Jun 10, 2008, 11:33

The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight

By: Lon Woodbury, Educational Consultant

In October 2007 and April 2008, we were treated to an amazing example of how the issue of residential treatment of struggling teens can be totally confused and obfuscated based on the Washington DC Beltway mentality, misleading drama and blurred boundaries. With the accompanying media feeding frenzy, it reminded me of the mythical corporate exercise program: Leaping to conclusions, rushing to judgment and covering your behind.

The lead witness in both hearings conducted by Congressman George Miller's Committee on Education was Gregory D. Kutz, GAO Managing Director, Forensic Audits and Special Investigations. His presentation was a prime example of the "one size fits all" mentality. There are significant philosophical, programmatic and dynamic differences in how various schools, programs and institutions approach working with teens making poor decisions and needing residential placement. Yet, despite hundreds of hours of his staff interviewing professionals working in the field and even visiting some programs, all were lumped together in the hearings into some bland generalization known as "Programs for Troubled Youth." The focus of the hearings implied private programs were the worst of the lot. This was accomplished partly by combining statistics from juvenile justice, mental health and parent-choice programs, which run the gamut from public to private. This presentation failed to analyze which were public or private, leading the media to mistakenly conclude that all examples and statistics were from private parent-choice schools and programs..

The resulting legislation voted out by the committee in May continued these confused and biased blurring of boundaries. First, public institutions that have had the most serious examples of incompetence and brutality are excluded from the legislation (for examples go to Public Youth Failures). These are residential programs that take children referred by courts and/or mental health professionals with parents having little or no say in enrollment decisions. What the legislation does focus on, however, is to regulate those private programs that are parent-choice, where parents can make the enrollment decision and choose to avoid their child getting sucked into the sometimes damaging public programs. This legislation would result in taking away or reducing the ability of parents to make their own decisions for their own children. It also has the danger of sooner or later making private programs look and act more like the flawed system of public programs since they would be regulated by the same inside the beltway mentality that public programs are now regulated by.

There is a lot of room for improvement in all segments of residential programs for teens, but improvement can only happen when based on reality rather than generalizations and politics. The reality is that there are three basic approaches to residential placement of youth, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, with a different route to improvement for each.

First are the juvenile justice institutions. Youth wind up in one of these facilities by Court order based on having committed some crime and parents rarely have any say in the matter. Regulations are almost exclusively mandated by federal and state juvenile justice agencies, with boot camps being one of the most popular approaches over the last couple of decades. The major problem is they are based primarily on punishment while a majority of their population has treatment and individualized attention needs that usually are not met. Another weakness is chronic budget restraints from inconsistencies in legislative appropriations.

The second type are treatment facilities including psychiatric hospitals and Residential Treatment Centers. Youth are referred primarily by mental health professionals and insurance companies with occasional enrollment decision involvement by parents. Their major problems are restrictions caused by cost-cutting initiatives such as managed care reducing the length of residential care and the growing influence of emphasizing medications to treat symptoms rather than the root of the problem.

The third general type are what we refer to as parent-choice schools and programs. Sometimes referred to as private pay, parents take the initiative in finding a school or program and make their own arrangements to pay the tuition, and are usually fully involved in the program. Many of the early founders of these programs observed there was nothing appropriate for some of the troubled children they knew, so they went into the school business to provide services they thought better suited the needs of struggling teens. The resulting explosion of creativity provided a wide variety of successful approaches to fit the wide variety of needs. A major problem has been the number of schools, programs and referral agencies jumping on the bandwagon and charging high prices, while having inadequate credentials and experience. Essentially, the latter seem to be in it primarily for the money. These questionable and usually nonprofessional programs have been financially successful by sliding in behind the quality professional programs and charging high fees with low quality service.

It is a fair statement that as a nation, overall, we are not doing very well for our youth placed in residential programs. As we see from newspaper coverage, there are plenty of tragedies in both public, private and public-private teen programs. We can and need to do better, but a solution will come about from reasoned discussion and step-by-step improvements that address the real problems in each type of approach. I'm dubious that the federal government has the ability to improve the situation. This is partly based on what I have seen in Congressman Miller's hearings with the emphasis on ringing political condemnations, blurring boundaries and appealing to ideology and biases, and partly based on the chronic problems existing in current public funded and controlled programs.


July 13, 2008

As usual, Congressman Miller is campaigning to create another worthless governmental function to solve a 'perceived' social or societal ill. In this case, private residential schools and programs, that do not currently get mis-managed by the U.S. or State Departments of Education and other worthless governmental agencies.

This writer suggests that Congressman Miller and the other knee-jerk Beltway con-men/women, oversee the results of what their legislation that created 'other oversight' agencies, committees, departments, task forces, etc. and do something about the mess we are in because of the creation of these worthless programs that are publicly funded, and do much more harm than good. In fact, if the publicly funded education system was competent, there would little need for specialty private schools and programs that actually work, to undo much of the damage created by the public school system, where an active Underground operates, much the same as the U.S. and State Governments operate their own Underground culture. They say, 'we are here to serve the public good and insure safety and health of our citizens' and then, actually do little or nothing of what they campaign and say they will do once they get into power. The U.S. Department of Education was created to 'fix the school system' and in only 30 years, they have destroyed the credibility of the public school system that not only does not do a very good job of basic academics, and worse yet, causes serious emotional and behavioral problems for students who are exposed to it.

So, directors, teachers, counselors, clinicians and others who work in emotional growth programs, or parents who have children in these programs, contact Congressman Miller and other of your so-called Representatives, who ostensibly, represent, we, the people, and tell them to leave private programs alone, and to go and take care of the messes they have already created and allowed to persist in the public school system and other areas where Congress has created oversights or agencies to 'fix problems." No, thank you Congressman Miller and the U.S. Congress generally, do not do anything concerning programs and schools that actually work. For bad schools or programs, which are very few, they will take care of themselves. If they are not effective, they will close due to a lack of business. Look at the government run schools that do not work, they never close. The government just creates another oversight committee or task force or agency to examine the problem and do a longterm study, and meantime, the worthless system keeps cranking out illiteracy, ignorance, and seriously emotionally ill children who self-medicate from the depression and other mental illnesses that are created and manifest due to exposure to the public school system.

Thank You and Happy Trails
M. Jerome Ennis, MAed
Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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