hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




In detention

Inside tales from New York’s troubled child welfare system



Contributing writer



Sid, a delicate-boned young woman with a tough veneer and numerous piercings, spent most of her high school years in detention.

By her own account, her trip through the nether world of New York’s child welfare system began when she was 14, after she took the blame for the petty crimes one of her friends had committed.

A Family Court judge put Sid on probation and ordered her to do community service, but she says she objected to her assignment in a nursing home because her own grandfather was terminally ill. She ended up under house arrest, then got into more trouble for truancy.

It was a typical pattern for young people who wind up in the detention system: Once Sid appeared on the authorities’ radar, every rebellious act and incidence of misbehavior led to escalating punishment and deeper entanglement in the system.

It wasn’t long before Sid was removed from her home and sent to a short-term detention center in the Glens Falls area. From there, she was transferred to a long-term residential center near Troy.

Once in the system, her stay kept getting extended. She didn’t regain her freedom until just before she turned 18.

“One year meant two years, which was closer to three,” she said, bleakly recalling her feeling of powerlessness as she lost any semblance of a normal adolescence.

At the long-term facility, six or eight young people lived together in a series of small cottages and attended school on the same campus.

Sid, now 22, described the stark routine: “Wake up, take your meds, go to school, go to recreation, take your meds, go to bed.”

Warehousing troubled teenagers?

The privately run child welfare facilities where Sid was placed are completely separate from the state’s juvenile justice system, which is reserved for young people who’ve exhibited more serious criminal behavior.

Unlike those in juvenile justice, children end up in the child welfare system’s detention centers for a catchall of reasons. Some are being removed from abusive family relationships. Some face behavioral and educational challenges that their public schools are unable to manage. Some have been accused of theft, vandalism or other petty crimes.

The decisions to remove children from their homes and place them in the child welfare system can only be made by a Family Court judge. But school districts and county social services departments often play key roles in influencing the judges’ rulings. Across New York, hundreds of young people like Sid are sent to detention facilities each year.

Former employees and others familiar with the system’s inner workings say the private operators of some of these facilities tend to structure their programs primarily to achieve behavioral compliance from troubled adolescents – often at the expense of addressing other important developmental and emotional needs or preparing their young clients to re-enter life in the outside world.

At its worst, critics say, the result is a system for warehousing troubled youths – one that rarely receives in-depth scrutiny from the media, elected officials or the public at large.

Like others of their kind, the facilities where Sid was confined are operated by entities known as “voluntary agencies.” Some of these organizations are quite venerable, tracing their roots back to 19th century charities such as women’s benevolent societies.

Vanderheyden Hall Inc., the voluntary agency at which Sid was placed in residential treatment, got its start in 1833 as the Troy Orphan Asylum. The organization runs group homes in Rensselaer and Saratoga counties and has its main campus in Wynantskill, just east of Troy.

The public sector has a complex relationship with child welfare providers like Vanderheyden. The state Office of Children & Family Services licenses and inspects privately run child-welfare facilities but does not directly oversee their day-to-day operations. Local and state governments depend on these private organizations to care for young people who in some cases have nowhere else to go.

Although distinct from any level of government, these large private nonprofits receive payments directly from the county governments or school districts that send children there. They also garner contracts from a slew of different government agencies for specialized services, including care for young people with mental health issues and developmental disabilities.

Finding ‘islands of strength’

After she was placed in the child welfare system, Sid did have one outlet for self-expression. Writing, she said, is something she's always done, without ever considering it a special gift.

“It just popped out,” she said.

Almost no one had encouraged her.

But Irv West, who worked at the detention center where she was first placed, “poked at it with a stick and said, ‘You, there's talent here. I see it,’” she recalled.

Sid’s powerful, disturbing poetry appears in a book West self-published last year, “Breaking the Rules: A Fresh Approach for Building on the Strength and Courage of our Struggling Youth.”

