LISBON - Some children are easier to love than others, but Michael Hunt has spent more than 40 years helping many of the most at-risk and difficult children and teens become productive adults.
Hunt retired last week from his position as a probation officer at the Columbiana County Juvenile Court.
"You have to know when to discipline them and know when to hug and support and love them," Hunt said of how he approaches teaching youngsters to do the right things. "They're going to make some mistakes. There is going to be some hardships, but they are going to learn to overcome them."
Hunt said many of the children on probation come from homes where no one ever told them what to do. They lack the limits and rules children need. While he is not in favor of spanking often, he notes there comes a point when some children need a spanking to get the message across.
Hunt emphasizes children need good role models and people who really care about them.
"If they don't (care), kids know it," Hunt said. "They know who cares about them. They can tell the teachers who are really interested. They know if you're honest or not."
Hunt got into his own share of trouble when he was younger. With his father in the service and drinking a lot, his mother working as a nurse and the family moving every two years, Hunt said he remembers sitting in a jail cell at 15 waiting for his parents to come.
"I could see where these kids could struggle," Hunt said. "I had coaches and people in my life who stepped up."
At that time, law enforcement could call your parents and send you out to pick up trash along the road. One law enforcement officer told both Hunt and his brother they were both going to sign up for a sports team at school to try to help them learn some discipline.
Returning from serving Vietnam, Hunt was considering a career in electrical engineering before a friend suggested he join him in law enforcement. He switched his major to criminal justice. Working in an intake prison early in his career, he was encouraged by an inmate who told him he was in "the wrong spot" adding they are already in prison and he should be working with children where he could make a difference.
Although Hunt believes someone he knew may have put the inmate up to saying that, the change seems to have worked out well for Hunt.
"I thought maybe I could be that person that could facilitate some changes in some of their lives," Hunt said.
Soon after he was working at the Fairfield School for Boys in Lancaster and found the man in charge was actually frightened of the teens in the facility. When a fight erupted between four large boys, Hunt and another man went in and broke it up.
"They're just big kids," Hunt said in explaining his actions later to his boss. "Those kids don't want to hurt me. They want to hurt each other."
Locally, Hunt started his career running the Rogers Group Home in 1971. He has also worked with Children Services as an intake worker and an attendance officer at East Liverpool City Schools. Then he began working part-time as a probation officer. He has also been a foster parent for about eight or nine years. He and his wife raised four of his own children, four adopted children and currently have a foster child living with them.
During his time working with children and teens, Hunt said there are some who did not handle being placed on probation well. Others get to a point where they are doing so well they do not want to get off probation. Hunt notes some come in with no respect and some are fearful of being on probation.
Eventually many begin to see their relationship with their probation officer as more as a parent and a child, instead of an adversarial one. Hunt said at that point the teen wants you to check up on their behavior and their grades. They want you to see how they are doing.
He has the children he works with do community service, helping out at the fairgrounds and parks on Saturdays.
But sometimes it is still not enough. Sometimes it becomes necessary to remove the child from their homes because of the lack of support there.
"Probably the hardest part in dealing with the kids is not the kids," Hunt said. "Sometimes it's the parents or other adults in their lives."
Hunt said even if the child begins to look at things differently and starts doing the right things, if the adults in their lives refuse to change things at home the child is in danger of falling back into the same behaviors later.
"Some kids surprise you," Hunt said. "Some kids don't. Some you know if they go back they will go back to the same problems. You see these kids with so many issues. "The majority don't like how they live, but they won't tell you that."
While some never make a change, Hunt knows many of the youngsters he has worked with have become successes. Many have grown up, gotten married and had children of their own. Some of their children may have even ended up in the probation program.
Although Hunt will no longer be there, he knows they will be in the capable hands of the other probation officers in the department. Hunt talked about each of the other probation officers in the program - Jeremy Matuska, Sue Weigle and Donny Carmen, as well as the people he will miss who work in the juvenile court. He notes each of them may do things a little differently, but every one of them does well working with children.
Hunt said doing the job is a group effort, adding good probation officers work with the school, social workers, counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists. He likes that they can pick up the phone and talk to local doctors about certain children.
While Hunt said he will miss the people he works with, it appears they will miss his knowledge and experience. Matuska notes no one has taught him more about working with children and this community than Hunt.