Articles

HOW THEY SAVED THE WORST KID IN TOWN

SIDNEY KATZ October 15 1952
Articles

HOW THEY SAVED THE WORST KID IN TOWN

SIDNEY KATZ October 15 1952

HOW THEY SAVED THE WORST KID IN TOWN

IN OCTOBER 1947 the Children's Aid Society of Toronto took into its care a pale spindly seven - year old boy who was regarded by many adults who knew him as "the worst kid in town.”

Gordie Runge a fictitious name well merited his reputation. He wouldn't respond to the simplest requests. He broke his toys and furniture. He couldn’t get along with adults and he was so belligerent that other children shunned him. He was continually asking for gifts and he would kick or punch the person who refused him. Sometimes he would lie on the floor shrieking at the top of his voice, wildly flaving his arms and legs. He refused to wash his hands and face or brush his teeth.

Today, Gordie Runge is „ normal happy child living contentedly with a foster family on a farm near Toronto. The transformation took four long vears. for there is no magic formula or short-cut method that can be used to rehabilitate an emotionally disturbed child.

Like other disturbed children. Gordie was the end product of years of being unloved and abused. The key to recover}7 lav not in rejecting him or punishing him further, but rather in patiently and slowly undoing all the harm that had been done in the past. He had to be made to feel that he was wanted and loved and understood.

This article is the story of how •‘the worst kid in town" was restored to normal social health. It begins in October 1947 with phone call which a public-health nurse made to the Children's Aid Society.

She reported that while making her rounds in the rooming-house area half a mile east of Queen’s Park, the Ontario provincial parliament buildings, a next-door neighbor mentioned a certain boarding house where children were being cruelly beaten. The society promptly sent Jean Hull, a wiry brunette of thirty, a member of its protection department, to investigate.

She brought back a shocking report.

The house was a two-story detached red-brick building, in reasonably good repair. The door was answered by a frowsy middle-aged blond woman. When Jean informed her of the purpose of her visit, she became excessively friendly. ■'Come on in, dearie.” she said. "I’ll tell you everything you want to know. Let’s go to the back room where we can talk.”

She started off by saying that she earned her living by boarding five children. She treated them all well except for one—Gordie Runge. He was the worst-behaved child she had ever known. ''He’s like a wild beast,” she said. "Why. sometimes he becomes so unmanageable I have to tie him to u. chair with ropes and lash him with a strap. At other times I hit him across the face so hard that he goes sprawling across the floor.” She looked at the social worker for sympathy and approval. "What else can you do with a child like that, dearie?” she asked.

The landlady had little information regarding

the background of Gordie Runge. Nine months ago his father had brought him to her as well as Elsa, his five-vear-old sister, and agreed to pay ten dollars a week for their care. He explained he was separated from his wife and was placing the children "on the quiet” so that she wouldn't be able to see them. Four months ago his payments and his visits abruptly ceased. .All she knew of his whereabouts was that he worked for a construction firm with a name like "Maloney” located ten miles from Toronto. As for the mot he-, she was working in a. private home in the same area as the housekeeper for i middle-aged widower who had two grown daughters.

“Don't Leave Me, Mother!'

Passing a small bedroom on her way out Jean Hull caught her first glimpse of Gordie. He was leaning on the bed, listlessly reading a comic book: clinging protectively to his arm was his younger sister. He was small for his age. But. in spite of the blackish circles under his eyes and a general appearance of emaciation, he was still ^ handsome child with deep-set blue eyes, a broad well-formed nose and straight light-brown hair.

Before leaving. Jean warned the landlady, "You may as well know it—you can be brought to court for your treatment of this child. I’m going back to report to my office. In the meantime, don't lay a hand on him.”

In cases of flagrant cruelty the Children’s Aid Society is empowered to remove a child from a home. Jean held « hasty conference with her superiors and this was the step decided upon. The landladv was informed of the decision by telephone and the following day she showed up at the CAS offices accompanied by the two youngsters. Jean carefully explained to Gordie and Elsa that the shelter was to be their home until their parents could be located and more permanent plans made for their future. As the landlady made a move to go Gordie clutched her arm and screamed. "Don't go. mother! Don’t leave me!” When she disappeared past the door he threw himself on the floor yelling and kicking hysterically. His sister silently watched him with tears trickling down her cheeks.

