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For the week of Nov. 10, 1999 through Nov. 16, 1999

The voice and the wisdom

School social worker Robert Payne reflects upon growing up in an alcoholic family—an experience he now draws on to promote the health and well-being of Blaine County youth.

Express Staff Writer

Robert Payne, Wood River High School’s social worker, says he has faith in the inherent wisdom of young people. (Express photo by Ron Soble)

Two months ago at the Blaine County Courthouse, County Commissioner Len Harlig stood before an ad-hoc council of judges, law enforcement officers, politicians and educators and dropped a bombshell. At least several million dollars, probably more, of the county’s $12 million budget would go toward costs related to substance abuse this year.

"It’s just staggering," Harlig said.

What’s more, he said, addressing the Blaine County Criminal Justice Council, that sum "does not include the emotional costs of domestic violence inflicted on women and children by substance abusers, nor the terrible example that adults are setting for their own children by abusing drugs and alcohol."

If Harlig’s number seems like an outrageous claim to some, it doesn’t to Robert Payne, a school social worker employed by Wood River High School.

Payne, who simplifies his job description by saying that he ensures every student "walks across the graduation stage before leaving high school," said he spends much of his time "helping kids with parents having problems with alcohol and drugs."

Payne, 52, with his graying beard, has a fatherly and disarming presence. During a recent interview at his WRHS office tucked far back in the school’s new science building, he talked easily about the patchwork quilt of his life, proclaiming that school social workers "don’t choose this field—we’re chosen."

Most school social workers, Payne contends, have lived through the very problems they help students, families and communities solve, and Payne is no different.

"I remember walking through my high school and pretending things were okay," he said of his own youth, "and that helps me in reaching kids here."

Payne was born and raised in Plainview, a small town in the Texas panhandle that "God built after He ran out of ideas," Payne said, a town that is "everything the name implies."

Throughout his childhood, his alcoholic and mentally ill mother spent six to eight weeks of every year in a sanitarium.

"Nobody ever talked about that," Payne said, not even his father, whom Payne describes as an "enabler." His father enabled his mother to be an alcoholic, Payne said, by making excuses for her and denying the family had a problem.

Not surprisingly, Payne left Plainview when he turned 18. He attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, an experience he described as "part of the conveyor belt most kids were on."

"I had an abysmal academic record," he admitted. "I wasn’t in class," he said, because he was having too much fun and because he was "self medicated."

"I was very suspicious of the mental health profession," Payne said of his college years. Therapists had done little for his mother’s ongoing health problems, and Payne’s own brush with the profession involved visiting his mother’s psychiatrist for counseling during his first year at SMU. The doctor told him to "study more and try harder," Payne said, advice that didn’t really address the problem at all.

"I gave up on the mental health profession," he said.

Unfortunately, his first marriage was coming to an end before he decided to give psychotherapy another chance.

"We were one of those marriages that look great on the outside," he said, "but neither of us could talk. It’s a misconception that marriages don’t have any fights."

By then, Payne was working in Boise restoring historical houses. This was around 1980. He read an article in Time magazine about surrogate parents, and their children who said they missed having a childhood. Something about the article hit home, Payne said.

"That just sparked huge changes in my life."

For the first time, Payne began to break the No. 1 rule of alcoholic families, which is "don’t talk." He joined a local therapy group, which he described as a painful experience, but comforting, too.

He attended the group for four years, talking about his childhood problems and was utterly intrigued with the psychotherapy process. Eventually people told him, "You should do this for a living," he said.

In his mid-30s, Payne began attending Boise State University to complete his undergraduate degree, then earned a masters degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1988. During that time, he increased his grade point average from a 1.0 to a 3.98.

Today, Payne is happily married with two children. As for his position as a school social worker, "I just absolutely love it," he said.

Payne declares that his story is not unusual.

"There are many more people struggling for help than admit it," he said. "I was at the Len Harlig meeting, and it certainly didn’t surprise me."


A 1996 article in Principal, a trade magazine for elementary school principals, described school social workers as generalists who act as organizers, leaders, catalysts for change and advocates for children and families. The work they do extends from counseling individuals to galvanizing entire communities into action.

For Payne, his broad-range job description manifests itself most often in three areas at WRHS: Helping students whose parents have substance abuse problems, intervening in conflicts between students and resolving conflicts between adolescents and their parents.

"Part of my job is just getting parents to understand that 80 to 90 percent of the concerns I hear are age-appropriate behavior," Payne said.

He calls that behavior "storming and norming" referring to the swings between upheaval and calm that many teenagers exhibit.

But that broad-range job description can present some real challenges, too. The shooting at Columbine High School comes to mind. Payne recalls that the "terrible circumstances" of that day turned into a "wonderful experience."

The day after the shooting, he found his office—smaller than a single-car garage—filled with as many as 50 deeply emotional students who suddenly saw their school and teachers in a different light.

Payne said the resulting discussions from Columbine have led to greater closeness among students and teachers and an awareness among students that their behavior can have catastrophic consequences.

Students are taking more responsibility for the school since Columbine, Payne said, referring in part to weekly "student forums," which students have organized to discuss a wide range of important topics.

Also, Payne says, the community is seeing a ground-swell among parents wanting to do something about issues surrounding teenagers.

One result of that ground-swell has been a new "assets approach" to student health and well-being. The philosophy emphasizes providing the building blocks deemed crucial for all youth to succeed, regardless of community size, region of the country, gender, family economics or race.

Payne said he likes the approach because it’s not about creating institutions around existing problems, but about preventing problems before they get started by providing the experiences and qualities that have a positive influence on young people’s lives.

In a much-talked-about survey given last year by the non-profit Research Institute, which developed the assets approach, Blaine County students revealed that they believe the adult population is indifferent to their needs and that the community as a whole does not value its youth. It’s those kinds of perceptions that Payne and others believe lead to risk taking behaviors, including substance abuse.

If the community can change those perceptions, Payne suggested, the risk-taking behaviors will mostly vanish.

"I have a voice, and they certainly listen to me," Payne said of his role in helping students succeed; but, he added, "There’s a lot of wisdom among our students."

For the most part, he places his faith in the youth.


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