This summer I worked for a therapeutic program for emotionally and behaviorally challenged youth. During staff training, the director of the program told us: No child is beyond the care of Wediko.

Jeff Cravens

Boys and girls, ages 7 to 18, converged on a lakeside camp in New Hampshire for a six-week program. All Wediko children have difficulties coping with the daily demands of their lives. Most have emotional or psychological problems and are academically behind their peers. Many are violent or withdrawn. Some have been thrown out of schools or foster homes. Others have been hospitalized or jailed. There is a common tendency to abandon these youngsters, but the consequences of doing so are devastating. Therefore, no matter how many times a child at Wediko ran away, acted out violently or told us to “go fuck ourselves,” we didn’t give up. There were no throw-away kids.

What if America shared this ideal? According to a report released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on Oct. 12, “There are at least 2,225 child offenders serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in U.S. prisons for crimes committed before they were age 18. – Outside of the United States, there are only about 12 young offenders currently serving life sentences with no possibility of parole.”

We’ve labeled these children irredeemable, unforgivable and unworthy of freedom for the rest of their lives – before they could vote or buy cigarettes. The pattern of throwing kids away doesn’t stop there. Since the ’90s, the number of schools embracing zero-tolerance policies – which kick out kids who probably need to stay in school the most – has dramatically increased. In two recent cases in Michigan, prosecutors have used anti-terrorism laws to convict teens that had threatened violence. We seem to be looking for more ways to condemn kids, to give them a one-way ticket to prison.

What if you decide to work with these kids instead of punishing them – what do you do first? During training, I learned about the hierarchy of needs, which says that a person must attain basic human needs like food and shelter before they can work on emotional and psychological needs. Following this principle, we made sure every child at Wediko had more than enough to eat and drink and that they had adequate clothing and hygiene products and that they felt safe. If these basic needs were not met, we could not expect them to talk about their feelings and begin working on their problems.

You have to help children understand the thoughts and feelings behind their actions before you can develop appropriate alternatives and coping strategies. My supervisor told us that a disruptive behavior is not the problem but that child’s personal solution. For example, a boy may feel threatened in large groups of people – his problem – so he runs away when surrounded by people – his solution. By simply telling him to stop running away or punishing him, you will at best only temporarily get him to stop running away. You haven’t addressed his underlying anxiety in large groups. Only by attacking the real problem – by unveiling thoughts and feelings – can a child find lasting solutions.

This approach – perhaps because I’ve never taken a college psychology class – was revolutionary to me. What if, instead of throwing kids out of school and giving them long sentences, we tried to understand the underlying causes of their behaviors? What if we did the same for adult criminals? A former guard at a Michigan prison told me – a statement echoing other guards and ex-offenders I’ve spoken to – that there is no rehabilitation in U.S. prisons. Lacking mental treatment resources, social programs and other nonprison alternatives, we rely on long sentences in warehouses that harden criminals. It’s no wonder we have a two-thirds recidivism rate. Crime is often the solution for problems – psychological, personal and societal – of the individual offenders. When we start looking at these problems, including economic disparities and the lack of basic needs, we may find the finger pointed back in our own faces.

In this brief column, I have touched on only a few elements of the Wediko model. I have not talked about the individualized class work, the family and group therapy and the wide range of activities. I have not described the major success stories that I witnessed, nor have I described the mini triumphs: foraging for wild blue berries, jumping out of a canoe for the first time, catching your first fish. After witnessing these victories and seeing the joy in a child’s face, you realize that they are worth all the care in the world. They cannot be thrown away.

 

Cravens can be reached at jjcrave@umich.edu.

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