Jean took him in her arms and reassured him. He would have a good time in the shelter with many friends and toys: he would continue to go to the same school. She called over one of his future roommates. Tommy, a roly-poly eight-year-old. and asked him to accompany them to the shelter fifty yards away. Tommy put his arm around Gordie's shoulder. "You'll like it here after a few days when you get used to everything,” he told him. "You'll have fun.” Later that day Gordie disappeared. They found him with the preschool group of girls to which Elsa belonged. He was walking along beside her. tightly clutching her hand as if to say defiantly to the world, "You'll not take her away from me too.”

SIDNEY KATZ

The social worker permanently assigned to Gordie was Marion Moeller, a slender attractive woman in her middle twenties who had graduated from the University of Toronto School of Social Work. Jessie Watters, the CAS’s case consultant, and Margareutha Dear}-, head of the child-care department, who made the selection, felt that Marion had the proper qualities to win Gordie's confidence and affection. A sensitive, patient and understanding person, she spoke in a calm pleasing voice.

Her first job was to convince Gordie that she cared for him. that she was interested in helping him become a happier person rather than in punishing him for his emotional outbursts. This was no easv job. He had been unloved by his own parents and abused by strangers. Thwarted in his search for affection he no longer trusted others or expected kindly treatment from them. This was reflected in his attitude toward life which was sullen, bitter and resentful.

In the weeks that followed Marion was to learn just how seriously disturbed Gordie was. Within a few davs after coming into care he refused to go to school. When she went over to the shelter she found him defiantly standing beside his bed. his jaw set. repeating. "I won't go to that stinking school. I hate it.” -All attempts to reason with him faded. She finally left, saying "When you make up your mind vou can reach me at my office.” A half hour later he showed up saying. “O.K.. I'll go now.” But, by the time they reached the school, he had again changed his mind. It took an hour of reasoning and explanation to finally get him to enter the building.

He was a serious feeding problem. Badly underweight. he was so lacking in appetite that he often failed to show up at meal time. When he did he usuallv gulped down « glass of milk and spent the rest of the time aimlessly stirring his food. Yet he talked a lot about food, asking people to buy him doughnuts, milk shakes, candies and pop. Once, when out with Marion before dinner, he insisted that she buy him a dozen doughnuts. "I can’t do that.” she said. "It will spoil your appetite.” He responded by lying down on the sidewalk and shrieking. She finally bought him two doughnuts. Cursing, he ran back to the CAS offices, giving everyone there small pieces of doughnut.

He lived in mortal fear of doctors. Explaining, coaxing and humoring all failed to get him into the doctor's office for an urgent medical examination. He finally had to be carried there. "But there's nothing to it!"’ Marion said, carefully explaining the procedure. But Gordie remained adamant: each time the physician approached him he hollered and screamed like a frightened animal.

He continually demanded gifts. He would go through the CAS offices soliciting paper clips, pencils, pads and rubber bands, then carefully hoarding them in his pillow case. If he met with a refusal he became abusive. He was resentful of authority, no matter how slight. Once while crossing a busy

Street Marion extended her hand to him. He struck it with his fist, shouting, "Damn you! People are always telling me what to do and what not to do!” He made so much noise a policeman came over to invest igate.

In the meantime, acting on the slender clues provided by the landlady, the CAS located Gordie’s parents. The mother was a quiet, thin, rather nervous woman of twenty-eight. She related a harrowing tale of an unhappy marriage. A year ago her husband had left her, agreeing to support his family. A few months later, when the money stopped coming, she said to him, "Either you give me money or take the children yourself.” In spite he took the children and she hadn’t seen them since.

Runge, the father, ignored three letters sent to him and only contacted the CAS after being threatened with legal action. He was a stocky weatherI»eaten construction worker and he showed up at the office in a lielligerent mood. It soon liecame evident that neither parent would—or could look after the children. Later, in Family Court, after hearing evidence from both the parents and the social workers, the judge made Gordie and Elsa temporary wards of the society. He told the Runges, “At the end of a year if you can prove that you can provide an acceptable home you can apply to have your children back.”

