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Linda Grover never saw it coming.

She was herding children away from a fistfight during lunch when a table rammed her from behind in the cafeteria at the Alexander Youth Services Center.

The blow threw her to the floor, knocking the wind out of her. Her head cracked against the concrete.

"Someone told me to sit still," she said. "I saw the blood on my shirt and my ribs were hurting quite a bit."

Guards subdued the boys, and Grover went to the hospital. She was treated for bruised ribs, a skull fracture and a head gash that took two staples to close.

"Getting hurt is always a possibility," said Grover, a youth services worker. "We just have to accept this as part of the job."

Grover and other staff at Alexander contend that the inherent danger of their jobs is an acceptable risk.

What does keep the staff on edge, however, is trying to cope with overcrowding, the constant influx of children with acute mental health problems, and job insecurity.

"We're down here struggling, trying to make it from day to day," said Jacque Nash, a youth services worker. "The public does not have a clue as to what hard work goes into making this campus run."

In 1999, the Legislature mandated that students be separated by age, type of crime and whether they were sex offenders.

A 10-year-old boy who sexually assaulted his sister arrived at Mac Dorm on the Alexander campus in May. Guarding him strained an already understaffed dorm.

"He's small and we kept him segregated. He sleeps in the day area. [TV and recreational room]. He eats at a table by himself," Nash said. "The staff is with him at all times because of his age."

On his 11th birthday, the boy asked if he could sleep in a room with other children. He promised to behave. He was put in a room, but that meant the staff had to watch him even more closely.

They were concerned not only with his behavior, but with what he might learn from older boys.

"We've got kids who committed every kind of crime, and they're all in the same dorm," Nash said. "I've got some 12-year-olds who look 16. I've got some 13-year-olds who look 6. But the crimes are different. We mainly try to keep the sex offenders segregated and try to keep the little boys from the big boys."

Worse still for the 10-year-old boy: "There's not any real rehabilitation here at that age," Nash said.

Each day brings new children, a potentially lethal mix.

Children might be assigned a new room daily. "We look at the charges [of the incoming children], the ages, and try to put the new kids together with kids who are compatible. Then something happens between shifts, kids get in a fight, and we are swapping rooms all day long trying to keep them safe."

Greg Kirksey, who ran the Boys and Girls Club at Alexander for 17 months, said the children react to kindnesses those on the outside world take for granted.

"We had a birthday party for all the kids. Every child had his own cake," Kirksey said. "These were the toughest -- murderers and rapists -- and more than half of them had tears rolling down their eyes.

"Some didn't eat their cake because their name was on it," he said. "They'd never had anything like that before."

It's not unusual to have a waiting list for the therapy groups. So, the staff struggles to ease the children's trauma.

"Some have committed terrible crimes, but they have a kid mentality. Sometimes I talk to the kids like my 2-year-old niece," Nash said. "Some wet the bed. Some are scared of the dark. Some are afraid of lightning. They cry. We have to get them and put them with us."

"Some kids saw adult things they should not have seen. Some kids could not have done these crimes if these crimes had not been done to them. A kid doesn't come in here and sexually abuse unless something has been going on."

In 1999, the Legislature began requiring extensive training for Division of Youth Services employees. When staff members are pulled out for two-week training sessions, dorms operate with skeleton crews.

"We are understaffed and the kids know it," said security supervisor Michael Wright. "You're talking 30 kids on the dorm to two staff. And that's a very poor ratio.

"You'd be surprised at some of the trivial things that trigger some of these kids," Wright said. "If it's not a gang thing, it's a dorm conflict. And if not a dorm conflict, it's a racial thing. It's always something."

The children want to hear only one thing from the staff -- their release dates.

"These kids want to start a program so they can get through. We're dealing with 150 frustrated kids," Wright said. "A lot of times, placement [office personnel] will tell some kids where they are going and not tell other kids.

"And a kid gets word of mouth that [another kid] is going and he says, 'What about me? I've been here longer than him.' So he acts the fool."

Weekends pose special problems because of the reduced staff. To take the children outside for sports to help them burn off energy requires extra security.

Once in the dorm on Friday, boredom sets in.

"We might get to go to the gym for an hour and that helps," Nash said. "But you've got 25 to 32 kids on a dorm from Friday to Monday morning and that's hard. There's not that many PG movies in the world. You're going to have a lot of horseplaying and arguing."

DYS has worked out an arrangement with the Boys and Girls Club for a few hours of physical education on the weekends.

"Most of the staff are wishing and hoping and praying it will get better," Wright said. "I know Mr. Rigsby [DYS Director Russell Rigsby] wants to tear down these old dorms and put up a modular facility. And then move the girls to Mansfield. It might be a good idea, but I don't think it's a great idea.

"You don't spend $25 million on buildings and pay people subpar. Then, you want people to uproot and travel miles for the same job. You're not taking the human element into consideration."

Grover, Nash and Wright each have been with DYS for five years. Why have they stayed?

Grover: "It's challenging. These kids have the same problems, the same fears, the same goals as any other kids.

"Once in a while I hug them if they accomplish something. I've cried when some have left. The worst part is when there's nothing you can do for them."

Nash: "My husband says I call kids' names in my sleep. I think about them quite a bit," she said. "One kid had a leg cast. Another asthma. This is not the place to be sick. The doctor is not here every day. The nurses can't do a lot without calling the doctor."

"I've thought a lot about quitting, but we're out here because we love our jobs -- through all the directors and all the superintendents, through all the policy changes."

Wright: "I try to be a role model to the kids. After being on this earth 50-plus years, I feel like I've got something positive to offer.

"I like what I do. I'm not going to say I love all the kids, but generally I do. I know most of them probably didn't have a chance. They come from broken homes and no parents or no-good parents. Some of them tried to raise themselves.

"I feel like a lot of them just haven't had the opportunity to do better. So, consequently, they end up in a place like this."

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