Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Troubled Teens & Jaded Juveniles: Failing Our Kids Part 1

As I begin that perilous feat of pounding the pavement again in an unstable economy, I find myself reverting to positions where I hold the most experience: severely emotionally disturbed teens in foster care. Spending over two years working and volunteering with this troubled population, most of which were delinquents by one measure or another, I found the time to be often unpleasant, but invaluable. I was exposed to the dark world of child abuse and neglect, the typical underlying causes of behavioral problems and psychological disorders. I was frequently abused myself, be it verbally or physically, a punching bag for children who had no one else to lash out at. But, even in most difficult times, I found myself fighting to be the stability these children so desperately craved, the mother figure who disciplined and loved unconditionally, the parental figure who applauded good math grades and held numerous correctional meetings with principals and teachers, the mentor to guide them down the most beneficial path available to them, most of which were in short supply. Unfortunately, time and time again, experience proved there was little if any hope for lasting improvement in their lives, be it the group home, the treatment methods, or the environments they would inevitably be thrust back into once their time was served. This was a reality that threw me into a depression and I find myself asking if this is really where I need to go again.

Given the shortage of viable foster families, most mildly troubled teens are placed in group homes. These homes are evenly numbered in terms of severity of behavioral issues, going from 6 to 14, above which you find juvenile hall or psychiatric placement. Children are removed from biological families for various reasons: child abuse, neglect, criminal behaviors, or even voluntary placement when the parents have determined their behaviors are far too unmanageable for them.

Unfortunately, most group homes are in short supply as well, therefore more severe children are placed in lower levels that are not necessarily capable of providing the children the supervision or interventions required. Once I worked in a level 12 facility, typically reserved for teen girls suffering from depression, self-mutilation, anger management issues, or in recovery from drug abuse; however given the lack of adequate facilities, we were accepting intake patients suffering from suicidality (one girl was brought to us after attempting to hang herself in her basement with an electrical cord), bipolar disorder, aggression and assaultive behaviors (one client had recently been released from Juvenile Hall for stabbing a peer with a screwdriver), continuing drug use (a social worker dropped a client off at our facility still high after a three day bender on crystal meth), schizophrenia, mental retardation, and even autism. For the most part, we didn't know how to handle our clients; we were not properly trained and found ourselves struggling to do our jobs the best we could. It was frustrating, to say the least.

The behavioral interventions in place to manage these kids were largely ineffective. A hierarchical grading system providing four levels of achievement or failure, finding the rewards lackluster and the punishments unenforceable, the kids ignored our feeble attempts to discipline them. Level A, the highest level, promised rewards of larger weekly allowance ($20), more phone time, a later bed time, and the opportunity to take part in an outing reserved for high levels, usually a cheesy weekly trip to the mall or movies, once in a great while a reward of a night at the theater or an expensive theme park. Level B was largely the same, though slightly less allowance ($15). Level C was lower status, less allowance still ($10), restricted phone time, earlier bed time than higher levels, and participation in a weekend activity that was also usually quite pathetic, a trip to a skating rink, perhaps a few hours at the local arcade they frequent every month. Level D/C (Daily Contract), has a minimal allowance ($7), restricted phone time, earliest bed time, and losing the chance of any activity on the weekend, instead participating in group therapy taking responsibility for whatever action landed them on D/C status. Levels were determined collectively in group therapy sessions, whereby the individual's progress for the week was reviewed and their status voted upon by their peers.

While it seems fool-proof, the system is heavily laden with problems and flaws. First being the horrible reward system in place for high levels, most didn't care enough to work for activities they hated, there was no point in staying up late because the TV was broken, and though larger amounts of allowance were given, they were only permitted to have no more than $20 in their possession at any given time, therefore any more money was locked up out of reach. Lower statuses hardly cared for the punishments. Having hardly any privileges at all, there was little they could lose. Understanding limitations of our power, the girls realized we could not physically force them to bed, so most stayed up as late as they wanted, playing in their rooms with their friends, while staff stood in the doorway, doing the only thing they could: redirect them to bed until we grew tired enough to leave them alone. Finding that legally we could not restrict them from using the phone to call family, they typically requested to talk to "relatives", most of whom were probably friends and boyfriends. The state of California requires that children in foster care are given a minimum of $7 weekly for allowance. For those on D/C, usually for running away or not following the rules, $7 was more than enough for bus fare to any friend's house for the weekend, doing drugs, drinking, eating whatever they wanted, watching TV whenever they chose, only to return to the facility, remain on D/C level, and continue the tirade next weekend. Daily Contract also allowed the girls to complete a series of chores for access to any one privilege for the day: cleaning the house could mean time on the computer, going on an outing, or any one of the privileges afforded to high statuses. This usually meant momentary good behavior, which immediately returned to typical delinquent behaviors once the reward was given.

Additionally, there were a few aspects of the program that continually interfered with our interventions, one being day treatment classes. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the girls engaged in day treatment, which meant an off-site activity, usually to the mall or movies during the winter, to the local pool or beach during the summer. Though it was said to encourage appropriate behaviors within the outer community, not only was it ineffective (we were frequently banned from various venues for disruptive behaviors), but knowing that they would have the opportunity to engage in bi-weekly activities, motivation for additional activities was minuscule. Why work hard for a trip to a tar pit museum on the weekends when you know you're going to a nail salon to get a manicure for day treatment? Especially since Day Treatment was considered an integral part in their program, we were not permitted to pull the girls from it; it was a guaranteed activity, no matter how poor their behaviors might have been.

Likewise, state laws and restrictions interfered. California state law prohibits staff from taking clients' property from them without their permission. We soon found that this meant we could not confiscate desirable recreational items such as portable DVD players, radios, iPods, laptops, skateboards, etc. when a client was misbehaving. Though we frequently removed radios as they were a source of high motivation and clients would do damn near anything to retrieve them, we were instructed to replace them all. What parent could be successful in child-rearing if unable to take anything away from their child?

Given the problems that continuously presented themselves, we soon found the program was an expensive facade, and most of the administration was consumed with making money, not helping these teens. In the time I spent at one agency, a 43-bed facility, probably more than 150 girls rotated through the houses. Only one was successfully rehabilitated and reunited with her mother. One. The numbers don't lie, and yet hundreds of thousands of tax payer dollars are thrown into this black hole every year. The future for these girls is bleak and hazy, emotionally unstable and alone in the world, they are ticking time bombs waiting to self-destruct. And the plight for juvenile delinquents and society as a whole is no brighter...