A Hard Shell of Bitterness

Social workers are convinced the family is the best setting for the normal development of a child. That is why an attempt was made to place Gordie in a foster home. They were aware that, compared to the average child who comes into their care, the chances of him making a successful adjustment to a family were slim. Yet they thought it would be worth a trv. During the next six months he was in four foster homes. In each case the home-finding department of the society selected experienced foster parents who had demonstrated a sympathetic understanding of children. They were told of Gordie’s background and problems and were asked to do their best with him. They all failed.

By the fall of 1948 Gordie was back at the shelter. He was the subject of a conference attended by Jessie Watters, Margareutha Deary, Marion Moeller and Marjorie Carson, the staff psychologist. It was decided to keep him in the shelter for a time while Marion and the shelter staff renewed their efforts to pierce the hard shell of bitterness and distrust the small boy had built around himself. Since, at his present stage of development Gordie obviously Irelieved that the purchase of gifts was the only way people could show that they loved you. it was felt advisable to give him an extra allowance to purchase a small toy each week. (The usual allowance is fifteen cents; Gordie was allowed thirty

Thanks to the understanding and superhuman patience of the social workers Gordie’s behavior began to show a slight Continued on page 74

Abused and unloved for all of his seven years Gordie was an almost unbearable brat. But, after four years of patient devoted care and guidance, he’s a healthy happy kid today

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 11

improvement. True, he was still terrified of doctors, but he would now submit to an examination providing Marion preceded the visit with a halfhour rehearsal of what was to follow. “Now take off voux coat, now take off your shirt." she would say. and pretend to listen to his chest with an imaginary stethoscopie. He still hated school and referred to it as "a stinking place” yet he offered no serious objection after Marion volunteered to accompany him there each morning. He got into the habit of going and his attendance was surprisingly regular.

He was beginning to show some capacity for warmth and affection. Formerly tense and withdrawn if anyone so much as put a hand on his shoulder he would now occasionally greet Marion or the matron of the shelter with a kiss. Since this was a new experience for him he phrased his first feelings of affection in awkward terms. Once, holding Marion's hands, he said. “I like you so much I could kill you. you no-dam-good no-good.’’ He began to show some respect for her opinions. One day he began talking quickly and incoherently, pausing every once in a while to ask her. "Am I crazy? Do you really think I’m crazy?” Some of the children at the shelter had nicknamed him “Looney Boy.” He was concerned about it and this was his way of asking her what she thought about it.

But a child like Gordie Runge seldom shows steady and continuous improvement. There is an ebb and flow to the quality of his behavior, the result, of what is happening in his environment.

Christmas was now drawing near. Everywhere at school there was joyous talk of family reunions. Cast adrift by his own family Gordie frit—more poignantly than ever before—the deep sharp pain of loneliness. He grew more sullen and less communicative. Finally, on Dec. 10. he erupted. In the school library he got into a heated argument with another boy over the possession of a book. Returning to the shelter in a rage, he upset the beds, tore clothes off their racks, and ran about screaming. “He acted as though he had gone mad." said a boy who had watched him. Later, when his fury was sp>ent. he sheepishly apologized and help>ed clean up the mess.

But. in spite of the apologies, his behavior, if anything, became worse. He played with matches setting fire to his bedclothes and mattress. He upset the shelter Christmas party by throwing a tempor tantrum and shouting. “I don’t want your crummy presents. Take them away.”

Gordie was the subject of another CAS conference in February 1949. Although he was more settled than he had been around Christmas time, his behavior was still frequently erratic: he was a lone wolf as far as the other children were concerned: he was eating so little it was feared he might become physically ill. It now became clear that his emotional problems needed the attention of people with special skill. And so Gordie was taken for treatment to the out-patient's department of the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital.

During the next eleven months Gordie visited the clinic for an hour each week. The staff psychiatrist assigned to him was Dr. Ted Rosen, a slender fair man in his thirties, himself the father of two young children.

Psychiatric treatment for Gordie had to be carried out in a sp>ecial way. "It would have been difficult—if not impos-

sible for Gordie to discuss his problem in words,” says Rosen. “Some other means of communication was needed.” At the psychiatric clinic the method ust*d was play. The psychiatrist’s office was full of toys—checkers, blocks, soldiers. paints and crayons. By the manner in which Gordie played with the toys and by the way he got along with the psychiatrist, insight was gained ihout the real nature of his conflicts.

