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Schools & Program Visits - Apr, 2000 Issue #68 

Forest Heights Lodge
Evergreen, Colorado

Visit Report on January 7, 2000
By Carol Maxym, Ph.D.
San Diego, CA

There is something especially poignant, I think, about children as young as 5, 6, or 10 years old for whom living at home is not a viable alternative, but it is sometimes the case. Forest Heights Lodge makes that difficult realization more palatable because it is a place that provides a boy and his family the opportunity to change and to establish new bonds of love and care. A program with a long and proven track record (it has been helping boys and their families since 1954), staffed by caring professionals, it is based upon a theoretical model of attachment difficulties. Set in the first range of the Colorado Rockies, about an hour from downtown Denver, Forest Heights provides residential care and education to boys who are age 5-14 at the time of admission.

A more spectacular setting, conducive to the concept of making residential treatment a “gratifying life experience” could hardly be found. The campus is large, attractive, and comfortable. The bedrooms are appropriate to the setting, neither too rustic nor too elaborate; the common rooms, spacious but cozy. As I find at most programs, a resident dog or two help to make the atmosphere even warmer and more friendly. The boys looked good and impressed me with a generally purposeful demeanor.

I had the chance to have a long and exciting conversation with Linda Clefisch, the Executive Director. A knowledgeable and experienced professional with a deep ability to empathize, she is eloquent in her description of the program, its mission, and the everyday aspects of how it works. Her warmth and caring are as evident as her grasp of the problems at hand and ideas for how to solve them.

A major reason for the success experienced by Forest Heights and the boys and families it serves is due to the long and thorough admissions process. Before a boy—or perhaps more accurately said, the family—is admitted, a staff member stays in their home to assess and understand the dynamics which underlie the presenting difficulties and to determine if the boy can be successful in the program. This is not a program that can do an overnight placement.

Forest Heights, far from being based upon a “sickness” model, instead emphasizes the building of close personal relationships, starting with the care givers in the program, extending to other boys in the program, and definitely including the family. Towards this end, the staff is kept small, and the staff and family are a team. Forest Heights emphasizes that boys who need to be there have made poor choices in the ways they chose to express their feelings. It teaches them not to discount their feelings, but to learn how to express them more appropriately.

There are only three basic rules: 1. The staff must know where the boys are at all times; 2. Boys are not permitted out of the yard without permission; and 3. “No hands on” which means that no one will hurt any boy, and no boy will be hurt. Having few rules helps to minimize the possibilities for manipulation and allows for the focus to be on the real issues of trust and feelings which these boys need help understanding and living.

The program is non-punitive; instead boys may be asked to sit down to stop and think about the way they have acted. The boys must work hard to change, but to balance that “there is a strong emphasis on life’s being gratifying and worthwhile. A child must be able to have fun, achieve successes and learn what it is to feel good.” When boys complete the Forest Heights program, some return home and many move on to either specialized or normal boarding schools.

Forest Heights is expensive; I do not mean over-priced, because it is worth every penny of the tuition, rather, in addition to the cost of the program, the importance of family involvement usually requires additional money for travel. Plane tickets for the boys to visit at home, for the family to visit the boy in Evergreen, as well as to participate in family therapy can add to the initial program expense. Like so many wonderful programs, Forest Heights has the “disadvantage” that it is usually full, but it would always be worth a call to see if there might be a place for the boy who needs their special atmosphere and therapy.

This is an extraordinary program. Realizing many years ago that to expand the program would have changed its character, the staff of Forest Heights has instead chosen to reach more boys by educating professionals throughout the world in the theory and techniques which they have created and perfected. There are also two books available which are authored and edited by the Forest Heights staff: Residential Treatment: A Tapestry of Many Therapies and A Child’s Journey through Placement.

Copyright © 2000, 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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