Second chances can sometimes right a poor administrative decision. Such was the case for this confused teenager.
Two months after returning home from the state hospital, he quit attending school. After all, his immature mind reasoned, it’s legal to quit school at 16 and, besides, he just didn’t have the brains or the interest.
This marked a critical juncture in the boy’s life. Only a year earlier, he had beaten another student nearly unconscious, for which he had been expelled from school and placed in the county detention home. Had he been allowed to quit school, there is no doubt that he would end up back in the state hospital or prison or deceased.
He was spiraling out of control, and nobody seemed to know what to do about it.
That’s when a seasoned professional came to the rescue. The boy’s juvenile probation officer wouldn’t give up on him, as his detailed and perceptive case notes revealed. This chief juvenile probation officer, with decades of experience working with troubled kids, placed the boy back in the county detention home until the court made more suitable arrangements for his care.
The Pennsylvania George Junior Republic School for Boys was an institution that housed over 350 dependent and delinquent youth. It was the right placement, came at the right time in his emotional development, and 18 months proved the right amount of time for him to be removed from his troubled family, thereby freeing him psychologically to learn and mature.
But the Republic wasn’t exactly a Sunday picnic, either. No, sir, it was a rough place filled with tough guys. He dared not cry there. Instead, he had to buck up and become a man.
He learned to excel at nearly everything. He became an A-and-B student, earning “Outstanding Student of the Year” awards for 10th and 11th grades. The administration asked him to assume duties as the sports editor for the campus newspaper, The Republic Citizen.
He became a cottage leader, representing the 65 residents of his cottage in student council and captaining many of the inter-cottage sports teams. He even rose to the rank of “floor walker,” the most coveted and trustworthy position in the cottage, the right hand of the house-parents.
Each new success prompted him to improve other areas of his life, nourishing his emaciated ego and replacing his self-loathing with self-esteem. For one year and six months, his traumatized brain was freed up from the unrelenting emotional decay that ate away at him at home.
The summer before senior year, he returned home and enrolled in the high school that had once suspended and then expelled him.
Despite failing Spanish and a series of minor behavior problems, he managed to graduate 187thin a class of 192 students; a dismal performance, but a monumental accomplishment. He would go on to earn an Ivy League Ph.D. and to hold positions at the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
But here is why this story isn’t all good news. His probation officer – the man who turned this boy’s life around with a decision to bring him to the Republic – is also the one who earlier had made the decision to put him in a state hospital, a decision the judge was happy to follow.
The officer used his experience in the field to make the right decision the second time around. But that same officer might have saved him from the state hospital had he personally experienced such a counterproductive and dangerous placement, or at least consulted someone who had.
Even the most sensitive and seasoned professionals cannot predict the consequences of their decisions regarding events about which they have no experiential knowledge. Without more foster care and juvenile justice alumni involved to inform policy and practice, this is child welfare’s “blind spot.”
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation. His latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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