• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Friday 30th November, 2007

Residential treatment nothing to write home about

Americans aren’t sure how they feel about children who commit crimes. Sometimes popular sentiment goes along with the argument for keeping juvenile offenders at home and helping them to work out their problems. Or, as has happened recently, the pendulum swings in the other direction, meting out harsher penalties, including locking up children in residential treatment institutions. The problem with the second approach is that it doesn’t usually work and probably never has. In 1992 a researcher looked at data collected in over 400 evaluations of residential treatment facilities and found that the majority succeeded in preventing future criminal behavior among only 5-10 percent of the children they treated. So, is it still the case that all residential treatment programs are doomed to failure or only small success? Or is there a middle way to make the experience more helpful? Laura Abrams of the Department of Social Welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, tried to answer these questions by talking to the children themselves. With graduate student help, she observed and interviewed 19 young men, aged 14-18, at two residential treatment centers in Minnesota over a period of 16 months. What they learned is revealing. Many of the young men disagreed with center staff about the causes of their problems and denied that their experience on the program could help them. Instead, they said they were faking it, just trying to convince staff they were changing so they could get out as soon as possible. Researchers also learned that the experience of being locked up did not always have the shock value intended. Boys who had many experiences in foster care or other institutions were not highly motivated to change to prevent the same thing happening again. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Abrams reports that most of the boys in the study left the facilities without strategies “to contend with the environments, peers, and family members that contributed to their criminal behaviors in the first place". The high rates of recidivism make sense when you listen to children in residential treatment centers. If they're faking it when they're in and have no way to deal with negative influences when they're out, it’s hardly surprising that their criminal behavior continues. •Summary of “Listening to Juvenile Offenders: Can Residential Treatment Prevent Recidivism?” by Laura S. Abrams in Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Volume 23, Issue 1, pp 61-85.

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