A Glimpse of the Curtis Program: Complaints of an American Son
of the International Labor Communications Award for investigative Journalism
Richard Mink went through the GAIN program three times. His last stint in the Curtis Self-Sufficiency Center ended in disaster. Intelligent, skilled and motivated, his experience illustrates the inappropriateness of the Curtis program for many applicants.
Richard Mink’s mother, who claims ancestry back to signatories of the Constitution, was unable to maintain a stable home life and Richard was put up for adoption when he was five. His foster home was also unstable and his childhood was characterized by beatings. After frequent intervention by children’s protective services, he was made a ward of the state and finished his childhood in a boys’ home. He became involved in drugs and was sentenced to jail for two years when he was 19. He remembers being beaten in jail with a flashlight by the sheriff and thrown in solitary. “I had some time to reflect and realized I was becoming everything I hated. I read the Bible and turned my life around. I haven’t been in trouble since.” Now 30, his main motivation is to provide a better life for his wife and children. “My son has a 3.29 grade average,” he brags.
“I have always worked, the problem is opportunity,” he explains. Energetic and eager to be employed, he has had no trouble finding work, and quickly rattles off his past employment and job responsibilities. “My last job was for the parks and recreation department. I supervised crews of juveniles, cut fire trails, and gave living history seminars.”
Unfortunately it was a two-month seasonal job. Before that:“I worked for an equipment rental company as a yard man for $5.75 per hour. I happily worked 8-10 hours a day, and then started driving a truck for them. They had me working almost 20 hours a day.” When his employer wanted him to keep double books so that he could work longer than the legal limit, he eventually refused. He then worked for a landscaping company, but his boss had a meth-amphetamine habit and ran out of money for Mink’s pay check.
At one point Mink looked forward to GAIN. “I was looking for someone to point me in the right direction of opportunity, because obviously I must have been missing it.” Unfortunately that wasn’t what he found at the Curtis Self-Sufficiency Center. “We bounced balloons around and slapped our hands on the table to songs like ‘We Will Rock You.’ We listened to tapes of James Brown while we were supposed to be thinking and filling out papers. Next they would have us draw pictures and reward us with play money. I almost broke out in tears trying to explain to them my frustration. I felt like they were treating me like a five-year-old, rather than like a man fighting for his life and his family in tough times.
“Then they would show us tapes with images of a black guy with a big gold rope, looking like the stereotypical gang banger or drug dealer, walking into a place of employment going, ‘Duh, duh give me an application.’ ‘Duh, um, do you have a pen? Oh you want me to fill it out now?’ I couldn’t believe this was real. And then we move on to this stereotypical Mexican guy. I know that people aren’t that stupid to act that way and I busted out laughing, I could not stop—it was so funny, and then it hit me. This is how they see me. And then I stopped laughing. So I asked them where this was all going, and they accused me of being a NOIP. That is their term for a bad person with a negative attitude.
“This was my third time in the program and I saw the same people there. One woman got so intimidated that she took a job taking her clothes off in a topless bar. I asked them if that was right for a mother to have to do that, and they said, ‘Some people like that type of work.’”
On his first day out, Mink drove 175 miles placing applications and looking for work in all the surrounding communities. At one point he was told never to tell an employer that he was in GAIN or the employer would automatically throw his application away because employers see GAIN as a program that teaches people only how to interview without teaching any job skills. Finally his frustration reached its limit:
“I went into the program and demanded my rights. I told them the system was cruel and humiliating and had no future for me, and that I wanted to file a grievance. So my [Curtis] worker came at me with this rude attitude, talking down to me....telling me how she had five kids and we were bad people because we couldn’t support ourselves.”
The argument heated up until one of the clients left the room and called for help from the county GAIN social workers. Mink’s next memory is of his county social worker taking him aside. “She said I didn’t have grounds to file a grievance and tried to calm me down. But then this [Curtis] worker cut into my conversation and started telling me about how she was a taxpayer and tired of supporting us lazy so-and-sos who don’t work, and I told her that I spend money in the economy and that I’m not as bad as she says.”
The situation continued to escalate until one of the social workers, Carlos Campos, encouraged Mink to leave the room with him. Evidently the Curtis worker took this as a sign that the social workers were siding with Mink. She filed a complaint against and the other social workers, accusing them of inciting Mink against the Curtis workers.
We asked social worker Don Thomassen what he thinks Mink needs. First he stated that Curtis had violated policy by keeping Mink instead of referring him on to assessment. Clients who have held two jobs in two years are to be referred on, as the client’s problem isn’t finding work, but they need to be assessed to find a job that is appropriate for them. “The poor guy has been through job clubs three times. What he needs is a vocational evaluation. When you place people like him in the right job, where they can grow without further trauma, it is like the whole world opens up for them. You can’t do that in a group job club setting.”