Letters to the Editor

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A Writer In Denial

Shay Bilchik, President
Child Welfare League of America
Washington, DC

I read with interest and amusement the article by Richard Wexler (“An Industry in Denial,” September). Mr. Wexler challenges the residential providers of child welfare services and their “trade organization,” the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), to take note of the agencies across the country that are providing alternative forms and settings of care for children in need of services.

Well, Mr. Wexler, we have taken note. Indeed, the industry had taken note – long before your call to action. Providers have diversified – they offer a range of services in a variety of settings that address children and families’ complex needs. They provide community-based services or residential care based on needs assessments that allow this kind of fine-tuning.

It is foolish to suggest that one treatment methodology works for every child. And no league member would stand behind such a position. Instead, we at CWLA advocate for a full range of services, from prevention and early childhood development programs to community-based interventions and residential treatment. In this regard, the “trade” we represent includes the full panoply of children, youth and family service providers. It is a continuum of care and child advocacy “trade.”

We are proud that the programs Mr. Wexler encourages us at CWLA to become aware of – EMQ in California and Youth Villages in Tennessee – are already members and that we have been able to highlight their work in our publications. We are also proud to be affiliated with the high-quality services of the award-winning Children’s Village, in Dobb’s Ferry, N.Y., which Wexler so unfairly and narrow-mindedly references in his article.

We encourage Mr. Wexler to wake up, and catch up to the field that is leaving him and his outdated thinking behind.

Carroll Schroeder
Executive Director
California Alliance of Child and Family Services
Sacramento, CA

Although Richard Wexler feigns disbelief in the existence of EMQ and its family-centered wraparound program, it and a growing number of similar programs do exist in California. Like EMQ – which builds partnerships between professionals, family members and the community – these organizations are working toward better outcomes for kids and financial savings for state and local governments.

There has been a consistent effort over the past decade to develop alternative services for children whom public child welfare agencies once would have placed in group homes with hardly a second thought. As a result, a number of promising alternatives have emerged.

Mr. Wexler might be surprised to learn that the organizations that have pioneered these new options are part of the group home industry he maligns. Along with the alternative services Mr. Wexler praises, these nonprofit agencies (including EMQ) still provide group care for a simple reason: There is a need for it.

We have learned that there is no single right or wrong answer to the question of how to help vulnerable youth in the foster care system. Versatility and responsiveness are essential.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything tends to look like a nail. But if you have a well-stocked toolbox, you’re more likely to have the right tool for whatever faces you. That’s why many California organizations are adding new services and support to their toolbox of options for foster youth and their families. And it’s why they are not discarding group care.

Shock Program’s Bad Vibrations

Nadine Block, Director
The Center for Effective Discipline
Columbus, OH

I am concerned that the story “A Kinder, Gentler Shock Program” [November] was too kind and too gentle in its treatment of STAR programs.

Morning drills, uniforms with stars stitched to the shirts and sergeants patrolling halls. Are we talking about concentration camps? These boot camp programs in predominantly small, rural Southern public schools feed on “quick fix” attitudes of school boards and negative beliefs about children like “Kids are bad. Beat them more.” The article lists a few complaints from brave parents who were willing to take on the organization and the school district about this punitive program. How many other folks are fearful of coming forward to complain about these programs?

I am sure Youth Today was attempting to be fair in its treatment of this program. Since when do we have to give “equal time” to negative, empirically suspect youth programs?

Jake Terpstra
Retired Child Welfare Specialist
U.S. Children’s Bureau
Grand Rapids, MI

The STAR program was presented in a fairly positive light, but it also raised a number of questions.

The program runs from 5:30 a.m. and may run “until 10 p.m. and beyond.” I know of a 9-year-old girl who was treated very harshly during these long days, and when an advocate attempted to make this known, a STAR lawyer threatened her with a lawsuit. So she ceased and desisted as told. The article stated that the program has few complaints.

There is no shortage of people who are willing to work in harsh children’s programs. Not many years ago aversive therapy was used for certain children, especially autistic children. Some things staff did to children would be criminal if they had been done to adults, but since it was done in the name of “treatment,” it was considered acceptable.

Program administrators no doubt try to see that staff do not go over the line, but the person carrying out the harsh treatment may not be the best judge of that.

The article indicated that there are positive results. It also is likely that many of those youth will replay that scenario later, when they are in control and there is no one to observe them. Some time ago during a training session for residential child care staff, the subject of swearing came up. One child care worker impressed everyone by saying that one boy was the worst swearer she had known, but she got him to stop it in just three weeks – until they asked how she did it. She explained that each time he swore, she put his arm in a vice, and squeezed it real hard.

Methods may be as important as results.

But the Boot Can Work

Rev. Gordon McLean, Director
Juvenile Justice Ministry
Metro Chicago Youth for Christ
Wheaton, IL

Your November issue stressed on its Page 1 story some of the shortcomings of impact incarceration programs (boot camps) on young people. Certainly, no responsible leadership would want or approve abuse and mistreatment in any form.

However, I have been working a boot camp program for young offenders in Cook County (Chicago) in a ministry program with other chaplains for over five years. Operated by the Cook County sheriff as an alternative to imprisonment, the 17-week residential program stresses military discipline, education and counseling. Our ministry keeps in contact with a number of graduates and operates a center to continue GED classes, job preparation and computer skills.
We know the boot camp program well, are on campus day by day. The inmates overwhelmingly appreciate it, benefit from it and consider it the best break they have had. It is a real joy to see parents at graduation for a platoon, there to cheer on their family member, and maybe for the first time in a long time feeling proud of him. We follow up with the kids and see many of them making a success of their lives.

