CYC-Online Issue 90 JULY 2006
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juvenile justice

Kids in trouble or troubled kids?

E. Kent Hayes

For twenty years I was a director for a national youth program based out of Topeka, Kansas. In eight states and the District of Columbia, we developed community alternative care systems for neglected and delinquent children. This experience enabled me to evaluate, first hand, a wide variety of juvenile justice systems. The problems I observed, and issues we addressed were all different, but there was a common thread that ran throughout. Hard working, dedicated professionals were being asked to do too much with too little. I observed progressive states retreating to correction models to save money and keep the lid on an ever-expanding caseload. They might have named it the “shave their heads, lock the doors, send them home and cross your fingers” program.

At the time, I was too busy to think in terms of solutions. Like everyone else, I had my thumb in the dike. We were trying to care for children that had experienced multiple foster home and institutional placements. These kids were “system shocked,” and we did all we could to stabilize them, and for those it worked beautifully, but it wasn’t a solution for the whole system. Later on, as we began to terminate this national demonstration project and I was forced to think about what I wanted to do with the next forty years of my life, I returned to my home state and began to ask some hard questions of others and myself. Some of the answers to those hard questions became apparent when, a year ago, I was asked to evaluate the quality and quantity of the children's services being provided by the Community Mental Health Centers in the State of Kansas.

As I began my trek across the state, it became obvious that I could not conduct a thorough evaluation by simply talking to the mental health center staff, and as a result I began interviewing social service and law enforcement professionals, parents of clients, educators and juvenile judges. The net result was twofold: Generally speaking, these mental health centers had initiated some very practical, creative, and effective programs that were maintaining severely emotionally disturbed children in their homes and community schools. They were closing state mental hospital beds and keeping these families intact with a variety of programs that were being operated on a bare-bones budget. The second trend that I began to see came from the juvenile judges, especially those judges that were in some way affiliated with the community mental-health center.

One young, dedicated judge from a mid-sized city in southeast Kansas said it best when he said; “If I had at my disposal the same variety of services that our mental -health center has for their severely emotionally disturbed children, I could impact juvenile justice in my county. As it is I have two options.” The judge lifted his pointed index finger as he said, “I have this finger that I point at them and tell them to be good or they are going to be in real trouble. Then, after the tenth time they show up in front of me, I can send them to the state reform school, and after three months they come back and we start all over again.”

Not only did he succinctly state the present insufficiencies, but the judge was specific about how he wanted to fix them. He wanted family preservation programs, wrap-around services, a variety of respite care programs, a sanction house, jobs and vocational/apprentice concepts. This judge, like all of the other thinking judges with enough integrity and courage to speak out, is right, but few are listening. In spite of the judge’s illumination, in the State of Kansas, we are making a half-hearted effort to improve community juvenile justice services at the same time our legislators are considering a 100-million-dollar juvenile-prison budget. Our governor and most legislators generally agree that the juvenile justice system should be correctional in nature. They continue to believe that if we throw enough consequences at these kids they will behave. Barring that, lock them up and tell your voting constituents that they are now safe. What these same office holders fail to say is that within a few months these same troubled kids will be back in their communities in worse shape than when they left.

Then how can it be that the community mental health systems are closing state hospital beds and having their state funds cut back concurrently with the juvenile justice system getting an infusion of money to build juvenile prisons? These are the same prisons that become the feeder system to the adult prisons. The problem with our juvenile justice system is that we think it works. Eighty percent of the children that go before these juvenile judges and are confronted with a warning never come back. I call these children “Kids in Trouble.” These are the children that come from your home and mine. They are normal kids from healthy families that go out and do something stupid. When the judge points his finger, they listen, and go home and hide in their bedroom for fear of messing up again. The other twenty percent are the children that I refer to as “Troubled Kids.” These are the youth that keep coming back, and all of the finger pointing and punishing consequences in the world will not and do not have an impact. But there is hope for them.

We know for a fact that there are systems that do impact these children. Actually, there are functioning, progressive, effective models all over the country. We have communities in Kansas that have initiated concepts that positively impact the chronic juvenile offender. I will not attempt, in this short article to describe these programs in detail, but all of them have common characteristics that spell success.

  1. They recognize that chronic juvenile delinquents do not exist in a vacuum. Successful systems work with and evaluate the child and family. They look at the neighborhood, school and peers.

  2. They know that every child and family is different; what works for one does not necessarily work for others. There are no magic therapies.

  3. The community develops an array of services, and the citizens of that community recognize that they are responsible for their own children. positive peer groups are established through the faith community, civic clubs and schools. Volunteer, task-specific mentoring such as reading, sports, music and math are available and structured. An apprentice mentoring system is implemented for those children who have problems with traditional schools.

  4. Specific therapies are available for the child or family.

  5. Alternative community living environments such as foster care, group care, respite care, sanction houses and independent living are established and supported.

  6. These successful community concepts have now included early intervention programs that are available to families, schools and all other social service organizations that allow the child to be referred for service without a formal adjudication, or arrest. The family can ask for help and receive it without relinquishing their child to the state social-service departments.

This is proof that there are systems in place that work, but we are not electing people that care. We are allowing our politicians to scare us into believing that the only way to solve our delinquency problem is to punish, to lock them up, and then pretend that they will never return to our communities.

Recently, our local newspaper highlighted an article on its front page that announced, “We now have 668 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents.” The article went on to explain that the only other nation with a higher number in prison was Russia, but that we would overtake them within the next ten months. The average for the other industrialized nations was 148 per 100,000. England has 90. We have surpassed all of the other third world countries. We are an embarrassment to the civilized world.

I said as much during a speech this past month. Someone in the audience asked why we have so many people in prison. “Is it because our courts are so punitive, or law enforcement so heavy handed?” And I said, “No. It’s because we have too many angry, disturbed children who become angry, disturbed, drug-addicted adults. If we continue to ignore the plight of these children, we will continue to be the world leader in imprisoned adults.”

And how can it change? What can we do to improve the system? I began this article talking about a judge that wanted to initiate an array of services that were available to severely emotionally disturbed children and their families. In his community, those services were rich and effective, and he knew about these care concepts because he sat on the community mental health board. Many professionals and laymen do not trust mental health services to have any impact on juvenile delinquents or their families. When they think of “mental health” or “therapy” solutions, these people remember that time in our mental health history when we would seat children in a room with a pipe-smoking doctor and ask them to remember their past. For the most part, it did not work, and those who distrust that interpretation of mental health do so with reason.

Today’s mental health solutions are practical, hands on programs that do impact the behavior of troubled children and their families. But there are other good programs in juvenile justice and social service being provided by private providers. I am not promoting mental health; I am promoting programs that have a proven track record. I am promoting community involvement. I would never promise that a rich array of community services is going to save money. I would promise that it saves lives. I would promise that our communities would be safer, and that if the average citizen gets involved, that citizen would again realize that “Kids in Trouble” and “Troubled Kids” are after all, just kids.

This feature: Hayes, E.K. (1999) Kids in trouble or troubled kids? Paradigm, Summer 1999

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