Sep 4, 2009, 15:28

by Lon Woodbury

One of the most common fears I hear from parents looking for help for their struggling teen is the fear that their child will wind up in the juvenile justice system. Many will do anything they can to avoid that fate for their child.

Why do so many parents have this fear?

Parents read and hear a constant drumbeat of horror stories about what sometimes happens to children placed in these public programs. The following are just a few of the stories I have run across lately while surfing the net as a sample of what parents are hearing:

  • In July, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported a suicide at a public "psychoeducational" school for emotionally disturbed children by a boy who had such a horrible time at the special public school, that he hung himself. According the article, students there were frequently placed in an "isolation Room," were spanked, restrained and criticized. The title of the story was Death highlights lack of regulation at 'psychoeducational' schools.

  • In August, a 20-year Canadian study following 779 low-income youth in Montreal found that children who entered the juvenile-justice system even briefly "were twice as likely to be arrested as adults, compared with kids with the same behavior problems who remained outside the system." Why Juvenile Detention Makes Teens Worse.

  • And then there is the study released last March tracking Los Angeles juvenile offenders over seven years. Most Adolescents Placed into Group Homes Still Involved with Drugs or Crime Seven Years Later.

  • Finally, there's the story of the death at a Florida Boot Camp run by the State which we have followed for three years where a young man was "disciplined" for alleged "malingering" his first day and died the next day at the hospital. It was reported that there had been 182 complaints of abuse at this facility with little or no action taken. However, in this 183rd incident, the "discipline" was on video tape. To me and to most casual observers, the discipline could better be called a beating. Even then, it is likely not much would have happened until two legislators forced the state to release the video. Once the video became public, this became a national story and action was finally taken, resulting in the facility being closed. For links relating to this incident over time, click here.

On the other hand, the news is not all bad. Some juvenile justice systems seem to be doing what they are supposed to do, rehabilitating the young people and preparing them for responsible adulthood. See, for example, Julia Steiny's article Vermont's juvenile-justice system bucks nationwide trend. The difference, according to Steiny, is that the Vermont system rejects the nationwide trend toward punitive methods and instead focuses on "treating" rather than "punishing" bad behavior, calling it "restorative justice."

With all these horror stories of what happens in public juvenile facilities, it is no wonder so many parents fear for their children when they are involved in behavior that might bring them into "The System." These parents are desperately looking for an alternative that has a chance of helping their children without abusing them. This fear often brings them to Independent Educational Consultants and deciding to enroll their child into a private school or program that works with children who are struggling.

Some commentators see how bad some public facilities and programs are and make the shallow assumption that private schools and programs are as bad or worse. Often these assumptions are based on ideology rather than facts, i.e., based on some extreme version of Children's Rights, or the assumption that private equates to greed and private programs are in it only for the money, or the assumption that most people will abuse children unless there is strong aggressive government oversight. These critics don't realize that the dynamics are radically different between public and private programs, and the different dynamics make all the difference in how program staff works with the children.

In a public program, the key decision makers are legislators and top administrators - far removed from the children for whom they are making policy decisions. All too often they have biases expressed in something like "Teach Them a Lesson," or "Force Them to Behave." Many have no idea that struggling teens usually think and respond differently than the average teens the public officials might have met. Program staff, who do know the children and their needs, either are hamstrung by directives from the top or were hired based on a punitive mentality. Either way, it is very difficult for a program person to rise above the often punitive directives "from the top." Then, there always seems to be a budget crisis, and public programs are notorious for being underfunded. Of course, parent involvement is optional, even for parents who want to be involved in their child's life while he/she is in a public facility.

In the private schools and programs with which I work, the network of private parent-choice residential schools and programs for struggling teens, the parents or guardians are a key decision maker. Parents will not enroll their child unless the school or program appeals to them, and they at all times have the right to withdraw the child for any reason. They rarely have to ask permission for either action from some government official like a Judge, Probation Officer or Social Worker. While a public program can ignore the parents' wishes or complaints, a private parent-choice program must continuously keep the parents satisfied, and one of the best ways to do that is to help the child heal. The dynamics of parents' love for their child and the desire to protect their child works to promote the child's safety and keeps the private school or program constantly working at improving their effectiveness.

In addition, most private schools or programs of this type are operated by the owner who makes the major policy decisions. Instead of the key decision makers being at a distance, the owners of a private school or program are usually right there on the campus, involved in the lives of their students. (In this network, a school or program of 200 students is considered unusually large).

It is true there are incidents of abuse at some private programs, and most professionals who work in this network deplore these incidents. However, when word of those incidents gets out, the decrease in enrollment often forces these rogue schools and programs to close, and if not, state regulators have the power to close them down, which is done from time to time. In comparison to the Florida Boot Camp that had 182 incidents and complaints of abuse without meaningful action, it is inconceivable that a private parent-choice program could have survived that long with that string of constant drumbeat of complaints.

Despite the fact that parent-choice schools and programs are very expensive for the parents financially, many parents still make that sacrifice. They are fleeing the public system to protect their child from what could happen to him/her if they allowed a public placement to happen.

© Copyright 2012 by Woodbury Reports, Inc.