Boot camps can and do work. Run them right. No abuse. Train the staff well and hold them to a high standard. Have a thorough, careful follow-up program that has both caring and correction where needed.

My associate, John Selph, has a weekly mentoring group with six of the top students. I had several review your article and their opinion was neatly summed up by one graduate: “Don’t put up with the abuses mentioned here, but don’t overlook and miss all the good things the right kind of boot camp offers us. I was so much better off there than just sitting in a cell serving time. I know the program succeeds.” He’s right.

Riddled with Errors

Sue Rusche, CEO
National Families in Action
Atlanta, GA

I am writing to protest in the strongest terms the misstatements and outright lies you have written about National Families in Action and me in “The Parental Hard Corps” [Nose Knows, November].

• “Rusche, a loyal Republican activist …”

You never asked my political affiliation during your interview, so how could you possibly make such a statement? I have been a Democrat most of my life and only recently became a Republican.

• “It didn’t go unnoticed that Rusche had the ear of her congressman, Newt Gingrich.”

I live in the 4th District; he represented the 6th. Nor did I have his ear.

• “…with Rusche quoted as saying, ‘The first parent movement played a significant role in reducing drug use by two-thirds among teenagers between 1979 and 1992.’ But the widely respected ‘Monitoring the Future’ study conducted by Lloyd Johnston at the University of Michigan reports otherwise. Lifetime drug use among 12th-graders, the study says, stood at 65.1 percent in 1979 and dropped to 40.7 percent in 1992 – impressive results, but only half the change Rusche claims.”

I discussed this with you at length, and I made clear the point that I was talking about past-month drug use from the same study. The Johnston survey shows past-month drug use among high school seniors at 38.9 percent in 1979, reaching its lowest level of 14.4 percent in 1992. Past-month marijuana use fell from 36.5 percent in 1979 to 11.9 percent in 1992, a two-thirds drop by any calculation.

• “Rusche claims NFIA has ‘helped 3,000 [parents’] groups get started.’ But now, she says, NFIA has ‘very few’ affiliates.

According to the group’s 2001 federal tax returns, ‘very few’ translated into zero dollars from ‘membership dues and income.’ ”

Zero dollars from membership dues would not have surprised you if you had asked me about this. National Families in Action has never had income from membership dues, because we have never solicited memberships.

• “Even more telling for a group that has been operating nationally for a quarter-century, the sale of its Drug Abuse Update and books totaled an anemic $8,617 in 2001.”

Had you brought this up when you interviewed me, you would have learned that we stopped offering subscriptions to Drug Abuse Update in 2000 when we started publishing Drug Abuse Update online for free.

• “That categorical program and current grantees [community coalitions], insists Rusche, ‘are not parent-friendly’ – hence the need for a hard-core Parent Corps.”

These are your words, not mine. I told you that we were working closely with community coalitions to bring parents representing the parent voice to the community coalition table.

You quote other sources, allow them to excoriate us, and print the names they call us without identifying them or giving us an opportunity to respond, exemplifying the sleaziest kind of gotcha journalism. Your story is riddled with factual errors. I thought Youth Today sought to uphold a reputation as a publication with professional standards. I am sorry to see this is not the case.

Adult Immaturity

Thomas Olafson
Deputy Public Defender
El Dorado County
Placerville, CA

I think Mike Males has a point. [“Enabling Adult Immaturity,” November.] We have a high, “zero-tolerance” standard for children which we don’t expect of adults. Some of the parents of my juvenile court clients have gone from being immature, irresponsible young parents to middle-aged, authoritarian parents who hope to have probation and the court supplement their shaky parenting skills with “tough love” solutions, without acknowledging how their own problems have affected their children’s development. It’s alarming how willing they are to hide behind the panoply of teenage acronym disorders (ADHD, etc.) in order to absolve themselves of their share of responsibility for their children’s problems.

Karen R. Noel
Youth Alternatives to Abusive Relationships
Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation
Charlotte, NC

Thank you so much for calling it like it is. As a recreation therapist, I have worked with adolescents for 22 years in psychiatric and residential settings, and the worst part of it was working with the “crazy parent(s).”

“Gee, no wonder Johnny turned out like he did, living with those people he refers to as Mom and Dad,” I have often thought to myself.

One patient told me a long time ago, “parents should have to have a license to have kids.”

What scares me is the kids that I have worked with all those years have a high probability of growing up like their parents, especially when they have to return to their own environment. It is only with hope and prayer that they can survive, and go on to be the kind of people they were meant to be.

Justin Cutler
Recreation Coordinator
City of Wilsonville
Wilsonville, OR

In reading your article I became aware of the way that we do vilify youth and blame them, at times, for own problems as adults – excusing ourselves and expecting our own children to be something that we as adults are not willing to conform to. Your insight was refreshing and much appreciated.

How would you suggest, then, that we work with adults to help them become aware of their own shortcomings, and remedy those shortcomings before disciplining the youth who are doing the same thing they are being shown at home? Your article presented a problem and bashed an institution, but did not lend any resolution to the problem.

Joel Triska, Student Pastor
Broken Arrow Assembly
Broken Arrow, OK

I agree very much with your perspective, but was hazy on whether there was any hope in addressing these issues. How is this issue of enabling adult immaturity to be addressed?

How can someone like me, a youth worker in the local community (a middle-class Caucasian one at that), help adults (primarily parents) understand that no person or program can outweigh the negative influence of adults with unhealthy philosophies of selfishness and blame?