Rosen was to play a key role in the treatment of Gordie Runge. He gave him a new experience. It is sometimes referred to as a “freeing experience.” Gordie felt that he could act as he liked without arousing Rosen’s ire or dislike. At the same time the psychiatrist let it be known that he could help him control his behavior.

All of Gordie’s behavior tricks had been developed for a purpose: to make an adjustment to life. In time, at the clinic, he grew to feel there was no need to oppose or to be opposed, and gradually he acted more normally. During the first sessions Rosen made a number of important observations. His patient evidently had a great need to control the situation he found himself in. Entering the office Gordie said emphatically. “We’re going to playgames and I’m going to beat you.” He chose checkers. Throughout the game he revealed an intense desire to win. But he played in a disorganized way, failing to see the board as a whole and concerned only with his own men. When he lost his face became a lifeless mask. When he was winning he would jump up from his seat and dance around the room whooping hysterically with joy Because he was fond of the red checkers hifound it impossible to abide by the starting rules of the game: the winner takes red and goes first. Neither could he observe the regulations concerning tea time, a regular feature of the sessions. Gordie had put six spoons of sugar in his tea. When the second cup was poured Rosen said, "You can only have two spoonsof sugar. That’s all we use here." Gordie refused to accept this ruling and finally the sugar bowl was removed. Jumping up, his face ablaze with anger, he shouted. “Do you want me to come back here?” and stamped out of the office.

This was to be the pattern of the therapeutic sessions during the weeks to come a checker game, a tea party, some talk, sometimes varied by a game of soldiers or house-building. Rosen was carefully observing his patient, getting to know him. and building up a close relationship with him. While Gordie was with the psychiatrist Marion Moeller spent her time with Gordon Aldridge, a psychiatric social worker who was a member of the clinic staff, discussing Gordie’s behavior between clinic visits. Then, after each session. Rosen and Aldridge would get together and discuss the case.

During the early sessions, when confronted with an unpleasant situation. Gordie would either violently explode or silently withdraw within himself, remaining speechless for five or ten minutes “He couldn’t control these outbursts." says Rosen. “When he was thwarted it would trigger off an emotional reaction: in a sense he was emotionally reliving his past. These were the feelings he would experience from earliest times when he was cast aside by his parents and others."

But. by the end of the seventh visit, helped by the calm and understanding of the psychiatrist, his behavior was changing. When he lost a checker game he would say, “Let’s play again. You take black and go first.” He appeared willing to obey at least half

of the rule about starting. I-ater. when he attempted to pour sugar directly from the bowl into his cup, Rosen suggested that he use a spoon and take only two spoons full. He obeyed, only after becoming slightly flustered. His play revealed that he was losing his earlier suspicion of Rosen and was accepting him as a friend. He built a toy cabin out of logs and when Rosen asked him who lived in it he replied. “You, me and Miss Moeller.”

His progress was also reflected in his life outside the clinic. When he was losing a game of Snakes and Ladders

that he had been playing with Marion he suddenly put his head in his arms and sobbed. “I don’t want anyone to be better than I am.” Marion, the next day. recorded in her files. “Gordie is becoming better at putting his feelings into words and expressing them a little more directly and normally.” He could accept limits placed upon him with greater comfort Once he asked her to buy him a mechanical boat which cost $1.39. “I can’t,” she said. “You’ve already spent your allowance for this week and you have nothing saved up.” “You’d better buy it for me—I’m warn-

ing you,” said Gordie, his lips curling. Her second refusal released a torrent of abuse. When she visited him at the shelter a few hours later all anger had left him. After chatting for five minutes Gordie asked her for three cents. He was refused. Instead of becoming upset he asked her to tuck him into bed and kiss him goodnight.

He was plainly becoming more independent. In addition to an allotted hour each Tuesday he would formerly wander into Marion’s office several times a week making demands of her. Now his appearances became less fre-

quent. He sometimes even missed the regular get-togethers. She was encouraged to note that sometimes it w-as because he was busy playing with some of the other boys. He was also beginning to make friends at school. His growing self-confidence led him to punch a much larger boy in the nose. "I didn't think he had it in him." the school principal told Marion. "He always used to run aw-ay.”

