What do troubled kids have to do with our kids?

skateboardersYesterday’s New York Times featured a prominent article on abuses in the youth detention facilities in New York State, but seemed relevant to concerns kids face in the “system” in California, as well as a number of other states. 

It concluded:  “Even as the four centers singled out in the report relied excessively on physical force, federal investigators found, they failed to provide youths with adequate counseling and mental health treatment, something the vast majority of residents require. Three-quarters of children entering New York’s youth justice system have drug or alcohol problems, more than half have diagnosed psychological problems and a third have developmental disabilities, according to figures published by Office of Children and Family Services.

‘The majority of psychiatric evaluations at the four facilities did not come close to meeting’ professional standards, investigators determined, and ‘typically lacked basic, necessary information.’”

(for the entire article, see: http://tiny.cc/MKL4b)

Having worked with troubled kids, I was saddened to hear about allegations of abuse, which brought to mind the sorry state of many of our nation’s children, but it also made me glad that it was getting serious ink on the cover of the “paper of record.”  As I see it, one of the biggest challenges that disadvantaged kids face is that the majority of people, particularly those with power, have little to no idea about what it might be like to be one of those children. 

Having walked through the infant and young children’s ward of the now closed, and infamous, MacLaren Hall on my way to the adolescent cottages where I was “picking a kid” for the group home of which I was a therapist, I could see that there was a continuum of compassion in which little ones tended to be fostered quickly while older kids languished, without treatment, growing more and more acculturated to a prison-like situation.

It was precisely the children with psychological and developmental difficulties who were generally misunderstood, and who tended to be punished and rejected for their very difficulties (a pattern mentioned in the Times article where a suicidal girl was alleged to be physically punished for suicidal and self-harm behaviors).  As young kids with problems experience multiple rejections, they may take on a defensive pattern of anxiety-driven “bad” behavior; this can be an unconscious attempt to at least be rejected for doing something bad, rather than just for the sweet/awful yet sacred being that pulses in each and every one of us.

It will not much help the problem if we simply make the youth detention centers a little safer (although that is important), we must, as a culture, think more about who we’re leaving behind and what they are going to do about that when they grow up. 

Much as a documentary on the meat industry makes it hard to eat without mindfulness of what the animals suffer, if we were to really think about all the kids that today sit bored and under-stimulated in group homes, youth detention as well as in under-supported classrooms with under-paid teachers… we might be willing to make their welfare a bigger priority.

And for those of us blessed with children and the ability to care for them, we might benefit from contextualizing their “bad” behaviors and keep in mind that if we were to punish them for the things that they can’t help, we could wreck their self-esteem just like those kids being labeled “bad” by society.  But we can also learn from extreme examples, and admit that kids can drive us to the brink. 

Is the staff at these places brutal and cruel?  Or are they themselves once upon a time similarly wounded kids, comfortable with a system most don’t want to see (or if not “comfortable” at least familiar)?  Many of my staff were not only big-hearted, but also sometimes ill-equipped to deal with their own feelings, much less those of highly provocative (due to hurt, anxiety and hosts of other issues) adolescents.  Sometimes people are drawn to wounded kids in an unconscious attempt to heal the wounded kid that they still are.  And sometimes as parents our unresolved wounds leap up and ruin our parenting.

Just as we have to support parents if we want the best for kids, we have to find compassion and support for the staff that deal with troubled kids if we want the staff not to “go off” on the kids when those kids “go off” on them.

I sure didn’t want to deal with these kids back in the day, and did it for money and lack of other options.  I’m glad I did, and learned a lot, but I’m still not eager to return to the trenches.  Still, I think we can learn much from extreme examples that can help us get things right with our own kids; but we, as a society, also really do need to get things right with our least advantaged kids.  Part of this is cultivating awareness, and for this reason I make it today’s post.

So, let’s dedicate today to the well-being of the forgotten, abused, troubled and shamed kids who see little or no future for themselves, and who feel neither loved nor lovable (there are many more of them than we might imagine, and they are not all in “the system”—AND to the staff of people, the vast majority of whom are not inappropriate with those kids, who toil in low-paid obscurity without adequate support to do their jobs properly.




One Response to “What do troubled kids have to do with our kids?”

  1. Stephanie Says:

    So where to start to make a documentary on this?

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