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Meeting the developmental needs of incarcerated youth

Larry Brendtro and James Cunningham

Over of the past 40 years, international pioneers in work with troubled youth have redefined the treatment paradigm. Effective therapy for children and youth in residential and day treatment programs cannot be delivered in an isolated counseling hour: The total living and learning experience must be designed for positive change if one is to create the potent resocializing force that Israeli sociologist Yochanan Wozner referred to as the "powerful reclaiming environment" (cited in Brendtro et al., 1990).

The concept of the "therapeutic milieu" has been well-established in the work of internationally prominent experts on troubled youth since the term was first used early in the 20th century by Austrian delinquency pioneer August Aichorn. Milieu is a French word meaning "environment" or "ecology." The concept involves moving beyond the limits of the "50-minute hour"; the goal becomes to organize "the other 23 hours" for maximum therapeutic impact. Thus, adults who spend the most time with a child by definition become primary change agents. Examples of such adults include teachers, recreation workers, and residential care staff. An interdisciplinary team of adults engages the youth in positive relationships and activities. All staff members with youth contact are trained in how to use therapeutic corrective techniques to manage discipline problems and crisis situations wherever they occur in the childs life space.

The concept of milieu treatment has long been carried out in Europe by sociopedagogues or educateurs, well-trained, frontline professionals in direct care roles who build restorative relationships with troubled youth. In North America, in the past the traditional practice was to place untrained persons in charge of youth; however, currently frontline professionals are being professionalized in roles as youth specialists or youth-care workers. Some programs or settings do still cling to the outmoded notion that treatment can be delivered in the isolated therapy hour within a custodial program. Facilities that assign responsibility for day-to-day guidance of youth to poorly trained staff are little more than warehouses with treatment appendages. Such places cannot create powerful reclaiming environments for troubled and troubling youth.

Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M. and Van Bockern, S. (1990) Reclaiming Youth at Risk. Bloomington, IN.: National Education Service

Brendtro, L.K. and Cunningham, J. (1998). Meeting the developmental needs of incarcerated youth.
Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.7 No.2, pp.104-109

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