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And Again: “You’re Fired”

I have been fired three times, although they didn’t always say the words, at least not that I can remember.

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to be with friends and colleagues who were living with anxiety about being fired. I understood the fear. I had lived through the embarrassment.

“What do I do?” “What do I say?” “What will people think of me?”

Midway through my South Beach career, I was fired for the third time.

Not exactly fired. It’s not so easy to fire Civil Servants. But it hurt just as much.

Having returned to South Beach in 1980, I had enjoyed huge success first as Deputy Chief and then as Chief of the Mapleton Service, one of seven geographic services which South Beach had developed, adapting the then state-of-the-art community mental health model to serve the most severely ill and economically disadvantaged psychiatric patients.

At Mapleton, we created innovative programs which extended services in ways which went much farther than anyone imagined state hospitals would go. We succeeded in getting foundation funding for a friendly visiting program to support families who were caring for their relatives — usually adult children who were living with serious and persistent mental illnesses. Another foundation provided funding for a psychogeriatric program which succeeded in delaying and preventing institutionalization of older adults by providing outpatient psychiatric services to them in their homes. And with public, anti-delinquency funding, we established a therapeutic preschool program for children at risk as a result of their parent’s mental illnesses. At a time, -- long before the popularization of universal preschool, -- this program provided a range of compensatory services to youngsters at extreme risk themselves while as the same time reducing the stresses on their parents who were themselves struggling with their own issues.

Mapleton was South Beach’s flagship geographic service.

And then I was offered the opportunity to make a lateral move, to become the Chief of the Children and Youth Service. Why would I do that? The Children and Youth Service was a disaster. Trying to straighten it out would be a challenge for sure. But was it worth it? What if I failed to straighten it out?

I am not sure why, but I agreed to make the move. I knew that part of the challenge was that the Children and Youth Service was a stepchild in an overwhelmingly adult-serving institution. The State Office of Mental Health served most youth through separate Children’s Psychiatric Centers, each with their own administration and executive directors. A few communities, including Staten Island (and western Brooklyn), were served through Children and Youth Services administered through adult psych centers.

I agreed to take the job if I could report directly to the Executive Director. She agreed. I hoped that this would make us less of a stepchild.

The new job was indeed a challenge. Over the first year, we turned over half the staff. It is almost impossible to fire someone in a civil service position, but we raised expectations and that helped a lot of people leave. As the top “kid person” at South Beach, I had the opportunity to represent the hospital at statewide children and youth management conferences.

We created some important new programs. We opened the first adolescent day treatment program on Staten Island to serve the most seriously challenged young people up to the age of 18. In western Brooklyn, we opened a unique, young adult day treatment program, serving youth between the ages of 16 and 21. This patient population was among the least likely to receive services, too old for kids’ programs, too young to fit in with an adult population.

During these years, state children’s services were ripped by scandal. At the children’s psych center in Buffalo, the executive director had been tearing up reports of rampant sexual abuse and neglect by staff. When the story of those cover-ups broke, we were all brought under scrutiny. At neighboring Kingsboro Psychiatric Center, the Chief of Service and Team Leaders had been fired or reassigned. I was sent as Acting Chief to help straighten things out.

Through all of this, although she seemed to enjoy the moments of success, our executive director was chafing. Her responsibility for young patients was bringing added scrutiny to all of South Beach. Her life would be much easier without a children’s service. She didn’t get paid anything more for having a children’s service.

One day she told me that she had a plan. She was going to close the Children and Youth Service. I was not to worry. She had another chief’s position for me. There was a Brooklyn chief she was planning to get rid of.

What would happen to the rest of my team?

She didn’t have a plan for them.

What would happen to the kids and families we were serving?

Not her problem.

I was horrified. I had come to really appreciate what we were doing. Until the South Beach Children and Youth Service opened, Staten Island youth in need of long-term care would be hospitalized at Pilgrim State Hospital or at Central Islip State Hospital, far out on Long Island, a difficult if not impossible commute for most of our families. Visiting hospitalized children was almost impossible for poor families.

And I really appreciated the team that we had built. Many were long-time South Beach staff who had accepted cuts in pay to join our team.

The Executive Director assured me though that the political support for the closing was there. It was a done deal.

But the service didn’t close. Summoned to a meeting with the Executive Director, I was informed that the time had come to make a change in Children and Youth leadership. I would be replaced. I was being reassigned, temporarily it turned out, to the Education and Training Department where I had worked years earlier as Chief Social Worker. No reason was given.

I found out later that the Executive Director suspected that I had somehow undermined her efforts to close the Service. A special investigator was assigned. No evidence was found, no grounds to fire me. I could be demoted to my permanent back-up item. That’s the worst thing that you can ordinarily do to a permanent civil servant.

But I felt fired. I told my staff that the executive director had decided to replace me. No explanation. I didn’t try to sugarcoat it in anyway. I was not abandoning them, going on to greener pastures. This had not been my choice. The staff threw a big party for me, the best work party that I had until my retirement 30 years later from ICS.

By the end of the summer, I was reassigned to the Staten Island Family Court Clinic. Although still nominally in a management position and being paid a management salary, I had no management responsibility. For the first time in years, I was responsible for no one’s work but my own. The great reduction in stress in my life provided the space for me to plunge into Zen. This proved to be a remarkable opening in my life.

The change created another wonderful opportunity. Dee and I had been working together at Children and Youth. I thought she was terrific and had appointed her as the founding director of the new Staten Island Day Treatment Program. In 1990, during a major crisis on the inpatient unit, Dee had demonstrated her leadership ability by stepping in as inpatient team leader, rebuilding that team, and righting the ship.

Getting fired as her boss allowed our relationship to go in a different direction. The rest, as they say, is history.

Until it happens in our own lives, I think we all tend to live in fear of being fired. The fear controls us. The reality of being fired, the lesson of being fired in my life, is that it is as much a door opening as a door closing. Often, more so.

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