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News & Views - Oct, 1996 Issue #42 


by: Peter Huber, PhD.
Ex. Dir. Center for Reuniting Families
Angeles Oaks, CA 92305 

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again

Perhaps the king's men and women should have tried a different approach, such as including the family as part of the solution. I founded the Center for Reuniting Families with a clear and unwavering commitment to the concept of making families an integral part of the program. To do anything else was to build only a partial solution, one in which the troubled teenager was not dealing with perhaps the most challenging part of his or her reality.

The quest for a solution, a whole solution, was born of personal experience with my own daughter. I encountered numerous programs that operated on what I call the 'give her away and go away' model. Hand over the troubled teenager, have little or no contact, and in a few months we'll return a transformed person. It wasn't a strategy I was comfortable with, nor was it one I thought really worked in the long run.

There had to be a better way, and there was. It has required an investment of more than $1.5 million and several years of effort, but today the Center for Reuniting Families is proving on a daily basis that 'family values' is far more than a temporary campaign issue. We currently have an average of 25 teenagers in residence, and demand continues to increase on a weekly basis.

At the Center for Reuniting Families, we've created a program that takes an entirely different approach to helping teenagers who are having difficulties with defiance, drugs, acting-out behavior, school failure, low self esteem, poor peer choices and lives that simply aren't working for them. From the start, every family is told "You are a very important part of the process." Participation, not isolation, is the cornerstone of our success in not only reshaping the lives of teenagers, but reintegrating them as functioning, successful members of their families.

One weekend a month is family weekend. Families come from across the country, as well as across the city and state, to our mountain retreat high in the forest east of Los Angeles. This weekend isn't just visiting hours. It's definitely a working weekend, beginning with dinner on Friday night and ending on Sunday afternoon. In between, parents and their children engage in individual and group therapy, review school progress, and spend time considering, defining (and sometimes redefining) what a family is and what it will take to reunite in a way that is happy and healthy for everyone

I have witnessed some extraordinary exchanges at these weekends. Making the family a functional part of the solution-seeking process is a powerful (and sometimes painful) tool. It produces the kind of "out of the box" thinking which facilitates and accelerates change, and makes it possible to move on to problem solving at the maximum rate.

While many programs consider 18 months an optimal stay, we generally get young people to where they're going in about six months. That's about how long it took a young man I'll call Richard. When Richard came to us he was a 6 foot tall 15-year-old who weighed 90 pounds and was angry, defiant, and failing in school. Months of careful work with Richard and his family, including his stepmother, effected both a physical and a psychological transformation. Richard left the Center for Reuniting Families 45 pounds heavier and went on to become an A student at school while holding a part-time job. There have been a lot of Richard's, and we know there will be many more.

Between family weekends, we utilize a wide variety of tools to get teenagers to focus on the fact that they have and make choices, each of which has a consequence, and that they are responsible for the choices and the consequences. Part of the transformation we encourage is a shift from right-now thinking to a longer time line which takes into account both the short and long-term outcomes likely to result from any choice. Taking into account the impact on their family is often a new and very revealing experience for troubled teens.

All of this is accomplished under the guidance of a carefully selected staff that combines Ph.D. and M.F.C.C. therapists with counselors and support staff who have a strong commitment to the young lives in their care. Marti Glenn, Ph.D., Alan Bram, M.A. and Carl Schwartz, Ph.D. provide the therapy. They bring to work with them a combined total of more than 35 years of experience, all of which is put to good use on a daily basis.

As a residential program, the Center for Reuniting Families offers an environment where young people can undertake the exploring and remodeling of their lives that is needed in order for them to reassume full partnership in the family. At the same time, the continued integration of the family into the process serves as a continual reminder that the goal is getting along, not just getting out.

In addition to the family’s participation, another element we’ve found crucial is the on-site special education school. The Carolyn Mitchell School has been named one of the 10 best special ed schools in the state by the California State Department of Education, which cited the school’s “exemplary, comprehensive curriculum and attention to individual instruction.” Trouble often began at school for many of our residents. Beset by learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, or other problems that alter the learning process, they declared themselves failures at learning and at life. Their anger, at themselves and the world, became the behavior which brought them to us. At the Center for Reuniting Families, each person finds out how to learn in his or her own style, and experiences the triumph and confidence that comes with discovering that what seemed impossible is in fact not only possible but pleasurable. The return of self esteem and improved attitude are usually not far behind.

Family and school, so much taken for granted by most, don’t come easily to teenagers in trouble. Putting their lives together again doesn’t require all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, but it does require a family-centered program that emphasizes responsibility and capability, and combines that focus with schooling designed to teach learning strategies that work for the individual. At the Center for Reuniting Families, we know our work has just begun. We’re encouraged by the results of our first years, and anxious to build on what we’ve learned in order to continue the evolutionary process. Perhaps, in the not too distant future, we’ll receive an enrollment application from Humpty Dumpty.

Copyright © 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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