Juvenile injustice

Our sons and daughters deserve much better

July 21, 2004|By Michael D'Antonio

IN THE WINTER of 1956, a runaway orphan named Fred Boyce was captured by police and returned to the Walter E. Fernald State School in Massachusetts, where he was stripped, drugged and thrown into solitary confinement. When he awoke, he taunted a guard into opening the door and ran through the snow, half naked, to another building. There he demanded to see a school official and posed the question every boy at Fernald wanted to ask: Would you put your own child in this place?

The answer Fred heard then -- an embarrassed "no" -- would be echoed by the officials who run juvenile facilities across the country, including Maryland's Cheltenham Youth Facility and Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, where federal auditors have found a "deeply disturbing degree of physical abuse" as well as deficient health care, education and mental health treatment.

In its day, the Fernald school was considered above average for institutions of its type, even though violence, sexual abuse and inadequate education were routine. Today, Maryland's juvenile facilities are no worse than those in most states. At almost any publicly funded youth institution in America, a serious audit would uncover staff assaults on residents, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and juveniles languishing for lack of proper care and education.

Many of us are troubled by improvements having been so meager in the years between Fred Boyce's rebellion at Fernald and the revelations at Cheltenham and Hickey. When reports of neglect and violence are made public, citizens invariably ask why the cycle of official child abuse never ends. The answers are a matter of practicality -- money -- and attitude.

From the practical standpoint, we cannot avoid the fact that institutions serving juveniles are run on the cheap. The low wages paid to workers at these facilities mean they cannot attract properly qualified employees with the right experience. Budget constraints also make it impossible for administrators to hire an adequate number of employees and sufficient supervisory staff. When the ratio of workers to inmates is too great, employees invariably resort to terror tactics to keep control. They are also more likely to find themselves alone and unsupervised, which makes it far easier for workers to get away with abuse.

Money is also at the root of the safety and programming problems at places such as Cheltenham and Hickey. Buildings at these facilities are not properly maintained because budgets won't allow it. Services ranging from education to psychiatry to dental care fall short for the same reason. But inadequate funding is not a new phenomenon. It has been the rule for decades. This is because, on some level, we seem to want things this way.

Juvenile facilities exist to remove so-called undesirables from our midst. An entire scientific discipline called eugenics evolved in the early 20th century to justify this practice on the grounds that the national gene pool would benefit from the systematic removal of certain youngsters.

Eugenics died in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but the impulses it served have not. The darker side of human nature wants to shun and punish whatever seems deviant. This impulse grows stronger when we are confronted with kids who resist our first efforts to help or reform them. When they grow older, and big enough to seem menacing, we willfully ignore the degrading conditions of the facilities that serve them.

In the same way that we tolerate rape and mayhem in adult prisons as part of the punishment the wicked deserve, we allow institutions for juveniles to become places of despair.

"What do these kids expect," some taxpayers may ask, "a country club?"

Not exactly, but it's possible that a facility that is a little more like a country club and a little less like a prison would do the trick. Two hours north of Baltimore in Hershey, Pa., a private school for the most troubled children has achieved spectacular results for nearly a century. The Milton S. Hershey School formula includes early intervention, low student-employee ratios and very high-quality services and education. Indeed, a visitor to the campus might think he's wandered into a private college with faculty housing rather than an institution.

The Hershey school is exceptional on practical terms and in its attitude. It spends an extraordinary amount of money -- about $100,000 annually -- on each of its students. And its philosophy holds that each child in the school should receive the kind of care and attention the most capable and concerned parent might provide.

Politics make it impossible for most states to spend the kind of money that the private Hershey school, with a multibillion-dollar endowment, can spend. But with enough effort, and leadership, a governor and legislators who want to make more funds available can do so.

Changing attitudes would help, too. We may think that convicts deserve what they get, but like Fred Boyce at Fernald, the kids at Cheltenham and Hickey are not hardened criminals. If we can open our hearts and minds, like the psychiatrist Mr. Boyce confronted decades ago, we would agree that we wouldn't want our sons and daughters in such places. As wards of the state, the residents of America's juvenile facilities are, in legal fact, our sons and daughters. Perhaps we could start treating them that way.

Michael D'Antonio is the author of The State Boys Rebellion.

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