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Back to the future: Effective residential group care and treatment for children and youth and the Fritz Redl legacy

Jerry Beker

Young people need to try their wings in various ways in the real world; boring programs without active challenge not only tend to dull and deaden their sensitivities (as they do ours), but also lead many of them to find their own excitement, often in ways that have gotten them into trouble in the past. Camping pioneer L. G. Sharp has observed in this connection that if we do not fill children's days with opportunities to do things that are fun, exciting, and good for them, they will fill their days with activities that are fun, exciting, and not good for them (or, it might be added, for us). A fundamental programming responsibility of those who work with youth in such settings is to make appropriate, constructive, and challenging options available and known to them.At least for many young people, one essential element in challenge appears to be risk-taking, as is reflected in the kinds of wilderness and other adventure-based rehabilitative programs that have been expanding rapidly in recent years (Bacon & Kimball, 1989). Much progress has been made in the containment of physical risk in such experiences, without unduly diluting their excitement-potential, through activity design and standards for the training and performance of adult leaders. Likewise, ways to manage liability problems that such activities sometimes entail have begun to emerge. The Association for Experiential Education is among the groups that have been in the forefront of efforts in this direction, and at least one state has, with federal assistance, developed detailed standards for adventure programs in residential care (New Jersey, 1989).

The camp milieu is conceived as a community in which everyone involved has an ownership stake and a role. This is in contrast to the larger society, where young people frequently feel unwanted, unneeded, and socially impotent. It is in even starker contrast to many group care settings, where their role is even more passive: they are there essentially to have something done to them, to be "treated," rather than to reach out, to expand their horizons, and to grow. When a setting emphasizes the latter group of expectations, youth can be empowered developmentally, but this depends on their having a share in the important decisions and the core experiences that make a community what it is, thus making it theirs (Beker, 1989; Levy, in press; B. Thomas, in press; Wells, in press; Wolins, 1974.) Camp – and other residential settings – provide the potential for building just such an environment.

The concept of service relates closely to participation, taking it a step farther. Making the community theirs implies that they share responsibility for it, for the welfare of all its members, and for doing the tasks that need to be done to sustain and build it. Such involvement also tends to build self-esteem. The camp milieu lends itself to and, in some respects, even requires such activities, both within and in relation to the larger, surrounding community, which often include work that is needed to maintain and improve the quality of life.

In many other contemporary residential settings, however, such work expectations for residents are viewed as exploitive, or at least as something to be avoided due to union sensitivities, legal exposure, and the like (Beker & Durkin, 1989). These are real issues that cannot prudently be minimized, and cases of exploitation are not unknown, but neither can we responsibly ignore the importance of providing such service learning opportunities for young people in out-of-home care, where they are particularly important in building feelings of connectedness, as Redl and others have emphasized. Such programs have been described by, among others, Barnes (in press) and Brendtro (1985).

Bacon, S. B., & Kimball, R. (1989). The wilderness challenge model. In R. D. Lyman, S. Prentice-Dunn, & S. Gabel (Eds.), Residential inpatient treatment of children and adolescents. New York: Plenum.

Beker, J. (1989). On building community. Child and Youth Care Quarterly, 18(2), 79-80.

Beker, J. and Durkin, R. (1990). The role of work in residential group care programs for children and youth. St Paul, MN: Centre for Youth Development and Research, Univ. of Minnesota.

Brendtro, L.K. (1985). Making care fashionable: Philosophy and procedures of service learning. Child Care Quarterly, 14, 4-13.

Levy, Z. (in press). Eagerly awaiting a home: A response from abroad. Child and Youth Care Quarterly.

New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Youth and Family Services. (1989). Regulatory Module for Children's Residential Facilities that Provide Adventure Activities. Trenton: Author.

Thomas, B. (in press). A response to “eagerly awaiting....” Child and Youth Care Quarterly.

Wells, K. (in press). Eagerly awaiting a home: Severely emotionally disturbed youth, lost in our system of care -a personal reflection. Child and Youth Care Quarterly.

Beker, J. (1991). Back to the future: Effective residential group care and treatment for children and youth and the Fritz Redl legacy. In Morse, W.C. (Ed.) Crisis intervention in residential treatment: The clinical innovations of Fritz Redl. New York: The Haworth Press

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