How Rules Push Away Friends
By Pat Fratangelo

I was reminded again today about how agencies can get in the way of friendships that people have. When I got the wedding invitation earlier this summer I was both happy and excited as I knew I was invited to the wedding of Leroy and Sandy. These are two wonderful people that I used to support while working at another agency. I have seen them on and off over the years and have kept up on what they were doing. They had been planning this wedding for a long time. My mother came with me as she knew Leroy and Sandy too. The wedding was wonderful! Both Leroy and Sandy were so happy and it was nice to see Sandy's family there to give her away. I had never met her family before because they had chosen not to be involved in Sandy's life in the past. Both Leroy and Sandy were institutionalized for many years. The service was nice and they both looked beautiful. Sandy was so precious when the vows were being given. Instead of saying all of the I-do's Sandy said " Ya! It's about time!" and clapped her hands. Everyone laughed! She was so happy to become Leroy's wife.

It was like old home week for me at the wedding. There were so many people there that I had known through my work at that agency. It was so nice to see everyone. One man, Michael was thrilled to see me and wanted to reconnect. So we sat together at the church and then at the reception. We had a great time getting reacquainted. As the reception was coming to an end, Michael asked if we could exchange phone numbers and keep in touch. We left with one another's phone numbers and with plans to get together periodically and to stay friends. We called each other periodically and eventually figured out a time to get together one night for dinner.

The first time I tried to find Michael I was unsuccessful. I had misunderstood where he lived and was not able to find him. When I talked with him later that evening I got more detailed directions and told him I would be there at 4 pm next Tuesday. He wanted to make sure he showed me his apartment and that we went out to dinner. He wanted to go to eat at Ponderosa. He mentioned that I should call a particular staff person. Now Michael is a pretty skilled guy with good verbal abilities so I said to him, "Why don't you let the staff know instead of me?" He said he could, but that I needed to call her at the office and he then gave me her phone number. I told him I would try to get a hold of her the next day. When I tried to call her the next day I found that there was no extension by the name of the staff that Michael gave to me. My thought was that I misunderstood the name in some way. I called and left a message for Michael and told him that I made the phone call, but, did not connect with the staff member. He would have to call me again to give me her name or follow up with her himself. I told him that I would still be there at 4 next Tuesday and not to worry.

I showed up as planned and was met by the very happy face of Michael waiting for me in his parking lot as he did not want me to get lost this time! He was very happy that I finally arrived at his place. Within seconds a staff member came over and told me that I could not take Michael anywhere. She said that she did not know me and said aloud to Michael and me that 'he picks bad people to be friends with'. I told her Michael and I have known each other for probably 18 years and that we reconnected at a wedding this summer and had been in contact back and forth since that time. She again said that Michael could go no where with me.

Michael obviously wanted to go, but was torn because of this staff's restrictions on him. He frantically tried to figure out a solution himself. He offered to meet me someplace. I asked if there was a restaurant close by to walk to and he picked Pudgies, which was quite a distance from his home. The staff said he could take a cab there and meet me. That made no sense to me as I have a car which he could ride in and save his money. But the bigger questions really were; why can he meet me alone somewhere but I cannot go into his home; and why can he meet me somewhere but not travel with me to the same location? What really was the rule behind on our seeing each other? The staff firmly said that Michael could not ride in my car. She had checked with the "office" and I was not approved to take Michael anywhere as I was not on his "visitors list".

I had never heard of a "visitors list" and questioned her on what that was. She barked back at me and said "everyone in the agency has one and no one can take anyone out unless they are approved!" She said that I would need approval and also need to sign in and out to see Michael or anyone in the agency. I felt like I was talking with the Gestapo!

I spoke with her trying to help her realize that Michael really had the same rights as anyone to have friends and rekindle old relationships. I tried to help her think through, with Michael and me, a way that we could eat dinner with each other tonight as planned. But she would hear nothing. I tried to help her to understand how she was denying Michael's basic rights by flatly limiting all relationships for this man unless "agency approved". She gruffly stated that these were the rules.

Trying to pull any angle I could, I then explained to her who I was. I was now an Executive Director of another organization that also helped people who were similar to Michael. I explained to her that I had just given a keynote address at a local Inclusion Conference. I also told her how I had worked at her agency for many years and knew many people within it. I explained to her that my life's work had been with people with disabilities and that I have maintained and rekindled many relationships with those within her agency. She clearly did not care and flatly told me so. She said she did not know me and I was not on the approved visitor's list. I was not "approved" to spend time with Michael.

I told her that I really had no interest in agency policy or politics. I just wanted to have a simple dinner with an old friend. Michael, in the mean time, was frantically trying to figure a way to go out with me. When I realized that there was no moving this staff person, I acknowledged to her that I knew I was talking to the wrong person and that I knew much of what she is asked to do comes from her supervisors. I knew she did not have the power to go over the head of her supervisors and make decisions that go against agency policy. I was not trying to put her into a difficult position. At that point she said, "I have the power to keep Michael here and not have him go out with you!" With that, I said, "That is fine". I told Michael that I would call him later and not to worry, I would be in touch. I then got into my car and drove out of his parking lot. I watched in my rear view mirror as Michael was trying to further convince this staff person to let me be his friend.

I drove away feeling that this man was in prison and that this staff member and agency had no idea how they were hurting this man's ability to rekindle and nurture friendships. They speak "over protection and control", while our agency speaks to "living full lives in relationship with others". How does this get so contorted from one agency to another? How is an agency allowed to limit someone's rights so dramatically?

I got home that night and there was a frantic message from Michael saying,"Please call, please call. You have to get on my list. I need you as a friend. It's important!" I thought hard about what happened that night and spoke with others about the experience. I was not crazy. Everyone felt this man was being imprisoned.

The next day I called the Executive Director of the agency. We knew each other and he too was appalled with what had happened and would do what he could to get me "approved" for Michael. I told him that I knew many of the people of his organization and could run into someone at anytime and that it is only natural to get together to catch up with someone. He then thought about how I could become "agency approved". While that was nice, the bigger question really is how an organization helps, or hinders, the people that it supports to grow in relationships with others? If it is this hard to see someone that you already know, it would almost totally be impossible to become a new friend. Most people would not have the time or energy to follow through.

The Executive Director agreed that an agency policy was taken over board. He wanted to know who the staff person was and would talk with (and possibly fire) the person. He then explained to me how they had had problems with people being taken advantage of and because of this needed to make an agency policy. But why not work on that with the person in need instead of making a global policy? Global policies do not see people, they see rules and forms and regulations. When such policies are developed, we no longer think on a personal level, we succumb to the state's policy, regardless of the need for it. How did we get so far away from seeing a person and helping him or her to live a normal life with others?

A life without meaningful relationships is empty. All people need others who love and respect them for who they are. People want a friend to talk with or to say hi to on the street, someone to stop by, or a person that they can get together with. We all need people in our lives for our emotional well being. People want someone to share personal highs and lows with. We all want a real friend, someone beyond the paid professionals that are obligated to be with us.

This experience proved to me again how broad agency policies get in the way of people's lives. Global policies are developed when the administration does not know the people involved or does not properly supervise or train the staff. When this happens, broad agency control enters into everyone's life whether it is personally needed or not. Massive decisions are made, no longer based on personal need, but on agency policy. People become imprisoned because of other people's errors and the administrative response to it. A person can then be so consumed by the agency so that there is no personal life, no personal relationship.