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the dolphin story

Four complexities in residential treatment of juvenile offenders

Robert Heintzelman, M. A.

To enhance the ability of youth to help peers and themselves, the author proposes specific training in mature social decision making to help youth overcome immature moral development and egocentric thinking.

One evening I found myself watching a television documentary about a project preparing trained dolphins for release into the ocean. As the show progressed I became aware of four fundamental parallels between the dolphin project and my struggles as an administrator of a residential facility for juvenile offenders. The documentary was about a group of skilled and knowledgeable people who were trying to retrain the dolphins so that they could survive in the wild. The dolphins either had been raised in captivity or had been in captivity for a longtime. The project was on a modest scale, it was marginally funded, and the work was arduous and complex. For example, each day fish had to be captured and then released into the dolphin pen so that the dolphins could learn to catch the fish for food. This habit of feeding themselves was just one of the behaviors that had been altered in captivity. As the documentary progressed, parallels to four components of residential treatment became clear.

The paradox
The first parallel is the paradox. The paradox is that we must prevent those we are restraining from escaping in order to get them ready for release. This is a subtle complexity that opens the way for uncertainty of purpose and confused identity. Since we are detaining them, doesn’t it make sense to say we are doing so for the obvious reasons? It is easy to understand that we are keeping dolphins so that they can perform at Sea World, and it is easy to understand that we are keeping juvenile offenders as retribution for the crimes they have committed. Mulley and Phelps (1988) address the issue of program duality:

Despite its rhetoric regarding the importance of rehabilitation and prevention, the juvenile justice system must still respond to serious crime committed by individuals under 18. It cannot escape its function of punishment, incapacitation and deterrence. Although prevention and treatment are the primary goals it is extremely naive to think that these activities can be pursued without regard for the heavy obligation for public safety. These two sets of demands (despite their seemingly opposed nature) often become entwined and sometimes nearly indistinguishable in practice.

Are we attempting to provide services for the youths in our care, or apply consequences to them? What is a youth center anyway? Are we to operate as a prison concerned primarily with security, a hospital prescribing treatment, or a school concerned with education and training? What should we call these places? What should we call people who work in them? What should we call the people who live in them? In 1879, when the facility where I work was established, it was called the State Reform School. The young men were called inmates and the philosophy was that they needed to learn the work ethic. Mound the turn of the century the facility’s name was changed to the Boys Industrial School. In essence, it was a military school; the youths were called cadets. The philosophy of the time was discipline. After a day of work on a farm or in a shop, the cadets dressed in military uniforms and marched in formation. This military model gave way to the family approach. The youths were called boys. The living units went from companies to cottages, and the staff, who had been called officers, became cottage parents. The family model gave way to behavioral modification, and we began ailing the boys students. The current influence is career education; we call the youths youths and the staff youth service workers.

The struggle with the issue of punishment and deterrents, of education and treatment is long-standing. In the first issue of the student newspaper, the author of an essay entitled ‘Education and Delinquency" (1905) says:

The deterrent and repressive measures of the earliest reformatory institutions have been superseded by the more rational methods in line with the educational progress made in public schools.

The bad boy wilt become good when the evil tendencies of his nature, inherent or acquired, are replaced with new motives, new desires and new ambitions. Over the next eighty years, this theme is repeated again and again in editorials and biannual reports of the institution. The authors repeatedly declared they have risen above the repressive harsh practices of the past to a more productive enlightened approach.

The dolphin trainers had to live with the paradox too. They knew that once the dolphins were released it would be too late to try to teach any skills they had overlooked, They realized that keeping the dolphins could become an end unto itself, and they must constantly work towards eventual release. We also must accept the paradox and neither keep young people without preparing them for release nor release them prematurely to certain failure.

The dilemma
Another parallel with the dolphin project is the basic dilemma. How can we prepare an animal, or a person, to function in one environment while forcing them to adapt to another? It is like taking a person to a football field to teach them to play basketball. This is the challenge for any residential program. Dolphins in captivity learn to live in captivity and people in institutions learn to live in the institutions. There is no guaranteed carry-over to the real world. This leads to the conclusion that the dilemma is irreconcilable, that an institution cannot accomplish much beyond institutionalization. Any desired changes that occur in the people can be attributed to a phenomena called the suppression effect. Suppression effect predicts that changes seen in people leaving an institution are due to the passage of time. If you simply allow an adolescent to age, criminal behavior will decline. Romig (1979) described a variety of programs and concluded that nothing was particularly effective. This opinion, particularly in regard to institutions, is widely accepted. It is similar to what Alan Breed (1986) has called pluralistic ignorance: ‘It is the systematic inaccuracy in the assessment of group opinions by members of the group. Pluralistic ignorance is caused by two unfounded and conflicting assumptions: first, that one’s beliefs are uniformly shared. Second, that one’s attitudes and expectations are unshared by others. This erroneous assumption discourages the expression of controversial opinion." The controversial opinion that juvenile offenders can be influenced significantly to change for the better by placing them in a residential setting has been defended. Murray and Cox (1979) propose that institutions not only worked, but worked much better than people were willing to admit.

