Not so tough

October 25, 2004

THREAT OF CONTAGION. That's what should be posted on fences of the nation's boot camps and other "get tough" programs for delinquent kids. Starting here.

Grouping troublemakers together helps them learn criminal behavior from one another. Boot camps, as Marylanders know through painful experience, not only don't reduce repeat offenses or antisocial behavior but are an invitation to child abuse. Yet that style of "rehabilitation" is still practiced in the state.

The latest survey of all the research on preventing juvenile violence, reported out of a National Institutes of Health workshop Oct. 15, found little good about boot camps, "Scared Straight" and other such tactics. "Get tough" programs, limited to military-style indoctrination, don't change kids' behavior once they return home. Preachy methods such as "Scared Straight" don't take. These programs flush money - and precious time to actually turn these kids around - down the drain.

In 2002, Maryland paid $4.6 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving 890 youths who were abused in its boot camp programs. Those camps were shuttered in 1999 and later reopened without the military style.

Yet a boot camp-style program opened in Wicomico County last December. Run by the sheriff's department, it takes delinquent boys assigned by the court and funneled through the Department of Juvenile Services, which understandably has been keeping a sharp eye on it. There has been one allegation of child abuse at the Lower Shore DRILL Academy, which received its first full class of 15 students this month.

What works? The NIH review found two solidly successful programs, both involving community-based counseling and education for the whole family. Children in the therapy-based programs were less likely to act violently, be rearrested or be taken from their homes for treatment in the four years they were part of the studies.

The trouble, of course, is money. Therapists, who meet with children one on one and with their families, carry caseloads of just four to six families, and must be available 24/7. Families get as much as 60 hours of counseling in the three to four months they are in the program. These programs work - but they cost much more than the $153 a day DJS pays to the Wicomico academy, which takes kids for nine months and still hasn't proved its worth.

DJS officials say they want to add counseling and other services so kids can stay in their own homes, schools and neighborhoods as they get help, but don't have the money. They should better lobby their top booster - the governor. And stop sending state children to a boot camp - or any other program that cannot show it works.

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