In the book, West draws on his experience working for four years in the child welfare system with young people that most adults have given up on. He shares some of the teenagers’ stories and describes how he was able to reach them. He also offers some recommendations for parents, teachers and others caring for troubled youths.

Although he no longer works in the system, West, 72, devotes much of his time to advocacy for troubled youths. Like Sid, he says, every child has a special talent, passion or interest to be nurtured. He calls this “an island of strength.” Helping troubled young people find and honor these islands of strength within themselves has become a consuming passion for him.

West said he objects to reducing any child to a label, no matter how seriously they act out or fail to perform. And he’s outraged by the trend toward criminalizing the behavioral problems of younger and younger children.

“We dig at the problems, rather than building up the strengths,” he said.

Counseling a different approach, West says adults will get better results if, instead of being punitive, they are responsive and treat children with respect. Vulnerable young people, he said, are already suffering from deficits of self-esteem and a lack of trusting relationships with adults.

A focus on discipline

In detention, where young people are constantly under the watchful eyes of staff, Sid described an incident in which she was punished for teasing a friend by calling him “Twinkle-toes” after he broke his foot jumping out a window.

“They give you a worksheet and tell you to copy it 30 times,” she said.

West explained that this was a common punishment at the facility where he worked.

“The counselor who witnessed the 'offense' would decide what they had to write and how many times,” he recalled. “It was ironically named a ‘target skill.’"

During his four years working at the detention center, West chafed at its approach to discipline. Because he got along well with the young people, he said, he didn’t have a need to “write them up” for his supervisor.

West said he ultimately was fired for refusing to adhere to rules that he didn't believe were in the best interest of the children. Despite agency policy against having contact with the youth outside of work, he would give them his phone number and welcome their calls.

For troubled young people, he said, the standard approach of detention facilities compounds their isolation, he said. For example, the agency where he worked did not allow young people to do volunteer work.

“Kids have the same right to feel a part of the community, to be helping someone else, as any of us,” West said.

Shaken by the reality that many happy, curious children turn into sad, angry, bored and even suicidal teenagers, West said he is keenly interested in prevention. He used to lead the Glens Falls YMCA parenting education program and will be offering an open workshop May 8 at Crandall Public Library. One of his latest projects is helping the Whitehall school system devise a plan that engages people in the community to reach middle school boys who are considered at-risk of giving up on school.

West’s interest in helping people at the margins of society goes back to his own youth in the 1950s and ‘60s, when, after dropping out of college and serving the Army, he volunteered in a drug rehabilitation center and joined the civil rights movement in Selma, Ala. In the 1970s, he worked on the staff of Assemblywoman Marie Runyon, a Democrat who was a champion of prison reform in her one term representing Harlem and Morningside Heights.

Over the years, West also worked as a health care administrator and started and ran a national service to help pet owners find their lost pets. More recently he oversaw the creation of St. Joseph’s House of Grace, a nonsectarian home in Glens Falls for terminally ill patients.

As a volunteer, West has worked with the terminally ill, counseled women and children who fled domestic abuse, and educated the public about mental illness. From 2006-09, he led the board of Amorak Youth, a Glens Falls nonprofit, in an effort to develop a nonprofit therapeutic home for troubled adolescents.

Changing behavior

Nikia first met West when police brought her to the detention center where he worked.

But because her mother also worked at the facility, she was quickly transferred to Vanderheyden. She couldn't communicate with West while she remained in custody. But after she was released, she said, “Irv was always there for me.”

Nikia, now 21 and living in western New York, said she was drawn into the child welfare system after she and her best friend were arrested, charged with petit larceny for stealing CDs and other items from unlocked cars in a town near Glens Falls. Her friend, who is white, got placed in a special school, while Nikia, who is black, got detention, she recalled.

Before she was removed from her home, she was put on probation and house arrest. Her punishments escalated as she refused to go to school.

Nikia described her year at Vanderheyden as “waiting out your days." She lived with six or seven other teenagers in a cottage, one of six on Vanderheyden’s campus. They were given chores like cooking and cleaning, and they attended school on the campus.

