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CYC-Online Issue 137 JULY 2010 / BACK
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Trusting kids

John Stein

It was 1975 in Pennsylvania. I was hired on a Tuesday as Acting Director to open a new secure program for hard core juvenile offenders. It was supposed to be an intensive treatment program with trained counselors instead of guards. We were to get the boys ready to return to the community within three months, to intensive foster care or specialized group homes. Community reintegration was supposed to be a large part of our program.

I was 29 years old and fresh out of graduate school with my new master’s degree. I was handed three resumes of men they had interviewed who were to start immediately, and told to be ready to accept our first boys by Friday. I hired them the next morning. We cleaned up the building, a vacant hospital dormitory in a rural setting, set up some furniture, got telephones, nailed the windows shut in the bathroom and bedroom, and bought some groceries. We took our first two boys that Friday and two others within the next two weeks.

One of these first boys, Brandon, was a serious runner. He stole cars and drove them across state lines, occasionally burglarizing houses to support himself.

It wasn’t long before Brandon and another boy took off and stole a car from a nearby used car lot. And it wasn’t long before police picked them up and returned them to us.

A few weeks later, Brandon came to me saying that it had been a long time since he had been home. If we could take him for a visit, he would be most grateful and he would give his word that he would not run away. He came from a very small town over 100 miles away near the New York state line and, indeed, it had been more than a year since he had seen his parents. He couldn’t even call them easily since they had no phone. I believed him, and family reunification was, after all, one of the things we were supposed to be doing.

We made the arrangements. On the appointed day, we left early in the morning. I was completely dependent upon him for directions once we left the highway. We arrived at his home, a modest house in an isolated town of about 25 houses, at about 11 am. We were to leave at 1 pm to return.

His parents welcomed us. Then, after about five minutes, Brandon said he was going to visit his girlfriend and left, assuring me that he would be back in time to leave.

I sat with his parents in the kitchen drinking coffee and smoking. Conversation was difficult. It was not comfortable for any of us. After a time, I began to wonder what I would do if he didn’t return. How long should I wait if he didn’t return? How would I find my way back to the highway? How would I notify the authorities without a telephone that a prisoner had escaped? Who would I notify? There were no police nearby. What if he escaped over the state line to New York? How dumb would I look? One o–clock came and went ...

At five after one, Brandon walked in, thanked me, said goodbye to his parents, and was ready to go. After he gave me directions, he fell asleep and slept soundly all the way back to the facility.

A few weeks later, while the two staff on the night shift dozed with their keys nearby, Brandon and another boy took the keys from one staff member to let themselves out, the keys from the other staff member to take his car. A few days later, the car was found in a ditch three states away. They were captured several days after that while burglarizing a house about 1,000 miles away. We eventually got them back after officials made the flight arrangements. Eventually Brandon was released to a community setting. Several months later, I saw his name in the paper as a participant in a failed escape attempt from an adult jail in which a guard was seriously injured.

And that’s how I learned a clue about trusting kids. When they offer a deal, when they give their word freely, I have found that I can pretty much count on them to keep their agreement.

It’s not always the same when we try to make deals with kids. When we coerce them into some agreement with offers of rewards (OK, bribes), or threats, when they do not give their word so freely, I have found that they are not so likely to stick to their word.


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