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Posted: Feb 21, 2008 08:47


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By Bill Valentine, PsyD, CC and Jim Powell, PhD

As we have noted in previous essays, our industry appears to be at a crossroads. The last several years have seen an unprecedented scrutiny of private, parent-choice, residential programs for adolescents. Congress, the media and public officials at the state and federal levels, have called for governmental oversight and control. Thus, the crossroad of decision is now upon us.

One road continues forward with therapeutic programs and schools following the same operational highway as they have in the past. So far, that journey has been a relatively safe one. Although mostly anecdotal, reports from parents and their children along with increasing enrollments have indicated a high degree of client satisfaction and program efficacy. The temptation is to continue business as usual, trusting that the storm will pass.

However, we are advocating taking the road less traveled. In our last essay we gave specific suggestions for implementing a thorough Risk Management Program (RMP). An RMP can do more than manage risk, although that is an important component. The primary focus is to increase and inform quality of care. In addition, a rigorous and on-going RMP can provide a wealth of metrics on everything from average length of stay to client outcomes and satisfaction. We suggested that you manage your RMP initiatives "…consistently and relentlessly until everyone forgets there ever was another way to do things." It is "everyone" to whom we now turn our attention.

Ironically in this age of disembodied communication via Internet, cell phone and email, we remain an industry where human contact and inter-personal relationships remain central to a therapeutic school or program and the client's ultimate successes. Indeed, the human resources within a program, and the development and implementation of these resources, will largely distinguish the highest quality programs from the rest.

In the early phases of our industry, many staff members were recruited based upon their ability to bond with the children while maintaining a larger than life persona in the eyes of their charges. Their educational background was secondary to the person's inter-personal skills. In fact, the emotional growth curriculum was often created and directed by persons who were deliberately selected for their lack of connection with the psycho-medical establishment and its techniques.

Inter-personal skills are still the hallmark of great direct care staff, including therapists. However, as Dylan noted, "The times they are a-changin'." With the above mentioned scrutiny, along with the increased competition and research based data, comes a need for development and documentation of solid staff skills and experience in direct care of troubled adolescents.

It is critical, it seems to us, that we must first hire staff with demonstrated skills and then put them on a vigorous and documented track of personal and professional growth. We recommend that Coaches be certified by accredited training; therapists be licensed and maintaining their knowledge base of new diagnosis and treatments through continuing education; and field staff possess certified first aid and wilderness living skills. All adult staff should have a thorough background check that includes regular monitoring and be engaged in a program of emotional intelligence development.

We are well aware that licensing, certification and accreditation of key personnel is often found in quality programs. Every parent considering enrollment of their child in a residential program should be made aware of all professionals and paraprofessionals involved and associated with the program and the responsibilities they have in the day to day operations and program delivery. What is harder to measure for the outside observer is the school or program's on-going commitment to safety and efficacy through all-staff continual, personal and professional growth requirements. Such an all inclusive curriculum would also maintain compliance and keep current all training requirements as outlined by licensing or oversight agencies, accrediting bodies and other professional associations.

In-house development of adult relational skills is critical to a program's success. We have all seen "natural" relational skills demonstrated by drivers, maintenance staff and night security personnel as well as new counselors and seasoned therapists. The investment in the continuing development of these skills through planned, regular training and education for all staff is returned many times through the increased exposure every child has to healthy, growing adults.

Some of the tools and strategies for reaching this high level of human resource development include:

  • Career path programs

  • Mentoring and mentors for every new staff member

  • Off-site continuing education

  • Tuition and schedule assistance for continuing education

  • Certification courses for coaches

  • Training in the program's cultural model

  • In-house certification paths for outdoor skills

  • In-service training utilizing outside trainers/speakers

  • Online course work

  • Comprehensive new employee orientations

  • Regular training time for all staff built into the work schedule

  • Adult growth workshops and seminars

  • Processes that continually document, monitor and measure each individual's personal and professional development

A culture invested in personal and professional growth for all staff is often evident in staff morale and retention, student participation and connectedness, and parent and referral source satisfaction.

In the long run, the time, effort and organizational investment in the special people who work to bring health and healing to children and their families are an investment in the future of our clients, our industry, our country and ourselves.

About the authors:
Dr. Jim Powell is Co-Founder of Powell & Elliott Collaborative, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in the struggling adolescent community, Lake Arrowhead, CA, 951-317-3151,

Dr. Bill Valentine is Co-Founder of Next Step For Success, a parent and family coaching service, is a division of Ever Higher, LLC, , Redmond, OR 541-504-5224,


February 27, 2008

Yes, there is an ever-increasing scrutiny of programs, and you have the pundits demanding Change, and the usual knee-jerk politicians want to step in and create some legislation and may even see this as a 'perceived social problem' and then automatically jump to "let's create a new bureaucratic agency or department to deal with this perceived social problem, or set up a special task force or arm of an already existing worthless bureaucracy, such as the U.S. Dept. of Education (Mis-Education is more appropriate for what they actually achieve). " Any time that the government creates an agency or department to deal with a perceived 'social problem', the problem not only will not improve, it will worsen and the numbers of 'perceived victims' will be added to it's roles. You can use the U.S. Department of Education as a model to prove this point. There are now more bureaucrats and money spent on the operation of the bureaucracy than at any time in history, and the outcomes of education has steadily and rapidly decreased since it's inception. The decline had already begun in earnest, beginning in the early to mid 1960's when the U.S. Government began meddling in state and local affairs in education to begin with. More and more standardized educational testing began then, and as all educators learn in school, the more you standardize, the more you have to lower the standards. Now, the standards have reached an all time low in an effort to make it appear that schools are performing adequately. High school graduation exams are many times based on 7th grade or lower standards. In the beginning, of course, the pundits, politicians, and other bureaucrats meant well when they introduced these type tests, but when their out comes were not what they expected, they continued to lower the standards to make it appear that schools being managed from Washington D.C. were performing up to standards and doing an effective job of educating America's youth. Well, we all know what a disaster the public schools have become.

So, yes, let us continue to fight for individuality and independence in private programs. This idea of a RMP, like all new innovative ideas, sounds good on the surface, and at some level would probably be a good thing, but as I read on, it began to sound too much like the same thing that the U.S. Department of Education and all their state and local arms are already doing, and would probably lead to another bureaucratic nightmare and too much time would be spent on documenting what you say you are doing than on actually doing what you say you are doing and what your program was designed and intended to do. And the result would be, you have a great program on paper, but the workers would be buried in paper work and certifications that are meaningless because not enough time would be available to actually implement the program.

Thanks and Happy Trails,

M. Jerome Ennis

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