Nikia said she has kept in touch with some of the other kids and a couple staff members she liked.

“I can't say they really taught me anything,” she said of the staff at Vanderheyden. “They don’t really help anyone. They lock them away and leave them without any guidance except from their peers.”

But her mother, Jackie Goodspeed, said Nikia’s behavior did change for the better after her stay at Vanderheyden.

“She never got in trouble again,” she said.

When Nikia was released, her parents had moved to another county to keep her from being influenced by her old environment.

Goodspeed said her experience taught her that parents need to act as advocates for their own children in Family Court proceedings, which normally give a lot of weight to the opinions of school and social services officials.

Half the lawyers assigned to represent children in Family Court, she recalled, “would be meeting the kid for the first time in court.” As a result, these lawyers tend to acquiesce to whatever the local Department of Social Services or school district recommends.

Goodspeed said she and one of Nikia’s aunts advocated for the young woman’s best interests. She said she chose Vanderheyden for her daughter, instead of allowing her to be sent to St. Anne’s, a residential facility in Albany.

Seeing detention from both sides

When her daughter got into trouble, Goodspeed already knew the child welfare system from the inside as an employee of a detention center in the Glens Falls area – the same facility where West worked.

Goodspeed had returned to the area after receiving her law degree from Syracuse University in 2003. Being an older African-American woman in a mainly rural region, she didn’t readily find work in the legal field. She took the job at the detention center as a fallback.

“Having grown up as a foster child, it was my way to give back,” she said.

Her experience mirrored West’s because of her rapport with the young people sent to detention.

“I never had a child yell at me or come at me,” she said, recalling that she only had to use physical restraint twice in her nearly 10 years in the job. “It was the way you gave them respect and really listened to them. When you had to apply a rule, you gave them multiple chances, you gave consequences, you were creative.”

Goodspeed said she resigned over the past winter to study for the bar exam. She plans to become a law guardian, a lawyer assigned to represent children in Family Court.

Stephanie Orlando, who as a teenager was placed in residential treatment, also stresses the importance of speaking up for one’s rights.

Motivated by her own experience, Orlando founded Youth Power!, a statewide network of adolescents and young adults who’ve been labeled as disabled or otherwise having special needs. She serves as executive director of the organization, which is dedicated to youth empowerment and reform of the child welfare system.

Later this year, the state is establishing a new oversight agency called the Justice Center to protect people with special needs from abuse and neglect. But neither the child welfare system (which includes foster care as well as detention and other forms of residential care) nor the juvenile justice system will be covered.

Orlando said she’s alarmed by these omissions.

“I don’t understand why the Justice Center isn't covering all forms of abuse,” she said.

A kindler, gentler program?

With a $16 million annual budget and 300 employees, Vanderheyden is a large nonprofit organization by upstate standards. Besides its Wynantskill campus outside Troy, it has facilities in seven other communities.

Vanderheyden’s new chief executive, Karen Carpenter Palumbo, started work in 2012 and said she had to devote her first year on the job to improving the public perception of the organization.

Carpenter Palumbo was recruited for the position from her previous job as commissioner of the state Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services. She said agreed to come to Vanderheyden because “I saw that it was one of the areas that needed the most help.”

On a daily basis, Vanderheyden serves about 250 youths and adults with emotional, behavioral or developmental challenges. Its clients are drawn from 31 counties and New York City. Most live in group residences or supportive apartments. Others are day students in Vanderheyden’s accredited school -- or they receive a growing array of reimbursable services in the community.

Carpenter Palumbo said that, as a result of the changes she is making in Vanderheyden's organizational culture, employee turnover initially shot up from 45 percent to 65 percent per year, though it's now declining.

Although she was careful not to say that Vanderheyden is breaking with past practice, she said she has clarified with the agency’s staff its policy on physical restraint. Employees, she said, are to engage with the child first before resorting to physical restraint.

“If someone is yelling and cursing at me, no, we don't restrain them,” she said.

