, cannot believe that Joan Thomas — her childhood mentor — had brought so many pieces of memorabilia with her to their latest lunch get-together. Splayed out on the table were Gibson’s old report cards, SAT scores, high school prom photos and college graduation pamphlets.

Gibson was astonished when she looked at some of her now decades-old grades. “I got a ‘D’ in conduct?” she uttered.

Thomas handed her former mentee a written assignment that Gibson had typed when she was 15. Between them was a pamphlet, which appeared to be from the early 1990s. Inside was a photograph — nearly a quarter-century old now — of Gibson embracing her lifelong mentor. “Something wonderful is taking shape,” the front of the brochure read.

Thomas, 56, has known Gibson since she was just 9 years old. Now the president of her own communications firm, Thomas recalled the chain of events that connected her — a former broadcast journalist for CNN — with the young woman from Decatur, Ga. 

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How to Reduce the Risk of Secondary Trauma

Avoiding or dealing with secondary traumatic stress requires action by both individual professionals and organizations as a whole:

Engage in self care. Counterbalance hearing victims’ stories, seeing troubling photos and retelling difficult details in court with self care activities such as exercise, spiritual activities, meditation or mindfulness approaches. Learn more at traumastewardship.com or compassionfatigue.ca.

Pay attention to caseloads. Managers should ensure caseload numbers are appropriate and the type of work is varied. There’s no research that definitively says how many cases are too many, said Dr. Sprang. The right number is specific to the setting, the types of cases, and other responsibilities the staff person has. For example, giving child welfare caseworkers a mix of abuse and neglect cases, or rotating workers between investigation and case management responsibilities. A manager may also allow a juvenile justice worker whose recent cases have involved serious felony offenses to participate in training or other work enrichment opportunities. A good supervisor can manage these issues for the benefit of their workers, said Dr. Sprang.

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Helping Can Hurt

Four years ago, a valued long-time staff member walked into Dr. Ginny Sprang’s office and announced suddenly that she was quitting. The staff member said her job, which involved reviewing and summarizing child abuse and neglect case files, was ruining her life. She was having nightmares, was overly anxious about her own children’s safety and couldn’t stop thinking about the horrific events in the case files she read each day. Dr. Sprang, the executive director of the Center on Trauma and Children and a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of Kentucky, felt terrible she had not recognized the impact secondary exposure to traumatic events was having on her staff.

More that 60 percent of kids were exposed to violence, close to one-half were assaulted, and 25 percent witnessed an act of violence, according to “the most comprehensive nationwide survey of the incidence and prevalence of children’s exposure to violence to date,” the 2008 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence, sponsored by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Victimization is even more common among young people in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, leading to higher rates of traumatic stress. Adolescents involved with the juvenile justice system may be four to eight times more likely than other youth to meet diagnostic criteria for PTSD, according to research summarized in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma in 2008.

For the professionals who work with them, young people’s traumatic experiences can translate to secondary traumatic stress — sometimes called compassion fatigue. One of the early researchers in this field, Dr. Charles Figley, defined secondary traumatic stress as “stress resulting from helping or wanting to help a traumatized or suffering person.”   

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Rural America After the Recession, Part One: A Plague of an Entirely Different Kind

Photo by Jan Banning

 A lot seems to have changed over the last four years. At first, things, momentarily, appear a lot better than I thought they would. The subdivisions which buffer my folks’ neck of the woods on all sides - left and right, in front of and behind - seem to be filled with people, perhaps frugal transplants who eyed some available real estate and snatched up property at reduced prices. There is a lot of green en route to Griffin Road, from rolling pastures to the leafy tops of trees that somehow managed to survive a tornado outbreak about a year earlier. The bucolic countryside, with its almost incandescent green fields and an array of knotted and twisted oaks in the background, reminds me less of northwest Georgia and more of the landscape described by Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings.” In some ways, I felt like Frodo Baggins returning to the Shire - after a long journey, for better and for worse, I was finally home.

After awhile, however, I notice perhaps a bit too much green dotting the landscape. The weeds had grown ridiculously tall, standing four or five feet high. A makeshift memorial, built for a kid who died in a car wreck on my home road several years ago, once loomed over the hillside. Now, I can barely see the tip of the cross, which was obfuscated by a sea of yellowish vines. Fire hydrants rested in low-lying ditches, completely wrapped up in brambles and briars and snaky wildflowers. It was as if Mother Earth had opened her mouth, and had begun the slow process of digesting the entire neighborhood whole.

But it wasn’t until I pulled into my old driveway that I realized just how bad things had truly gotten. My parents’ mailbox was battered and punctured, barely standing erect next to the road. The first two homes I saw had been totally abandoned, with ivy and kudzu engulfing the trailers. And then, I got to my old stomping grounds just outside Kingston, Ga., a sight I could barely recognize, despite living there for most of my adolescent years. 

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