The ominous situation most juvenile delinquents find themselves in is that no better than the punishments typically reserved for adults. Though some may think that Juvenile Hall is a playground for the young offenders of today, the nature of the environment is unfortunately exact to the nature of prison. There is an element of survival, a hierarchy one must navigate through in the social construct of federal and state reprimand. To prove oneself, through acts of structural defiance, acts of loyalty, and further criminal behaviors, is to guarantee one’s protection. Other times watching and learning the inner workings of the placement assists the convict in manipulating the system to best meet their needs. And such behaviors are hardly limited to imprisonment.
As an alternative, in order to provide juvenile offenders with a better opportunity for self-improvement and successful reintegration into society, many convicted delinquents are sent to behavioral treatment facilities, high level group homes, and work camps. Through tightly structured days, afforded slightly more intervention and support than that found at the Hall, these facilities were ideal compared to the juvenile prison. But it was far from perfect, and here, the kids are expected to grow and fall on the right path. But what really are the odds?
One event I noticed on occasion both in my work with the teen girls at the BT facility and working with the male juvenile delinquents at their facility was that at times, teens are misplaced for one reason or another, a decision that compromises their future. With the boys, I found one young man placed in the facility for a very minimal offense (stealing a bike and truancy from school), though the rap sheet of his peers typically included robbery, grand theft, drug dealing, assault with a deadly weapon, and in one case, manslaughter. Though we were a level 12 facility for the girls with specific behavioral criteria for admission, some girls were merely placed with us because extraneous circumstances left them with no better placement. They had mild behavioral issues, usually depression, but significant medical issues such as diabetes or epilepsy, conditions far too risky for a level 10 or 8 home. Therefore they were placed with us, though we were no medical center either.
When it came to the young man, achieving protected status in the dormitory of 24 other delinquents became his priority. A typical 13 year old, he was well-mannered, polite, seeming to be of middle-class status, and terrified of his new surroundings. When a fight began to ensue between his roommates, he did what he believed to be the right thing, alerted the staff member on duty. Unfortunately for him, in this society, he was now labeled a snitch, and became a target. After one beat-down, he quickly began what Jane Goodall would refer to as displaying in the chimp community, proving his worth by showing off his machismo. He began to break rules, disrespect staff, and fight with other clients to climb the social ladder. After proving himself, he was accepted into the protective circle of the thug society and was deemed a pain in the ass by staff throughout the facility. After a confrontation between him and other peers took place, fearful that he would be moved to the Hall, he ran away from the facility in the dead of night and I never heard of him again.
With the girls, while there were several instances of behavior changes to graft a niche into the group home society, one behavior I typically observed was the modification to get one’s needs met. This is where the key element of the Social Learning Theory, first presented by Albert Bandura, comes into play in these environments. Individuals observe behaviors others engage in, note the pay off of the behavior (are they punished or do they receive some kind of reward) and in turn imitate the behavior themselves.
When girls were placed in our facility who really didn’t belong there, they were typically the better behaved kids who followed the rules, went to school, completed chores, and offered to help around the facility whenever possible. While staff attempted to provide as much praise and rewards as possible for their efforts, it becomes difficult to give the individualized attention these teens so desperately needed when 17 or 18 other girls in the house were acting out. The girls who were more problematic were constantly requiring attention, redirection, and crisis intervention, and it didn’t take long for the better behaved girls to become frustrated, as they should have been. “I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and yet I’m invisible.” I imagine they concluded. Eventually, they made themselves heard. Resorting to similar behaviors, we had several girls display about the house, sheepishly throwing objects at windows that never broke, spraying fire extinguishers, and threatening to kill themselves by jumping off the second story balcony, after which they would march to the balcony and hesitate, glancing over their shoulders to see if we were following. Naturally, whether or not we knew they weren’t serious, we were obligated by company policy to follow, and reinforced their attention-seeking behaviors. Once, however, when we became distracted with another girl threatening to kill herself, the one who had dashed off to the balcony realized we were not coming to rescue her, and returned, loudly displaying in the hallway, stomping her feet and cursing. Eventually behaviors escalated in severity, and the girls rarely returned to their sweet dispositions.
Though social problems in the group homes and treatment facilities largely contribute to exacerbating the issues these teens are faced with, it seems they are set up for failure right from the start by being placed in these facilities to begin with. It was mentioned in part one of this blog that compliance with the teen girls was difficult to come by. With the boys, it was not quite so hard. Given that these boys were placed in this facility as an alternative to the Hall, they understood that whatever problems they faced here, they were much worse there. With the threat of being replaced in the Hall looming, they were more motivated to try. As previously mentioned, the structure was tighter, interventions and support was more readily available in order to help these kids. In other words, they were placed in a laboratory.
Every moment of their day was planned out for them, from getting up in the morning to breakfast, school, group therapy, activity, showers, homework, dinner, more group, and sleep. Their roommates were carefully selected, they had emotional support and guidance from staff, and limited temptation from outside sources. They were removed from the environment that created so many of their issues to begin with: friends who were bad influences, families who were dysfunctional and damaging, freedom and free time to make bad decisions. What else could they do but succeed in such an intricately designed program? Many still struggled as they found other ways to get in trouble: fighting, gambling, refusing to attend school, being disrespectful to staff. But when you take into consideration the things they were placed there for, these offenses pale in comparison. They thrived in a strictly controlled environment.
After their time is served, however, they are returned to the defunct natural environments that bred them. They go back to their broken homes, back to their crime-riddled neighborhoods, back to the friends whose opinions mean so much and who always have access to drugs and booze, back to unlimited free will with little motivation to make the right choices in everyday life, and left without much aftercare. No one bothers to come out and check on them, no one bothers to take time out of their day to keep them in line. If they don’t go to school, no one really cares. If they don’t do their homework, they rarely have anyone to answer to; no one holds them accountable anymore. How long do you believe it takes them to revert to their previous lifestyle?
Such is the problem for adult convicts as well, and is a distinct answer to the question of rampant recidivism in prisons and juvenile halls. You cannot take an unruly chimp, teach him how to behave in a cage, then release him to the world and expect the same results you achieved in lockdown.
A better alternative, argued Richard Mendel in his report Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime… was instead of removing the teens from their homes, to provide care within the natural environment. Offering therapeutic treatments in the home with the entire family, assigning a mentor to keep close tabs on the teen, and facilitating a collaborative effort between the multiple facets in their lives, such as family, teachers, and outreach programs, Mendel believed that the individual had a higher chance at success. The program’s therapeutic approaches, titled Multi-Systematic Therapy and Family Functional Therapy, addressed the issues at the root of the presenting problems, and guided the teen to make better independent choices in the current environment, instead of within a superficial one where the possibility to make their own choices was significantly reduced, thereby teaching them nothing. After longitudinal studies were conducted, not only did these programs prove to be more effective than treatment facilities and group homes, they were also significantly cheaper, costing anywhere between $2,000-5,000, whereas facilities and homes cost approximately $50,000 annually.
Granted, placement in this program is not appropriate for everyone, higher risk offenders that have been convicted on charges of violence, for instance, need alternative placement, but many of the offenders for drug use, minor theft, and behavioral issues such as truancy would benefit from it, rather than being placed in “criminal college”, where they will learn to be better convicts from more seasoned offenders, where their behaviors only get worse, and where emotionally, they’re as lost as they ever were.
So the question now is: when are we going to save them from themselves?