In contrast, Nikia recalled that when she was a resident at Vanderheyden, staff members often intervened physically rather than first asking young people to stop a prohibited act such as smoking.

Carpenter Palumbo said Vanderheyden’s employees still are expected to intervene physically and swiftly if children are putting themselves at risk – such as by dashing out into traffic or putting their fist through a window.

“Giving a kid a hug when they need it” is behavior that comes naturally to her, Carpenter Palumbo said, though she cautions that staff must always be aware of particular clients’ history. She said she doesn't want staff to be afraid to touch the children “appropriately within boundaries.”

Changing a culture

Like other organizations of its type, Vanderheyden struggles with a high rate of staff turnover, and most its frontline employees receive relatively low wages -- $10 to $14 an hour. Little training beyond a high school diploma is required for these jobs.

Even so, Carpenter Palumbo said she aims to instill more pride and increase the commitment among the staff.

“I interview every new hire and ask them what their Vanderheyden giveback goal will be,” she said.

She said she wants every staff member, on top of their paid employment, to volunteer an hour and a half each month doing something that they are passionate about. So far, their contributions are providing enrichment activities like photography, hiking, jujitsu and knitting.

Carpenter Palumbo said she’s also giving the campus a facelift with new landscaping, furniture and interior paint. She recently moved out of her office so the space could be turned into a student union. Residents will be able to earn entry to this space as a privilege for good behavior, she said.

In Vanderheyden's residential treatment program, “definitely more than half” of the young people youth receive psychiatric drugs administered by staff, Carpenter Palumbo said. Some are already on medications when they arrive.

Sid said that when she arrived at Vanderheyden, she was handed an emotional self-assessment form and told to fill in the bubbles.

“They take it to their psychobabble guy," she said. "My diagnosis was longer than my arm.”

Placed on a variety of psychiatric medications, she said she “overdosed” and developed intolerable side effects. When she refused to take the medications prescribed, she said the staff threatened to write her up but then did change her regimen.

Nikia also recalled that during her year in the program, her peers were prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs such as lithium or Seroquel.

Critics say these medications, which can cause serious side effects, are no substitute for teaching children better coping skills or helping them work through trauma. And some question whether the use of the drugs is warranted.

A study published last year in the Archives of General Psychiatry found a dramatic rise in antipsychotic drugs being prescribed for behavioral problems in young people. The study’s lead researcher concluded that only 13 percent of the adolescents being given antipsychotic drugs were receiving them for clinical purposes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Fewer clients, longer stays

Although placement in a short-term detention center can be used as an actual punishment, it functions more frequently as a sort of holding tank for youths while their cases are worked out in Family Court. After a stay of up to a month, they may be released on probation or sent to a longer-term residential facility.

At the short-term detention center near Glens Falls where West and Goodspeed worked, youths could be brought in from far outside the area.

“We got kids all the way from Orange County,” Goodspeed said.

At Vanderheyden’s longer-term facility, youths spend six months to two years on average, though Carpenter Palumbo mentioned one young woman who lived there for five years because she had nowhere else to go.

Nikia said she remembered a few kids staying for that long because their families wouldn’t take them back.

But lately fewer young people have been sent to detention. Partly that’s because the state is encouraging placing young people in the least restrictive environment possible.

Moreover, because placement in a detention facility costs hundreds of dollars a day, the fiscal realities of the past few years have made counties and schools more reluctant to push for detention. The cost of sending troubled youths to detention must be paid by either a county or school district, with half the expenditure reimbursed by the state.

Social services officials in several area counties stressed that detention is a last resort.

“We don’t want to put kids there,” said Karen Hillis, a social worker at the Washington County Department of Social Services. “The first choice would be to find another family member -- an aunt, uncle or grandparents.”

In the 57 New York counties outside New York City, state figures show the number of youths sent to non-secure detention fell by nearly half in recent years, from 3,329 in 2005 to 1,785 in 2010.

