State operates two systems — often for the same youths

Juvenile jails assume role in treatment

Pretty brick buildings with clean white trim, rolling hills and old trees — the campus would be inviting if it weren’t for all the razor wire. The first goal is security — security for the inmates from themselves, from each other and for the community — says Alvin D. Ross, superintendent of the Industrial Home for Youth at Salem. But as long as 150 kids are locked up there, correctional officers and staff might as well try to help them, Ross said.

“Our attitude is, ‘You got yourself here. We’re going to help you work your way out of it,’” Ross said.

Since it opened in 1899, the Industrial Home has always at least hinted at rehabilitation. Today, the Industrial Home is more like a jail than ever. Its new main building opened in 2000 has newer and better locks, double sets of doors for coming and going, one-way glass, security cameras. But the jailers have adopted many practices from their colleagues in another state department — the people who care for abused and neglected children.

West Virginia operates two systems for children who are in trouble — who have been unable to thrive socially. One is run by the Bureau for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Resources. The other is the Division of Juvenile Services within the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

On paper, the Bureau for Children and Families is for young people who are struggling through no fault of their own. They have committed no crimes. They might have mental or behavioral problems. The causes can be physiological, environmental or both. Juvenile Services houses youth who have been sentenced for committing crimes and those who are accused and waiting to go to court. In reality, you can’t really tell the two groups apart, child welfare and mental health professionals say.

Plenty of children in the bureau’s care have committed crimes but didn’t get caught or weren’t prosecuted. Most children in the care of Juvenile Services have mental or behavioral problems, substance-abuse problems, school failure and a history of abuse and neglect. Where a troubled child ends up depends on who tries to help — a teacher, social worker, police officer.

It’s almost random, said Manfred Holland, director of the Division of Juvenile Services. “Where kids end up depends on judicial discretion,” he said:

  • Which county a child is picked up in.
  • Which judge hears the case.
  • Which probation officer makes a recommendation.

Some counties are more eager than others to lock up juvenile offenders. Some areas have more local alternatives than others. Almost all the young people locked up for crimes were DHHR’s kids first, often taken away from parents for abuse or neglect, said Stephanie Bond, assistant superintendent for treatment and programs at the Industrial Home.

“Kids aren’t born to be criminals,” said Cindy Largent, deputy director of the Division of Juvenile Services. “Their criminal activity is because of — fill in the blank — the system, parents, school issues.”

On a metal shelf bolted to the wall of one cell stand a couple of textbooks, notebook and a “A Child Called ‘It,’” David Pelzer’s best-selling memoir about his own abusive childhood.

This wing houses girls ages 12-18. The rooms are about 82 square feet arranged in two stories along both sides of an open space. Metal cots with thin mattresses are neatly made. In addition to a shelf, each room has a spare desk protruding from the wall. Clothing hooks are designed to collapse under more than 30 pounds of pressure to prevent suicides.

Another wing of similar dimensions houses boys with similar problems. Another one houses sex offenders. “We’re moving more toward the therapeutic community type of approach,” Ross said.

Inmates work on drug-, alcohol- and sex-offense habits. They work on literacy and schooling. They work on personal hygiene, dressing and cleaning up after themselves.

They eat and exercise together, receive group and individual counseling. They are schooled at their functional level. That means a 16-year-old who reads as well as most third-graders gets instruction at that level, in hopes of helping him to advance to a fourth-grade level and beyond. “This is not rehabilitation. That means we’re reteaching something that was taught in the first place,” psychologist Steve Nelson said at a recent promotion ceremony for several officers. “I believe we are more or less teaching. We demand that [youths] do many things they have never had to do or been taught to do on a daily basis.”

He praised correctional officers for modeling good behavior and self-control for the inmates — young people with no personal hygiene who must comply with a dress code, who had not gone to school but must walk in line to lunch, and who must learn to talk without using hostile, foul language.

Like their colleagues who treat kids who are not in trouble with the law, juvenile services convenes a multidisciplinary team for each child who enters. The group includes the child, parents, mental-health professionals, probation officers and other adults who are important in the child’s life.

When possible, the team includes the child’s DHHR social worker. “We want to blend into the system of care for children in West Virginia,” Largent said. “We know we’re different, but we still want to blend and be a partner.”

Juvenile services added television equipment to make it easier to convene multidisciplinary team meetings. In another building on the campus, a room full of cubicles stands empty. The 10 case managers who inhabit those workspaces were all on the road, visiting kids who had been released from Salem. “To provide the proverbial soft landing,” said Pat Varah, spokesman for the Division of Juvenile Services.

Child welfare professionals have said for years that no matter how much help and treatment a child gets, it does no good if the child simply returns to a troubled home life. Salem’s workers follow former inmates for a year after they are released. They intend to help them to connect to education, recreation and treatment in their communities. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get them out of here so they’re not costing the state money and they’re paying taxes so I can afford to retire,” Ross said.

By Dawn Miller
3 July 2003