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Posted: Jan 31, 2007 17:50

A-START SURVEY

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By: Denise Woodbury, JD

As a parent of a graduate of both a short term wilderness program and a long term therapeutic boarding school, I filled out the on-line questionnaire.

I also studied the structure of the survey as a lawyer first admitted to the Bar 27 years ago, in which I have worked with issues involving juvenile crime and negative behaviors, interstate compact and child abuse, and over 15 years as a prosecuting attorney where I also represented the state’s Department of Health and Welfare on child protection and mental health issues. I have been court appointed on numerous occasions as a guardian ad litem for youth.

In my opinion, this survey would fall into what is recognized in law as “junk science”--it may look good on an initial glance, but upon examination of the foundation, it lacks many basic principles of professional objective data search. It tends to lump all programs together and assumes that negative aspects are the predominant aspect of the industry.

After having visited over 50 programs in 20 jurisdictions, the one thing I can tell you is that there is not a one-size-fits-all description in this industry. It would be like classifying a chiropractor, a brain surgeon, and a natural healer into the same category and then trying to apply the same criteria to all of them. I also have the following comments respecting the survey:


  1. At least one of the persons involved with the survey who presumably would be helping to evaluate the results is well know as an activist against the industry, having posted on numerous websites about her "bad" experiences at a program. The conflict of interest potential is obvious.

  2. While the survey asked many appropriate and helpful questions, it suggests an unexplained bias by failing to ask other vital questions such as whether the program with which they had personal experience was or was not regulated by the state in which it is located or whether the Interstate Compact to which all states have subscribed had been used in making the placement or whether the person had completed the program. This appears to come from a bias commonly bantered around the internet that these programs are not licensed or regulated. Woodbury Reports Inc. shortly will be providing documentation of a significant number of the leading programs in this industry which are indeed licensed by their states and/or JCAHO, contrary to the apparent assumptions of Internet rumors.

  3. The announcement of the existence of the survey and the invitations to participate were primarily initially made to to a small group of self-selected websites hostile to this private industry. This suggests a desire on the part of the people involved with the survey to make the worst case possible when evaluating the results, and consequently, an unprofessional bias.

  4. A quick call to some of the leading programs in the industry received the response that A-START made no attempt to involve them in collecting data. In a truly objective survey, the programs would be an excellent source of help in locating parents and ex-students to invite participation, and should be at least part of the effort to obtain accurate results from a large number of participants. Hundreds of thousands of children have gone through these programs. Ignoring this obvious source of participants suggests the developers of the A-START survey are more interested in negative responses than an accurate representation of the industry.

  5. The survey tends to focus more on the negative than the positive. For example, in the section asking for information about Privilege & Discipline Policies and Practices, there is one question on privileges, asking if the system of privileges and rewards was motivating for the child, while there are 32 questions asking about negative discipline policies and practices. In addition many of the questions assume that restraints and isolation are automatically used, even though many programs specifically do not use restraints or isolation rooms. In effect these are unprofessional leading questions. If positive systems work and there is an interest in getting good regulations, that is definitely something that should be included in any legislation proposed.

  6. There is an inherent negative bias against programs in the survey. For example, one question asks if there have been any negative reactions in the last week. It does not ask about positive reactions. It not only asks for only negative reactions, but is worded in a way that to be truthful a participant would have to check yes even though the known cause was some other event in the person’s life and had nothing to do with residential placement. Many graduates of programs would freely respond that they were able to cope with the negative reactions or recover from them more quickly because of the program. Again, this is an unprofessional leading question, apparently designed to solicit wanted answers.


When I did my law school research project many years ago, one of the first steps I took was to try to discover everything I could find about my topic. This study has the appearance of being written by a first year college student, i.e., someone who is new to the field and inexperienced in educating themselves fully in the issues. Those of us who have been in our fields for a number of years know that none of us can never know it all, but we try to get as broad a foundation in whatever problem we are dealing with before we tackle it. This does not appear to have been done in this case in my personal opinion. As I write this, the surveys are currently not available online, for some unnamed reason. However, more information about the surveys can be obtained by going to www.strugglingteens.com/news/a_start-index.html





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