America's Throw-Away Children

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Like reform schools of yesteryear, today's "boot camps" reflect a culture where "anything goes" in dealing with children labeled "incorrigible".

They make the headlines when something goes terribly wrong: A child dies at the hands of guards administering "tough love." A child collapses from dehydration during an outing of "character building." For the most part, these are children (predominantly boys) who have not been convicted of crimes serious enough to warrant imprisonment. Because no one likes the idea of sending children to prison, there is a level of "treatment" for children that flies in the face of what most people consider basic human rights. These are America's throwaway children, consigned by families or courts to facilities that purport to offer alternatives to "straighten out" children who seem to be in a downward spiral, from first-time offenders to incorrigible truants.

While this new breed of facilities for dealing with troubled children has been making news, the underlying philosophy is an old one. Richard B. Johnson, author of the new release Abominable Firebug: A Memoir is one of the few who has come forward to share his story in hopes to shed light on the crisis. Accused of arson as a child and imprisoned without trial at the notorious Roslindale juvenile detention center in Massachusetts, he subsequently spent years at the nation's first reform school, the Lyman School for Boys, in the 1950s. While the institution became infamous for hatching Albert DeSalvo, an adolescent inmate who"graduated" to become the Boston Strangler, Johnson tells unflinchingly of not only the many weaknesses of that institution, but also of the rare opportunities and occasional mentors that allowed him to become in later life an accomplished engineer, pilot and inventor.

Unfortunately, many children who have survived, and even thrived, in adulthood rarely publicly admit a troubled past; staff members who have found ways to make a difference are reluctant to risk being linked with institutions whose names are synonymous with abuse. Thus, valuable experience that could bring about meaningful change is usually hidden.

Throughout the 20th century, there were various vogues for dealing with "incorrigible" children, including forced labor camps and reform schools. Over time, horror stories surfaced that attracted the attention of reformers, creating a public outcry that shut them down. "What has never been resolved, however, are the underlying issues: a willingness to ignore the rights of the children in order to protect society from potential miscreants, and a culture of closed ranks combined with generally low pay for staff that results in an unfortunate percentage of brutal or simply untrained staff," says Johnson.

"Many people don't really care what happens to the nation's youth when they get in trouble with the law," Johnson says. "And many people who are in the 'juvenile corrections' industry deny that there remain any problems at all. Many of the problems of the '50s and '60s are just papered over. It's not much better now, because the juvenile court system does not use the same protocols or rules of evidence they would when trying adults. Children are simply second-class citizens, and if the child is nonwhite, he is even further removed from true citizenship. An extremely damaging environment is suffered by children when they are not considered to have any rights, and we are failing our children by not creating more of a public outcry."

Unlike crime, juvenile delinquency is not a high-profile issue in this country. "Basically it's an out-of-sight, out-of-mind situation for most of the public," says Johnson. ?"The general public needs to know something about these institutions. At the same time, we need to validate the many people who have dedicated their lives to helping displaced children, despite tremendous odds."