But the dilemma is also necessary. Of course the institutional environment is different than the community, that’s the reason people are sent there. Hirschberg (1957) said, "The basic meaning and purpose (of the institution) is to arrange life sensibly for those children whose life has not been sensible; to bring order to those children whose life has not had order. To bring organization, form, meaning, and some clear identity to those children whose lives have not been organized in steady, stable, consistent patterns."

Dr. Hirschberg makes it sound fairly simple. But the dolphin trainers in the documentary knew it was not. The dolphins were well trained and functioned well in the contrived world of tanks and controlled conditions. They knew their dolphins were far from prepared for the complexity of the open sea. Residential treatment must provide structure to remove the destructive chaos that has maligned these young people, yet, somehow, keep them from becoming totally dependent upon that structure. We must maximize the stability that we can bring to their lives and minimize the dependency it can encourage.

Bad news syndrome
Once the dolphins were released into the open sea there would be no way of knowing what happened to them. They might be eaten by sharks within hours, they might starve to death within days, or they might live long, fairly normal dolphin lives. The nature of the endeavor dictates that confirmed feedback will usually be negative. Dolphins that are reluctant to swim away and that beg for food, or those that wash up on shore, are evidence of failure. Children who are returned to our facility or who are caught in criminal behavior are confirmed failures. Conversely, the ones who are never seen again cannot necessarily be counted as successes, By definition, success is very hard to confirm. This can lead to a fatalistic form of pluralistic ignorance. We may start to believe that every youth we release is going to commit grievous ermines. And our assumption that most of them do not commit further crimes, we assume, is unshared by others. After a while, we might become part of the problem and lose faith in ourselves, our colleagues, and our work How long would the dolphin trainers work and struggle if they were convinced that the dolphins died shortly after release? Follow-up could help us know more from one environment to another.

Altruistic conflict
As I watched the documentary, I began to wonder what was driving these people? It is fairly obvious that training dolphins to perform tricks for large audiences at Sea World is interesting, somewhat glamorous, and probably lucrative. But why were these people working so hard for so little reward? The dolphins seemed perfectly happy doing the tricks, being hand-fed, and free from predators. So what urged these people to persist in this project? The producers of the documentary asked the same question. The people said that dolphins do not belong in captivity. They said they cared about the animals and they were driven to attempt to return them to their natural habitat. Yet they had to have experience with them in captivity in order to have the expertise to prepare them for freedom. This is mindful of the balance required of the worker involved in residential treatment of youths. The person must care about children and want them to be free to live their own lives, but not to the extent that they reject the residential setting. They have experience and skill in residential treatment, but realize it is not an end itself Working with troubled children may be interesting; but it certainly isn’t glamorous or lucrative. And this brings us back to the paradox: if you care about children, how can you be a party to keeping them in captivity. The documentary revealed the answer. Skilled, knowledgeable people convinced that children do not belong in captivity are the people who strive to care for children in captivity.

These four parallels accentuate some of the complexities of residential treatment that are particularly helpful to new employees. Including these concepts in an orientation program for new employees can help people confront their ambivalence about the work and help them see some of the subtle ambiguities of treatment for youths in a residential setting In a sense, these are the vital signs of a program.

Like the dolphin trainers, we must keep our students from escaping so that we can get them ready for release. We must accommodate our students in our environment so that we can prepare them for another There must be ignorance about resuIts to obtain results, and there must be dynamic conflict within the workers to keep them on track, and like the trainers when they lower the barriers letting the dolphins swim away, our programs really only matter when the youth have gone and we are not there to guide them.


Breed, A. (1986). The State of Connections Today: A Triumph of Pluralistic Ignorance. (Available from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, 250 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017)

Education and Delinquency. (1905, July). The Boys Chronicle 7(1), 9

Hirschberg, C. (1957). Working With Children in an Institution. Unpublished Manuscript.

Muley, E. P., & Phelps, R (1988). Ethical Balances in Juvenile Justice Research and Practice. American Psychologist, pp. 65-69.

Murry, C. A., & Cox, L. A. (1979). Beyond Probation: Juvenile Corrections and the Chronic Delinquent. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, Inc.

Romig, D. (1979). Justice for our Children. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books.

This feature: Robert Heintzelman, M. A. (1988) The Dolphin Story. Four Complexities in Residential Treatment of Juvenile Offenders. The Child and Youth Care Administrator Vol. 1 Fall 1988 p. 14-16