Letters - After-School Programs

Written by Rachel Dowling. Posted in Volume 37, Issue 5 - November 5, 2016

To the Editor:

I am a Roosevelt Island parent who has been put between a rock and a hard place. As a single parent, I breathed a sigh of relief last fall when my son turned six and was of age to participate in the free Beacon after-school program sponsored by the Roosevelt Island Youth Program. I ignored the disparaging comments I had heard from parents who didn’t feel warm and fuzzy about the place.

“It’s pretty much a holding pen for our kids,” one parent said. A year later I can say it is worse than a holding pen. It is an environment rampant with dysfunction and lack of structure, sorely lacking in oversight and supervision or sensitivity to the needs of children as to be dangerous and damaging for them.

On the first day of the program last year, I was called at the end of the day and told that my son hit his head. The voice on the other end of the call was very calm, and I was not very concerned until I arrived to pick him up and saw a monstrously raised goose egg on his forehead, blackish purple from bruising with a bloody red cut down the center of it.

It wasn’t just the fact of the accident, although it didn’t bode well on the very first day. I was troubled by the evidence that his injury had received no ice to keep the swelling down. They said that he had received ice. Well I’m sorry, had he received ice right after the incident, the injury wouldn’t have swelled and bruised as it had.

Over the course of the next ten months, my six-yea- old would experience two more injuries that involved his head. The first week of the program, he came home each night with his homework packet completely blank. It had not been touched. “I thought they were supposed to be getting homework help,” I said to the woman at the front desk. It took some advocating but after a few weeks, the homework started to happen. But it often got lost.

When I arrived to pick my son up In the evenings, I would find the kids languishing in the hallway or running amok trying to find ways to keep themselves busy. They would be sliding down the banister on the front landing, or laying around on the floor, or putting gum in each other’s hair.

“He’s very fidgety,” the woman at the front desk complained to me one night. I explained to her that, while he hadn’t been diagnosed yet, I believed he had OCD and he did better when he had things to occupy himself.

Also, they were giving the kids soda and candy, and when I suggested that this was probably not a good practice, that a lot of kids have health issues and food sensitivities, I was red-flagged as being a complainer.

Instead of changing their practice, my child would be singled out, not allowed to get candy while the other kids ate candy to their heart’s content and flaunted it in his face.

The environment was always barely controlled chaos, and very over-stimulating for a child with sensory issues. I found my son frequently in a ramped-up state of anxiety, chewing on his own clothes, unable to stop moving and touching things.

Last spring, on one of the first warm days, I walked in at pick-up time and my son was running toward me with blood streaming out of his mouth, the supervisor following behind him, explaining that he had tripped and fallen on his face. In this process a loose tooth was knocked out. He had a scrape on the side of his face as well. I wondered how a child trips sideways, how it had come to be that he had scraped the side of his face and not just the front. He has neurological issues so the thought that he didn’t put his hands out to block his fall was, while concerning, not incomprehensible to me. But the scrape endured on the side of his face puzzled me.

Kids would throw balls at each other while they were on the climbing structure and the slide, or be “playing war” and throwing sticks at each other over the climbing structure. I almost got hit on the head with a large branch.

A few weeks after my son’s fall, I arrived early to pick him up and found two older boys were fighting, with a counselor between them. “He HURT me!” one boy cried through large tears that welled up in his eyes. While waiting for a few minutes near the play structure, I had to quickstep to get out of the way of a ball that was coming at me out of the game of dodgeball taking place in the corner. A counselor moved swiftly toward them, shouting, “Only ONE ball! Only ONE ball! If you play with TWO balls you DON’T play!”

Against my better judgment, feeling that I had no other options, I enlisted my son in the Beacon summer camp program. After dropping him off on the first day, I thought to myself, “What are the chances that he will get through this day unscathed?” Not good, I thought to myself. In fact, unlikely.

I got the call at around 1:30 that afternoon, the Beacon Program flashing on my caller ID I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” “I have your son here,” said a supervisor, sounding very calm.“ He fell from the chair in the auditorium and hit his face. He got a nose bleed. He was standing up on the chair. The counselors told him not to stand up on the chair.”

She told me that if I wasn’t going to pick him up, she couldn’t keep him here with her. I asked whether she believed he needed to go home. She seemed to think he was okay, but when I got him on the phone, he was whimpering and speaking to me in a baby voice. I asked her to put ice on it and keep him there and, if he wasn’t improved in a half an hour, to call me. When I got off the phone I decided to go there. I arrived 40 minutes later, and found that he had been sent back to the gym, a warm ice pack in his hand that wasn’t being applied.

When we stepped out on the sidewalk, I lifted my son’s bangs and found a massive hematoma on his forehead. The bump on his head had never been mentioned. No one had ever even seen it. And so it had swelled unchecked in the 45 minutes to an hour since the injury. “And my tooth got loose too, Mama” my son said.

The morning after the incident, I called Beacon and got the acting director. I was upset about the lack of attention to his injuries. I wanted to express concern and get a clearer idea of what had happened. The director rushed me off the phone, saying she had meetings, and would call me back. She never called me again, and my numerous subsequent calls and messages were never returned.

Over the next few days, my six-year-old experienced a major onset of OCD, ADHD, emotional and verbal regression, mood-swings, hyper-extended knees that made his feet slap the sidewalk as he walked stiffly and awkwardly, looking very much like a child with autism or Asperger’s. A few of these behaviors had appeared before, but now they were much more extreme in nature. I pulled him out of the program. It was clear to me that they didn’t care about us.

I am happy to report that my son is doing much better today. He attends the Island Kids after-school-program, an organized, structured environment staffed with caring professionals. While it is very hard for us to afford, I realize that it is not just a matter of an enriching program versus a holding pen. It’s a matter of life or death, joy, or getting thrown to the lions. Our children on Roosevelt Island deserve better.

-Rachel Dowling

Tags: Letters

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