The Hardy Life of Worst Practice

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Much is made in the youth service field of "best practice," as well it should be.  Striving for positive results for young people through humane and effective clinical and programmatic practices is the hallmark of the field's finest agencies. All too often in the public mind those good works are swamped by headline-grabbing worst practices.

Even the best service providers struggle daily to maintain proper standards to ensure programmatic fidelity when a proven youth work approach is replicated, and to train and keep competent staff. Many a veteran manager has concluded that focusing on staff in-service training is the surest path to consistent quality programming. Beware, they have learned, of those who speak only of a particular magical treatment modality and the claimed unique challenge presented by the youth they serve. The youth services  world is blessed with many creative, committed and pragmatic leaders. It has a kaleidoscopic richness and awe-inspiring programs that rival any other field of endeavor.

Why, then, does the perpetuation of worst practice in the name of helping children and youth remain so widespread and resilient?

Twenty years ago the Scared Straight craze prompted frustrated public officials to send tens of thousands of invariably poor teens on prison visits, where screaming inmates were tasked with transforming young lives through a quick dose of scorn and abuse. Despite the considerable media hype, researchers demonstrated that the experience had no positive impact on the most at-risk teens. Still, in May a Washington, D.C., "in-school suspension coordinator" took 31 boys and girls to the local jail for tours that included strip searches and other intake procedures. One girl reported seeing prisoners masturbate. The school principal, several teachers and staff, the warden and three correctional officers are expected to lose their jobs. It's a safe bet that most of them had never heard of the research findings on Scared Straight and similar programs.

Then there's the Ford Motor Company's latest gimmick to get potential car buyers into the showroom. Its "breakthrough initiative" Commitment to Kids program is a rehash of the missing kids I.D. hoax of the 1980s. Jointly launched on National Missing Children's Day with the statistically challenged National Center on Missing and Exploited Children, the initiative promises that a visit to your local Ford dealer "can help ensure a child's safety." The photo and I.D. kit, says Ford and NCMEC, will help prevent your kid from joining "more then 750,000 children" reported missing in 2000 and even fend off online child exploitators, such as the "2,896 cases prosecuted in 1999."

Yet in 1985 the Denver Post won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Reporting with a series entitled, "The Truth About Missing Kids." The reporters found about 60 stranger abduction cases per year, no benefit from I.D. kits and other missing kid paraphernalia, and that almost all of those "missing" were teenage runaways perfectly capable of calling home.

In Golden, Colo., two therapists smothered a 10- year-old foster girl to death during a demented "rebirthing" therapy session. In June the pair were sentenced to 16 years in prison.

In New Jersey, two eight-year-olds were recently arrested and charged with "terrorist threats" for fooling around with a folded paper gun. In Corpus Christi, Tex., the supervisor of one of the state's unregulated faith-based Roloff Homes for teens was convicted of unlawful restraint stemming from repeated physical abuses at one facility.

The list of worst practices in youth work and education is a long one. These policies and practices include zero tolerance, boot camps, juveniles in adult prison, DARE, just say no sex-ed, non-parental corporal punishment, purposefully lax regulatory oversight, Scared Straight and children left with malevolent abusing adults. Add to that the low hiring standards that plague the field, and its a wonder the nation's kids aren't even worse off.

Each worst practice needs a specific and on-going response from the field's standard bearers of best practices. Youth workers can play an important role in each community by speaking out against harmful and wasteful practices that hurt young people and divert funds from programs that work. But all too often these groups and their leaders are silent or muted. That may be professionally prudent, but as any casual student of history knows, the bad left unchecked can soon drive out the good.