Are you seeking a career where you can make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth? In this interview, an African American case manager for a juvenile correctional facility explains how her life and job have been dedicated to helping juveniles be rehabilitated, and find the motivation to make something of their lives once they are no longer behind bars.
Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
A: I am a case manager. I work in the prison system with teenagers who have been committed to a juvenile correctional facility. I have more than seventeen years of experience in the social services field, with ten of them being with teenagers who are in trouble with the law. Three words that describe me are dependable, direct and flexible.
Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?
A: I am an African American female. For the most part, my ethnicity and gender have been assets when dealing with clients, particularly African American males. They seem to be relaxed when talking to me. They openly discuss their fears and concerns about their court cases with me. I believe they are more guarded when they speak with male case managers because they try to prove their manhood and show how tough they are. Some of them seem distrustful of the white case managers and appear to believe that I am being more straightforward with them. My ethnicity and gender are sometimes hindrances when dealing with white male clients. A lot of them treat me like I don’t know what I’m talking about and don’t know how to do my job. Most of the incarcerated juveniles are African American. When my coworkers and I are out among the juveniles’ parents, the parents flock to me because I am the only African American worker there. Those parents seem to be comfortable talking to me. If I suggest that they talk to their children’s case managers, they sometimes return to their seats without talking to my coworkers. My office is fairly small, having less than twelve workers. We get along very well for the most part, and I can’t think of a situation where I felt that I was a victim of discrimination.
Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
A: I spend most of my day doing paperwork about the juveniles on my caseload. This paperwork focuses on their crimes, behavior and treatment progress. When new juveniles arrive at the facility, I meet with them to explain how things will work with their incarceration. I inform them of what they need to do in order to be released from the facility. My caseload includes teenagers who have serious mental illnesses, so I meet with social workers and psychologists to discuss the treatment needs that have to be addressed during incarceration. When clients are ready to be released, I explain the parole process. I go over everything that is expected of them. I then have them sign paperwork saying that they understand what they need to do once they leave the facility.
The general public has some very strong opinions about how juvenile offenders should be treated, and people tend to misunderstand how the system works. Some people think that the juveniles are just children and should be coddled. Others think that they are violent criminals who should be treated like adults. The truth lies somewhere between those two lines of thinking. Some juveniles have committed very serious offenses and deserve punishment that is more than just a slap on the wrist. However, teenagers’ needs are different than an adult’s needs. They are not fully developed mentally or emotionally and do require extra attention and guidance if they are to be fully rehabilitated.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
A: My job satisfaction is about a 7. I really enjoy being around teenagers and helping them when they have concerns. I never have a dull moment when I’m talking to clients because I just never know what they are going to say. My job satisfaction would be higher if the same clients didn’t keep coming back over and over. It is a little depressing that they aren’t trying to do good things with their lives because most of them have a lot of potential.
Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
A: It’s heartbreaking to see so many kids who feel that they have no purpose in life. They don’t feel the need to try to improve themselves because they don’t think they have a future. Sometimes, we do get clients who are working very hard to have a better life when they get released. They take advantage of all the educational programs that are available. I occasionally get letters from them thanking me for my help and telling me that they are doing well. It makes me feel good to know we are getting through to some of the juveniles and that they are being rehabilitated. I think that this is my calling for now, and I have enjoyed my years in this field working with clients. However, I don’t want to remain in social services for another fifteen or more years. I want to make a career change in the coming years and try something new.
Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
A: I am a pretty thick-skinned person. Clients and their parents can be verbally abusive, and it helps a lot that I don’t have the kind of personality that would take their comments to heart.
Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
A: I have always had an interest in working with teenagers. I volunteered at some group homes while I was in college. I also worked at a treatment facility for teenagers while I was in college. I worked with mentally ill adults for a few years before I started my current job, and that experience helped me with my caseload, which includes mentally ill teenagers. I’m pretty satisfied with the path my career has taken, and there’s nothing that I really regret or wish I’d done differently.
Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
A: I learned to be very careful when speaking with parents and to take good notes regarding our conversations. I had a parent hire a lawyer because she wanted to sue us about some things I discussed with her. Her information was incorrect, but I quickly learned to be clear and make sure parents understand what I tell them. The situation scared me because I was new to the job.
Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
A: I have learned to ignore coworkers’ opinions about the job. Listening to angry and disgruntled coworkers decreases my own job satisfaction, so I know to avoid those kinds of people.
Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?
A: A client on my caseload escaped. It was believed that he somehow got into a worker’s office, called a taxi and left. This was never confirmed or disproved. It was very baffling to everyone. The juvenile was eventually apprehended, but he didn’t tell how he managed to get out.
Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?
A: Some juveniles and their parents really just need someone who will listen to them and answer questions, and I like knowing that I can help them with their concerns. They can be so grateful to have someone explain the whole sentencing process. Occasionally, I’ll get a call from a mother who is tearful and completely overwhelmed by her child’s incarceration. A mother will talk and cry for an hour or more, but she will express such relief after I talk to her. Even though it puts me behind in my work, it makes me feel good to know that I’ve helped by taking the time to listen to a mother and address her concerns.
Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?
A: Parents are not happy when I explain how long their children will be locked up. It gets pretty ugly at times, and even though I tell them that I have nothing to do with the length of sentences, they don’t care. I don’t always feel like dealing with irate parents and sometimes wonder if I should choose another area of social services.
Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?
A: Because I’m a case manager, most of my time is spent at my desk working on clients’ files and writing reports. The stress comes in when I talk to upset parents and juveniles. That is only a couple hours of my workday, so my job is not very stressful overall. I do have a comfortable balance between work and my time away from the job. My job is not really the kind that you take home with you. I don’t have a work cell phone to carry around, so parents and juveniles can’t call me at home. There are no emergencies for me to handle after I leave work because there are staff members at the correctional facility who handle any problems that come up during the evening or night time. I do think about certain cases at home, but I do what I can for juveniles and their parents and try not to dwell on work related issues after I leave for the day.
Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
A: I make between $34,000 and $40,000. This is more than enough for my expenses and some of the things I want. It is a pretty good salary for an African American female in my state, and I am satisfied with it for the most part.
Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
A: I get 15 vacation days a year, and that’s enough for me.
Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
A: My job requires a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a social services field, as well as a year of experience in one of those areas. I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in counseling.
Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
A: I’d tell a friend that it is an interesting line of work and that I’m never bored. I’d also say that I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that I am helping others in need. However, I’d warn a friend that it can be depressing to see so many young people locked up who believe that their futures hold nothing positive for them.
Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
A: I have enjoyed my time on this career path, but I would like a change after all these years. Writing has become a passion of mine, and I want to start a career in that field. I do think that I will continue some work with teenagers, even if it is only participating in a mentor program.