During April and May Gordie lost ground because of an unforeseen crisis in his life: Marion was going to be married. She realized this development would disturb Gordie and that he had to be prepared for it. So. one day late in April, while walking home from clinic, she told him that she was going to be married in three weeks. He looked at her disbehevingly, then asked her several questions, questions which mirrored his fears.

“Are you sure you’re going to come back here after a week?”

“Absolutely sure,” she replied.

“What did you say your name was going to be?”

"Mrs. Harvey.”

“Are you going to look the same?”

“Exactly the same.”

“Will you act the same?”

“Of course I will.”

After walking along silently for a half block he turned to her and said, “I'm going to go on calling you Miss Moeller.”

He was upset during the week that she was away. His appetite dwindled. At night he would wake up sobbing bitterly. “What will her name be when she gets back?" he would ask over and over again. His sense of loss and insecurity' was reflected in his behavior at the clinic. Rosen noted that he was "uncomfortable and uneasy.” He made demands for money. When he spoke, he kept his eyes glued to the ground.

A week later, when Miss Moeller, now Mrs. Harvey, returned from her honeymoon. Gordie eyed her appraisingly. During the next few weeks he showed that he wasn’t entirely reconciled to the marriage. He was somewhat aloof and would frequently ask her "What’s your name?” Despite her answer he continued to call her Miss Moeller. The barrier between them finally lifted as the result of an incident involving a mechanical car. Gordie wanted to buy the toy but he was refused because it was too expensive. He began to curse her vehemently. "You're just angry because you can't have what you want.’’ said Marion calmly. "It's not only that.” said

Gordie. "Then you're disappointed

because of mymarriage.” she suggested. "Yes." he replied, "that's it.” Encouraged by this opening he went on to talk of his fears regarding the marriage. This open expression of his anxieties had a cleansing and healing effect. She was able to reassure him that nothing between them had changed, whereupon his spirits seemed to lift. It was soon after this incident that he reminded the receptionist at the clinic "Don't forget that her name isn't Miss Moeller any more. It's Mrs. Harvey."

Gordie continued to have his ups and downs. Not all of them could be explained. for the pressures and drives that motivate human conduct are often so mysterious that they defy identification. But. in the main, he was becoming a happier healthier boy. His relationship with his psychiatrist was an harmonious one. Once, on the wavhome from clinic after losing three checker games, he told Marion. "What’s the difference who wins? It’s fun playing." In his own way he had solved one of his thorniest problems: how to let Rosen, when he was the winner at checkers, take the red men and move first. He would ask the doctor to leave

the room for i few minutes. When Rosen returned he would find the checkerboard correctly set with Gordie hiding under the table. After the doctor went through the pretense of finding him the game would proceed uneventfully. At tea time he shared the refreshments easily and limited himself to two spoonfuls of sugar.

He was getting along better with people. He seemed to have grasped the idea that if you treated others nicely they reciprocated. He began calling others by name instead of using his customary “he,” “she.” or “hey you!” A year before he had felt at home only with younger children; now he demanded to be moved in with boys his own age and older. Instead of hopping about excitedly as he talked he could now sit back and discuss things for a half hour at a time. He was handling money with greater restraint: he had saved up almost two dollars to buy a cowboy belt out of his thirty-cent weekly allowance. Because he was now taking a pride in his appearance he ate more. One morning he ate three bowls of porridge for breakfast, explaining, “It's to hide my ribs in flesh.” In two test situations—a month’s stay at a summer camp and a two-week holiday on a farm—Gordie proved that he could get along well in an unfamiliar setting.

Not To Move Anywhere

By September 1949 Rosen and Mrs. Harvey, as well as their co-workers, were in agreement that the time had come to end the visits to clinic. Ending a course of psychiatric treatment is seldom easy. “In his day-to-day living Gordie was going to have to face many separations froln persons he liked.” says Rosen. “He had to learn to take them in his stride.” But the tie mustn't be broken without careful preparation lest it unduly disturb the patient. Rosen first discussed the termination of treatment with Gordie toward the end of September—a full four months before his last visit to clinic.

“Do you think you still have to keep coming here?” asked Rosen.

