The highlight of the recent Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) conference in Charlotte, NC, was a three hour presentation on Saturday morning Nov. 14, 2009, by Jeffrey M. Georgi on the Adolescent Brain. Georgi is the Clinical Director of the Duke University Addictions Program, an author and a popular speaker.
The ballroom was full, which is remarkable considering it was on a Saturday morning after a long and exhausting conference. The wide attendance was a powerful testimony to his expertise and knowledge of the subject. The attendees were not disappointed, and many remarked to me how much they had learned from the presentation.
A major emphasis, since he was speaking to a group of professional educators, was outlining the development of the brains of adolescents. A major point was that a person's brain was not fully developed until a person is into his/her twenties. This conclusion from exhaustive research tells us that many of the impulsive, silly and self-destructive decisions adolescents make are because their brains are not yet fully developed. Their forebrain is not developed enough to put a check on impulsive behaviors. In a sense, when an adolescent does something dumb, it's because their brain has not developed enough to think through the consequences. "If it feels good, do it" seems to be the mantra for the adolescent brain. The ability to think through consequences and implications of a given action will come later when the brain is fully developed.
One of the most frequent comments I heard after Georgi's presentation was "I wish the CAFETY representatives had been there for the presentation." What they were referring to was the well-attended Point/Counterpoint presentation the previous afternoon where representatives of CAFETY and A-START debated representatives from the schools and consultants attending the conference on the topic "Federal Legislation and Therapeutic Schools and Programs."
CAFETY stands for Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth. They have been very critical of some residential Therapeutic schools and programs and are strong proponents of youth rights.
What the attendees had in mind in their comments about Georgi's presentation was that during that Point/Counterpoint debate, one of the CAFETY representatives pointed to the State of Washington Age of Consent legislation as a model that should be widely adopted. Part of this legislation requires a child of 13 or older to give their consent before the child can be placed into a residential program. If the child does not want to go to a residential program, the state will enforce that child's right to refuse, even if it is the parents who are trying to make that placement or bring the child home, and the child is involved in very dangerous activities. The only exception would be if a Judge orders the child into placement, which usually is only when an adolescent commits a crime and is sentenced into a Juvenile Justice facility.
All the consultants and school program people in the room picked up on the contradiction between the CAFETY youth rights ideal and Georgi's reality. They were very aware how dangerous it would be for a child with a still forming brain to have that right before the child's brain had developed the ability to foresee tragic consequences.
Indeed, there have been adolescent lives lost that can be traced back to this State of Washington legislation. One parent, whose 13-year-old daughter had been brutally murdered in Spokane, WA, while turning tricks to support her crack habit in the 1990s had established the BECCA Foundation
, named after his deceased daughter. His daughter, Becca, had started running away from home at age 13. The State law had prohibited her parents from bringing her back home because she did not consent to go back home, and the State took her into custody. However, the State was unable to keep her in either a foster home or a youth program in Spokane and was reluctant to take action to ensure she would stay in a program, again likely due to the question of youth rights as defined by the legislation.
The BECCA Foundation lobbied to modify the law to better protect children and obtained legislative approval, but the Governor vetoed the modified legislation saying it was "too repressive."
It is our job as a society to protect our children! Giving them rights before they are able to responsibly handle them does no service to children, especially those who like to "live on the edge." We need to rethink the whole question of children's rights in light of research on the functioning of the adolescent brain.