I am a six-foot-tall white male. In the last six years of this project I have learned how key it is, when I am engaging with a child in custody, to give all the power in the conversation to that child. I have learned to neutralize the authority of my age, height, and race by sitting on the floor, squatting, putting myself below the child and allowing them to have control over the dialogue. These are skills and techniques that have permitted even the quietest child to share his or her history. It is never about making any child talk who doesn’t want to, it’s about setting up the right variables to allow them a comfortable space in which to tell their stories.
In the photo below a psychologist at King County Youth Service Center in Seattle’s Central District neighborhood squats in the doorway of a 15-year-old under 24-hour supervision in the mental health wing. The young boy is agitated; he didn’t leave his house for three years until he assaulted his mother for “not cleaning his room quickly enough,” and ended up at the service center. He hasn’t gone to school in three years, and his mother doesn’t want him. It will not be an easy placement. His bed in the room is on the floor. By bringing himself lower, closer the boy’s eye level, the psychologists body language is much less threatening and authoritative.
Compare that image to this one:
At Loysville Youth Development Center in Pennsylvania staff swarm around D.R, the seated boy. Moments earlier he had thrown his jacket on the seat against the wall and sat down hard and opened a book as if to read. He is saying, “Don’t. Touch. Me.” He is unsure how to communicate his anger.
When you lower yourself to someone who is seated, you defer authority to them. Look who else does this: