For me, as for most of the other employees, working at the Swannanoa Valley Youth Development Center was a calling. I’d been a teacher there since 2001; many others had worked there much longer. Our mission was to nurture troubled boys from across the state and to help them turn their lives around.
The hours were long and the pay was not so great, but staff pitched in to keep the place running despite snowstorms, power outages, outbreaks of violence and the occasional misguided employee who outraged us and brought the facility negative media attention.
For us, it was always all about the kids and doing what we could to help them. That included pushing them hard to improve their academic skills so they could pass end-of-course tests; consoling them when they had no news or bad news from home; and counseling them on ways to adjust their behavior to make their lives more successful.
Yet when the state decided to close the youth center at the end of February, the Department of Juvenile Justice rewarded our years of dedicated service by treating us like criminals. many were even effectively denied severance benefits.
We all knew the state planned to turn our facility over to the Department of Correction, but we expected it to happen in 2012 — contingent on there being money in the budget to build a new juvenile facility and to rehab the existing structures to accommodate women prisoners. At the end of November, however, in a memo outlining potential money-saving scenarios, we learned about plans to close the center sooner, perhaps by the end of the current fiscal year (June 30).
Hoping to save the youth center, several of us wrote to our representatives, but then Martin Pharr, the deputy secretary of education and treatment, visited Swannanoa and advised everyone to be quiet and just hope it would all blow over. Reminding us that “It’s all about the kids,” he urged us to let the departmental leaders work behind the scenes on our behalf. During the holidays, people worked double shifts with no overtime, because we were short-staffed. And then, in January, we received a surprise visit from Secretary of Juvenile Justice Linda Hayes.
Hayes said she was sorry to report that the center would close at the end of February, apologizing for giving people so little time to search for other work, and saying that she’d had no idea the closure was coming.
Later in her talk, however, Hayes explained that Raleigh hadn’t wanted to ruin our holidays by telling us about the closing before Christmas. So much for not knowing the closure was imminent! It appears they didn’t want us to leave before they were good and ready to get rid of us.
After her visit, a posse of personnel staffers came to the center to meet with staff to inform us about severance packages. Stunned employees, many of whom had worked at the Swannanoa facility for more than 20 years, were offered positions at the Chatham, Dillon and Stonewall Jackson youth development centers. But the closest one, Stonewall Jackson, is in Concord, meaning these workers would have to uproot their families, sell their houses and accept the positions offered or be denied even a severance package and ongoing temporary health insurance.
Many of them couldn’t accept these jobs: Some have family members with health problems, others couldn’t sell their homes in this economy, and still others weren’t willing to uproot their school-age kids. Because departmental policy forbids staff to communicate with the press about issues pertaining to the department, these workers felt muzzled and frustrated. Only a fraction of the staff were given “RIF” (reduction-in-force) packages with severance pay and health coverage.
Shortly after Hayes’ visit, a new employee came to visit from Raleigh — one of 54 staffers the Department of Juvenile Justice has brought on board since the “hiring freeze” enacted by the governor (see “State’s Hiring Freeze is Slushy,” March 31 Charlotte Observer). At least four of those hired were highly paid administrators.
This man was hired to oversee the directors of the state’s seven remaining youth development centers (the locked facilities where youth are incarcerated), as if the existing levels of oversight weren’t sufficient. He actually watched folks packing up, warning that we’d better not steal anything because the state would post people at the gate to search cars as we left.
Staff packed up everything in the facility, including safety equipment: radios, cuffs and whistles, as well as furniture, bedding and supplies. Crates of expensive, nearly new textbooks were hauled away. We could only hope they wouldn’t just be stashed in a storage room somewhere.
We knew the center would close at some point, but we would have appreciated being given more notice — and more considerate treatment. And if it is indeed “all about the kids,” shouldn’t cuts be made at the administrative level in Raleigh, rather than cutting the staff who work with the kids daily and sending kids into overcrowded facilities elsewhere in the state?
The tough economy puts us all in a difficult position, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to treat each other with consideration and respect.
— Stephanie Wilder lives in Black Mountain.