“Yes, every week.” replied Gordie

“Are you unhappy? Do you have problems that are bothering vou?”

“No.”

“Only children with problems come here. You had problems when you started coming here. You were hardly eating. You weren’t getting along with other people.”

“I eat O.K. now. I get along O.K.”

“Then you really don’t need to come here any more.”

“I do. I want to come here to play. 1 don’t want to move anywhere except closer to here.”

Rosen continued to bring up the subject on every subsequent visit. Finally, on Jan. 5, 1950, he reminded Gordie that this was to be their last regular hour together. Gordie protested. “It's not. I'll be back a lot more times." Rosen suggested that he could pay him the occasional social call but that the regular visits were over. They then sat down to play checkers together for the last time. Gordie’s playing was dis>rganized and when he lost he became resentful and silent. When the time came to leave he demanded a penny He was refused. Angrily, he thrust out his hand. “What I want to know is are you or aren’t you going to give me a penny?” The psychiatrist stood Jus g-ound. Without a word the boy turned and stamped out of the office. “I said good-by to him,” says Rosen, “but he only looked back over his shoulder and gave me a look of disdain."

Gordie was upset all the way home. He observed to Marion: “The doctor's a stingy thing. He doesn’t like me. He wouldn’t even give me a penny.”

“I don’t think you really believe that,” she said. “Perhaps you're only feeling badly because it’s hard to accept the fact that the visits to clinic are now over.”

Gordie sobbed, shaking his head in acquiescence.

A few days later, on his own initiative. he phoned Rosen and made an appointment to see him on Jan. 26. “I want to say good-by to you properly." he explained. The last visit turned out to be a congenial one. They played checkers, had tea, chatted about the future. There were tears in Gordie’s eyes when he said good-by but he promised to look in on the doctor once in a while.

The home-finding department of the Children's Aid Society now began a search for suitable foster parents. They found them at last in Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Laughton (a fictitious name) who operate a one-hundred-acre farm about seventy miles from Toronto.

1 visited Gordie at the Laughton farm a few weeks ago. Everybody who knew him speaks of him as “a changed boy.” He’s grown several inches, he’s put on weight, and his tanned face and sparkling eyes reflect an inner cheerfulness and contentment. His days are busy and productive. In the summer he’s up at seven feeding the five hundred hens which are his own responsibility. He carefully cultivates liis own private corner of the family vegetable garden. He told me proudly, “Sometimes I go out working with the men.” He can drive a tractor, manage a team of horses and mend fences. “He’s a great little guy and a wonderful helper,” says Bruce Laughton, a lanky farmer. Once a feeding problem, Gordie now packs away as much food as an adult.

Mrs. Laughton, a handsome woman in her early forties with a strong warm personality, boasted that Gordie had passed into Grade Five. During the school year she supervises his homework, giving him special help with spelling which is his weakest subject. “He’s an affectionate and considerate child.” she says. “Each time he comes into the house he puts up his face for a kiss." A «hort time ago, when Mrs. Laughton mentioned to her husband that she wanted a spray gun to kill flies, Gordie promptly went to his penny hank and offered to buy her one from his savings a previous nest egg of $2.25 which he has been laying aside to buy a camera. Whenever he buya candy bar or a bag of popcorn he offers to share it with the rest of the family which consists of two other hoys much older than himself.

On rare occasions Gordie is still haunted by painful memories of the past. Once he returned home from school pale and trembling and fell into Mrs. Laughton's arms, a boy had told him that he was going to he sent away from the farm. Another time, when in bed with a high fever, he deliriously pleaded. "Please take care of me . . . jilease look after me . . . please don't send me away . .” Laughton slept with him for the next few weeks until he was well on the way to recovery.

I asked Gordie about hi* future jilans. “I don't know yet exactly what I want to be." he said. “But 1 like living here. I have friends and we go fishing and hunting and swimming and on picnics. Perhaps I’ll he i farmer.

1 like that kind of work." He's happy too about his little sister Elsa their mother now finds it possible to care for

As Gordie jumjied on his bicycle and pedaled down the country road to fete h the mail Mrs. Laughton said to me. “He's a wonderful kid. He’s going to amount to something some day. He’s got an aw ful big chunk of our hearts." if