People of color are still over-represented, however: Carpenter Palumbo estimated that 60 percent of the young people now in residential treatment at Vanderheyden are black or Latino.

Although the number of young people being sent to detention facilities is declining, those who are are being kept there longer. The average time spent in detention increased from 2005 to 2010 by nearly 30 percent, to 68 days.

Sources familiar with the system say that’s because the young people sent to detention nowadays tend to have much more serious problems than those in the past.

Goodspeed agreed with that notion. In the last few years before she left her job at the detention center, she estimated, about three of every five girls in detention had been repeatedly sexually abused. Earlier, she said, more of the kids had been physically abused.

At Vanderheyden, Carpenter Palumbo said, the staff assumes at least 75 percent of the young people placed there have experienced at least one form of abuse -- physical, emotional or sexual.

High costs force changes

State legislation passed a few years ago provides a financial incentive for counties to provide services to youths while they're still in the community, rather than sending them away to detention. Under this program, the state reimburses 62 percent of the costs for “supervision and treatment” for juveniles living in families, compared with the 50 percent reimbursement rate for detention.

But tight budgets still make all kinds of intervention more difficult.

As director of the Washington County Youth Bureau and president of the Association of New York State Youth Bureaus, Mike Gray said he is often flummoxed by the irrational way in which scarce resources wind up being allocated.

In one case, he said, a judge sent a young man from the county to a secure detention facility in Albany run by Berkshire Farm, a statewide nonprofit child welfare agency with a $50 million budget.

“It cost the county $500 a day,” Gray recalled.

Finally, as the tab for the young man’s five-week stay reached $17,500, the county managed to get him released with an electronic ankle monitor after agreeing to set up a comprehensive counseling and academic plan for him.

The cost of that one case is startling when one considers that the state gives Washington County only $20,000 a year to provide youth programs that promote positive development.

“I have 16,000 youth age 0 to 21 in the county,” Gray said. “The state's logic doesn't add up.”

Under contract to the county Department of Social Services, Gray runs a juvenile restorative justice program as an alternative to detention for high-risk youths aged 7 to 18. He said youths assigned to the program are held accountable for their actions and obligated to repair the harm they’ve caused, but they’re also given support for developing competence.

Setting low expectations

The culture of detention, critics say, does not encourage those in its custody to dream big. Nor did it introduce them to transformative new experiences.

Like West, Goodspeed said she tried to help young people in detention find their strengths and develop goals, however small. She sometimes shared her own life story in an effort to provide inspiration. But wounded young people often have a hard time imagining good things for their future.

On a daily level, short-term detention is monotonous. Teenagers eat, sleep, go to school and have recreation in the same environment.

In the span of her decade working at a detention center, Goodspeed said the length of the children’s school day was cut from five to three hours.

“Basically, schooling was to keep them out of people's hair,” she said. “They really needed variety -- field trips, arts and crafts, creative writing, hands-on instruction.”

But a teacher who tried to take the youths on field trips was reprimanded, she recalled.

“The kids there have all this trauma,” Goodspeed said. “They're not going to learn that math. Their schools had failed them, and they may have years and years of a gap. Most of the kids didn't know how to address an envelope.”

Neither Sid nor Nikia graduated from high school, though both were able to earn GED diplomas. Both said they were not welcome to return to their old schools.

Since her time in custody, Sid has become more connected. She said she has a partner and four close friends.

As a teenager, "I hated just about everyone," she recalled.

But her expectations of life remain low. Today her stated goal is getting a job. She has done a variety of work, from construction and yard work to childcare, for friends and family but has not yet been able to make the leap to real employment.

“I try not to plan for the future so I won’t get disappointed," she said. "I'm all for Murphy's law: If something can go wrong, it will.”

Irv West, the youth advocate quoted in this story, will present a talk entitled “We are Destroying Our Youth; Protect Your Child,” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls. For more information visit www.irvwestyouthadvocate.com or e-mail irvwestyouthadvocate@yahoo.com.